Cultural appropriation and exclusion in the décor world

Even an activity as seemingly innocuous as interior home design can raise some thorny issues about the effects of commercialization on indigenous or diaspora art forms.

For one thing, the line between cultural exploration and cultural appropriation can be tricky to navigate, even for those with the best of intentions. Ocula magazine discusses Australian artist Tony Albert‘s visual exploration into the unintentionally harmful consequences of early twentieth-century artist Margaret Preston’s fascination with Aboriginal motifs, along with the resulting “Aboriginalia” style, which uses indigenous motifs to create pretty but culturally out-of-context images to design home décor products.

"Ancestor Wall" African-themed interior design by Kemi Lawson.
Kemi’s “ancestor wall” melds art, decor, family and genealogy into a very personal form of interior design. Image © Kemide Lawson.

At the same time, it can be argued that the opposite side of the cultural appropriation coin is cultural invisibility. When Kemi Lawson began browsing interior design magazines for ideas to decorate her new home, she found nary a mention of Black people like herself and their unique approach to décor in Africa and the Caribbean. Eventually finding success, Kemi authored an article in Harper’s Bazaar that offers several examples of these warm, inviting home environments.

Provocative exhibitions like Albert’s bring up a thorny question for socially-conscious art collectors and interior designers; how to decorate their spaces with authentic representations of indigenous culture in ethically and responsible ways? The answer is simple, really. It is the difference between sharing and stealing.

Meet and make friends with indigenous people, especially in the art world. Offer to contribute to their community by supporting their artists and artisan via direct purchases or approved galleries. Seek out their advice on how to best honor their cultural heritage, which types of art and décor would be appropriate or inappropriate to acquire, and how to display it with sensitivity.

Likewise if, like Lawson, you find mainstream design venues so focused on the dominant culture that you start to feel invisible, ditch the commercial sources for authentic voices. Turn to your friends, family, elders and community organizations. Ask them for ideas. Form a décor discussion group. Discover your culture’s aesthetics where it has always thrived, in your culture.

You will soon find that walking the path of sharing will grow your art collection into a unique learning experience that promotes understanding, wisdom and joy.