Indigenous design has for too long been ignored, valued or appropriated


Maori issues

Decolonizing design means we need to recognize and support the work of Maori designers, Tangata Whenua and their communities instead of indigenous cultures being simply used for ‘inspiration’

Opinion: Today is the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, recognizing and honoring the role of indigenous peoples in the inheritance and transmission of knowledge.

If you do a quick search online under the word “design”, most results will show a modern colonial view of design, a Eurocentric perspective where traditional design is a reproduction of modern colonial ideas, where indigenous creations are categorized as ” Arts and crafts “. or “folk art” rather than fine art or design.

What we see in the media and learn in school reinforces this message of a single modern colonial design history reproducing the power imbalances that dictate what is good, desirable and valuable. This is often attached to the reproduction of classist, elitist, patriarchal, capitalist and racist ideas of “good taste”.

This bias is increasingly recognized by design scholars and practitioners who recognize the need to decolonize design and critically reflect on design politics.

Indigenous design has often been ignored or not valued. And yet, it is common to see Indigenous culture used as “inspiration” in design. There are many cases of misuse of the cultural manifestations of indigenous peoples, such as the use of moko in commercial campaigns or Native American headdresses on catwalks.

Traditional clothing has not only been used as inspiration but has been plagiarized. As claimed by the Mixe indigenous community of Santa María Tlahuitoltepec of a blouse that featured in Isabel Marant’s spring 2015 collection. As the community declared in a press conference: “Isabel Marant commits plagiarism because the Etoile spring-summer 2015 collection contains the graphic elements specific to the Tlahuitoltepec blouse, a design that has transcended borders, and is not a unprecedented creation as claimed by the designer.

We need to understand that design is not just about the result (a material object) but about the process… it’s not just about how things look but also how things are made.

Marant was called out again in 2020 when the Mexican Minister of Culture asked her for an explanation for again plagiarizing indigenous clothing, this time Purépecha clothing from the state of Michoacán.

Indigenous culture and its various manifestations are part of the rights of Indigenous peoples. This is manifested in Article 11.1 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples:

“Indigenous peoples have the right to practice and revitalize their cultural traditions and customs. This includes the right to maintain, protect and develop past, present and future manifestations of their cultures, such as archaeological and historical sites, artifacts, designs, ceremonies, technologies, visual and performing arts and Literature.

Technically, the use of Indigenous design without consent violates their rights as Indigenous people, involving aspects of laws and intellectual property. In the second part of article 11, it is mentioned that States must provide mechanisms to support respect for indigenous culture:

“States shall provide redress through effective mechanisms, which may include restitution, developed in collaboration with indigenous peoples, with respect to their cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual property taken without their free, prior and informed consent or in violation of their laws, traditions, and customs.

In Aotearoa, the New Zealand Intellectual Property Office has a specific section on Māori intellectual property to protect Mātauranga Māori which also “gives the right to benefit commercially while preventing exploitation or improper use”. However, the protection of Mātauranga Māori is more complex than legislative reform.

Although they have institutions and laws to mitigate the misuse of Indigenous culture, they still exist under Western standards of individual ownership compared to Indigenous worldviews where culture does not “belong” to an individual. but to communities.

At the same time, there are differences between developed and developing countries with different laws, resources and powers for the protection of indigenous knowledge.

Decolonizing design requires transforming systems that oppress people while privileging others, and design practices that prioritize profit. We need to change the unique history of “good design” in Western logic and systems. For that, we can begin to discover the valuable work of Indigenous designers, Black designers and people of color, and designers from different ethnic backgrounds. This is particularly important in design education.

We need to understand that design is not only about the result (a material object) but about the process. For Indigenous design, this means integrating their worldviews, values ​​and customary practices. Therefore, it’s not just about how things look, but also how things are made.

Design education and institutions must change if we are to stop practices that reinforce power imbalances such as cultural appropriation. Institutions should hire staff from different cultural backgrounds, especially Indigenous people in the country in which they are located. Additionally, institutional systems need to be transformed to support Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing, and to challenge Western design models.

Decolonization requires action and is personal. At Aotearoa, this means recognizing and supporting the work of Maori designers, Tangata Whenua and their communities. We need to recognize how our position (our race, ethnicity, gender, and socio-economic status) influences our privilege, power, and access relative to others. It is then necessary to seek to change the systems and not to take the space of the others. And with that acknowledgment and actions will come the realization that there are design projects that should sometimes be passed on to people with the required cultural background or lived experience, instead of those people and cultures being simply used to “ inspiration”.


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