Art Exhibit Explores The Hazards of Cultural Appropriation

By Kenrya Rankin Jul 21, 2015

Need help blocking out the realities of warfare enacted against people of color and how cultural appropriation seeks to minimize its importance? Artist Roger Peet’s new exhibit at Portland’s Littman Gallery, “IN // APPROPRIATE: An Excavation of Appropriation” at Littman Gallery can help.

Peet, who is white, created a series of images that feature a white person coopting another culture in front of a backdrop of violent oppression being waged against that commodified group. For those who would prefer to focus on the happy, shining photo in the foreground, Peet offers “Whiteness Googles,” that block out the pain. Images include a photo of Miley Cyrus "twerking" in front of riot gear-clad police in Ferguson, and Elvis Presley swiveling his hips while a 1964 Memphis police officer swings his billy club.

Peet explained his work in an interview with the Huffington Post

All of the people shown engaging in acts of cultural appropriation…are what you would call white. Behind them, in the red, is the rest of what whiteness means: the daily violence and brutality of a world system that is bent on turning everything—every sacred grove, every deep note, every singular moment—into an object of value for speculators.

Discussing [cultural appropriation] opens fault lines within groups of people and reveals some fundamental differences in the ways different people see the world as a result of their contexts of race, class, gender and power. Appropriation is something I think about a lot, because I think it’s a singular way to understand some of the more insidious and destructive ways that capitalism works.

Capitalism invented whiteness in order to create a class of people that could parasitize the rest of the world. A people with no connection to history, divorced from place and context, engines of pure abstraction—which is what Capitalism is all about; the conversion of the complex, beautiful world into quantifiable units that can be speculated upon.

When you put on the “Whiteness Goggles,” the colonial, military and police violence that underpins casual cultural consumption disappears. This is what life is like under whiteness, within the dominant category that capitalism has created. We white people can just unsee the violence that is done in our name. We don’t have to look. When we put on the whiteness goggles, we become heroes, and all the while so many others look at us as butchers.

Peet says he incorporated the perspectives of strangers who responded to flyers he hung around Portland asking for people to discuss their feelings about cultural appropriation, as well as input from an advisory group of artists of color, including artists Sharita TowneGabe Flores and Sara Siestreem, all of whom, he says, “spent much time tirelessly shooting down concepts that didn’t work, and patiently explaining why many of my ideas were deeply ignorant and ineffective.”

“IN // APPROPRIATE: An Excavation of Appropriation” is on view through July 29, 2015. See images here.