No "Sexy" Needed: the Politics of Indigenous Culture

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When it comes to the question of cultural appropriation, how does one do it ethically? Is there an ethical way? I think about this question when it comes to art and whether an artist is modifying culture or simply using culture as an exotic selling point. Recently, I stumbled upon Waska Tatay, a collection of staged photos taken in the Altiplano region of South America where “indigenous” people wear the traditional costumes that they manufacture, except they are posing awkwardly in a variety of everyday situations.

Photographers Thomas Rousset and Raphaël Verona set up the photos in this collection in an easily digestible yet dubious manner. The subjects, many of them Aymara-identified (according to the photographers), don’t seem particularly proud to wear these articles at the time of the photo.

Aside from admitting that these photos are visually stunning in terms of technical composition and color palette, the subjects seem pretty damn indifferent. What are the photographers really trying to say by presenting the images this way?

The scenarios, many of which juxtapose traditional costumes with technological objects (televisions, cell phones, VCRs), call to mind some of the electronic music trends from the same region, where artists like Dengue Dengue Dengue digitalize and reinvent indigenous sounds and iconography into the look of their live act. These expressions are cropping up all over Latin America, galvanizing dance floors and raising complicated questions along the way. Individuals like El G of ZZK Records, an expat like his labelmate Douster, for example, have been critiqued by some who suggest the work commodifies the indigenous look and sound as a point of interest for those seeking World Music 2.0. Others argue that it can be difficult to police intent, or to parse out a clear line where inspiration and genuine fandom of a culture that may not be your own verges into problematic areas. There is no easy consensus.

I draw out a parallel between digital/electro-cumbia because the music, like these photos, sometimes relies on an exotification that I find deeply problematic (like others who have written time and time again on this very issue). By trying to repackage the indigenous look and sound into something ‘sexy’ for Western markets, you dehumanize and/or erase the very people it came from. Not cool.

So tell us, are these photos an isolated event or part of a larger cultural trend to capitalize on indigenous people? Let us know what you think in the comments.