Artist Roger Peet’s “IN//APPROPRIATE” art exhibit, currently on display at Portland State University’s Littman & White Gallery, addresses a fundamental failure that occurs in discussions of cultural appropriation: Why don’t the appropriators see the connection?
A woman wears a sacred headdress (or approximation thereof) at Coachella and thinks nothing of it — thinks it’s a fun accessory. Yet to Native Americans, the casual taking of something important is a sign that the iniquities of history are still with us. The history of Europeans on Turtle Island is, from the American Indian perspective, one long racist land grab. Over and over, land and livelihood — and of many, many lives — have been taken from American Indians by, for lack of a better term, white people. Taking Natives’ culture may not seem a big deal to the hipsters and fashion designers who do it regularly, but to many Natives it’s a continuation of the terrible story that started in 1492.
Why do white people continue to take from those whom their society has oppressed, marginalized, even slaughtered?
You Can Do Anything But' by Roger Peet. – Black: Elvis Presley, 1958. Red: Memphis Police, 1964.
Peet suggests that white people see the world differently, and “IN//APPROPRIATE” uses a clever visual trick to demonstrate. He has paired images of cultural appropriation with scenes of or related to racial injustice from history or the present day. He invites gallery-goers to view his pieces with the naked eye and through “whiteness goggles” that resemble 3D glasses.
The culture-appropriating white girl in a headdress is connected to the slaughter of the buffalo, which was an indirect form of genocide the U.S. government committed against Plains Tribes. But seen through “whiteness goggles,” the image of the buffalo skulls disappears. All that remains is a girl in a headdress.
'Sweet Dreams' by Roger Peet – Black: Katy Perry, 2014. Red: US soldiers, Pacific, 1945; Nagasaki Atom Cloud, 1945
White people, Peet suggests, simply do not see historical significance. The minorities they imitate, on the other hand, are painfully aware of it at all times.
Elvis stealing black music while segregation and violence against African Americans was the norm in his own homeland, the South. Iggy Azalea, from her “Bounce” video, in a costume from the Asian subcontinent, one of many regions conquered by England and ruled from London as part of the British Empire. Katy Perry dressed up for a music awards show as a geisha, an important part of the culture of Japan, the only country that’s ever been subjected to a nuclear attack.
'The Sun Never Sets' by Roger Peet – Black: Iggy Azalea, 2013; Red: Empress Victoria of India, 1887
The exhibit has two other components, as Peet explains on his website: “It also includes a reappropriation of the gallery space by indigenous artists Sara Siestreem and Camas Logue, who are using it for drying basketry materials for fall workshops. Voicemails from Portland residents expressing their opinions on the subject play on two media players.”
'Is Ferguson in America?' by Roger Peet – Black: Miley Cyrus, 2014; Taylor Swift, 2015. Red: Police line, Ferguson, Missouri, 2015.
Peet, who is white and British, and includes himself in an IN//APPROPRIATE image titled “Immigrant Selfie,” isn’t kind in his description of whiteness. “The cultural life of whiteness is shallow, thin as a veil, and it doesn’t satisfy,” he writes in his Artist’s Statement. “People wake up within it and they know that something is missing, that their souls are translucent and attenuated, that they are parasites, and they strike out in search of the real life that exists within cultures that they perceive to be still alive. Whiteness makes people desperate for culture. Capitalism sees that, and it sells that culture to them: the products and values of the cultures that Capitalism and whiteness have been tearing to shreds for the past six centuries. Like a bird feeding its young, Capitalism regurgitates what it has taken in from the worlds it has destroyed, in the Americas, in Africa, in Asia, in the Pacific, offering that half-digested pap to its pale offspring. They grow on it, but they twist- they remain weird monsters, gargoyles, never really able to be a part of the larger world.”
Immigrant Selfie' by Roger Peet – Black: Roger Peet, immigrant, 2015. Red: US Soldiers, Afghanistan, 2008; US helicopters, Vietnam, 1970.
IN//APPROPRIATE runs through July 29. The Littman & White Gallery is located at 1825 SW Broadway, in Portland, Oregon.