It could’ve been exotic or clichéd, but with Eatwell, it’s ...


It could’ve been exotic or clichéd, but with Eatwell, it’s different

What it takes to go beyond flat and uninspired representations of the Other

Chris Thurman

Cultural appropriation has become a cause célèbre in the court of public opinion; it has its staunch defenders and its fierce detractors. It has also, rather unhelpfully, become a catch-all term. People apply it to extreme cases such as Jessica Krug and Rachel Dolezal, white US women who built careers on the claim that they were black. Then there are the more banal controversies: singer Adele donning a bikini decorated in the Jamaican flag and knotting her hair to mark the cancelled Notting Hill Carnival.

If dress-up and sustained pretence both fall into the category of impersonation, then another contested form of cultural appropriation is representation. Novelists, in particular, get defensive on this score. If it is the prerogative — nay, the job — of a writer to enter into the minds of characters and to depict them through acts of “sympathetic imagination”, surely no person or group should be off limits? In principle, no, of course not. But in practice, far too many authors fail in this task because they lack knowledge, experience and insight that would allow them to portray demographic “others” in all their complexity.

Visual artists face a similar challenge. Large swathes of Western art history entail an appropriative gaze: subjects who are “foreign” to the artist and the immediate or intended audience are simultaneously exoticised and domesticated, rendered as mysterious or bizarre but also contained and “tamed” within the frame of the canvas. The culture that is appropriated entertains and intrigues: a curiosity on display, rather than something intrinsically deserving of respect and research...

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