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Cultural Appropriation: A Case of African Influence on Modern Art in the Social Context


The lack of perception that once prevented Western scholars from properly studying traditional African art is returning to haunt them in their contemporary and modern art studies. According to Dutton (2018)., the blindness to the creativity and individuality of African artists is due to the prevailing aesthetic that is different from that of Western society. This is despite the increasing number of exhibitions showcasing the works of African artists in the US and Europe. One of these is the White Chapel Art Gallery’s Seven Stories About Modern Art exhibition, held in London during the 1995 African Arts Festival. Other exhibitions held in the US and Europe include the Picassos exhibitions and Hassan’s Images of Africa Festival.

Emphasis has been placed on promoting and identifying artists whose works fit into Western paradigms, disregarding the tastes and values of native peoples. During a recent visit to The Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of African Art, it is established that there needs to be more interest in African artists who are not part of the elite group of artists that the west regards as exceptional. This is done to limit the ability of African artists to communicate their ideas and experiences within the western sites of view. Such strategies can distort the development of a comprehensive study. In efforts to elaborately outline the cultural appropriation in the social context of African influence on modern art, it is fundamental to establish an investigation that seeks to explore the ethical considerations by Identifying the purpose of your investigation, establishing a scenario that helps in focusing and situating the investigation, and developing a design-led action with consequences.

Purpose for Investigation

Cultural appropriation is a phenomenon that has been occurring for centuries with the root of African influence on modern art. Despite common perceptions that people of African descent do not affect the development of art, there is much more to it than meets the eye. The fact that many Western European countries are now actively encouraging and promoting the development of cultural and artistic activities in their countries by Africans demonstrates that they have willingly accepted African appreciation and expression of their culture as an integral part of their development. Nevertheless, this is being done despite their tradition, which struggles with these new expressions.

The appreciation of African art and culture has always been a part of the culture in most European countries. Ideally, everyone welcomes African expressions of culture. However, the fact that these expressions happen to be African has been a cause to raise eyebrows and challenge the apparent cultural appropriateness of such forms and their subsequent acceptance by European society for many years. The reaction has been similar to when Europeans started wearing African clothes and engaging in traditional African cultural activities. However, what has triggered this backlash is the perceived association close between a particular culture and subservience. This is being openly expressed in various media outlets online and offline.

A scenario Exploring Cultural Appropriation: Vlisco as a Case Study.

According to George (2010), cultural appropriation refers to the taking over of artistic or creative practices or themes from another culture which often carries connotations of dominance and exploitation.

Vlisco is a clothing company based in the Netherlands that makes and sells West African fabrics and textiles. Vlisco is known for its Dutch wax prints, which Nigerian Aso-oke, Afro-European designs with a modern twist heavily influence. In many cases, Vlisco takes what was originally an authentic African textile and duplicates it in fabric form. For example, the fabric pattern “Osun” is based on an original Nigerian pattern.

This appropriation of African culture into modern Dutch textile design embodies the cultural appropriation concept. West Africans have had their culture exploited and manipulated, while nothing is given back to the people who created and maintained these cultural traditions. Thus, Vlisco’s use of “Osun” clothing fabric is a prime example of cultural appropriation. Essentially, Vlisco is appropriating the design of an African wax print and duplicating it in the Netherlands. Vlisco claims they do not understand or respect traditional African textiles but use them because they are cheap and easy to produce. The company defends its appropriation of West African fabrics by arguing that it is a product of globalization. Therefore, as a sign of globalization and modern Dutch society, it should be allowed. Cultural appropriation is not just about blackface (Lott, 2013). Many people have been hit with criticism over their use of non-black clothing; however, there is still much debate over whether or not cultural appropriation is wrong.

African Influence on Modern Art

The aesthetics of African sculpture gained widespread influence during the 1900s, which was instrumental in developing the avant-garde movement in art. Among others, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso blended the stylized forms of African sculptures with the painting styles of post-Impressionists such as Gauguin and Cézanne. The vibrant colours and the flat and fragmented forms of African sculptures helped establish the early modernism movement. While these artists were unaware of the original function and meaning of these sculptures, they could recognize these qualities and use them to their advantage.

German Expressionist artists Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Paul Klee, based in Berlin and Dresden, combined the emotional intensity of African aesthetics with the distortion and dissonant colors of modern life to create works that depicted the anxieties of modern society. Following a 1910 exhibition by French artist Paul Gauguin in Dresden, the interest of Expressionists in non-Western art grew. Modernist movements in the US, England, and Italy also started to explore African art.

Some of the first European artists to recognize the value of African sculptures were also among the first individuals to purchase them. During the 1870s, when the continent was still under colonial rule, thousands of sculptures were brought to Europe. Various museums, such as the Trocadéro in Paris, exhibited these sculptures. At the time, these pieces were regarded as relics of colonial cultures and were not regarded as art objects. They were also often displayed in flea markets and pawn shops. While the works from the Americas and Oceania caught the attention of the Surrealist movement during the 1930s, the sculptures from sub-Saharan Africa were the main focus of the early modernists. During the twentieth century, Primitivism was also used to describe the interest in non-Western cultures.

African Art and the Colonial Encounter

The interest in African art increased during the late nineteenth century when more and more Europeans visited the continent. On their journey to explore Africa and its people, Europeans took note of the many sculptures and masks on display. The demand for African art grew significantly during the colonial period when colonial powers began transporting art objects from local villages to European museums. The first steps towards widespread appreciation of African arts started at this time. While these items were initially regarded as mere curiosities, they soon became appreciated for their aesthetic value as more visitors came to see them.

The collecting of African objects was a way in which colonialists obtained items that they could claim as cultural trophies. For example, Europeans liked to acquire one of a set of sculptures that depicted the same figure with different emotions. These sets were often sold to European collectors by local merchants. Soon, the idea that European collectors had a right to own African art became widespread (Gosden & Knowles, 2020). Before the mid-1800s, these artworks were considered less valuable than their Western counterparts. The term “primitive” was used as a way to describe African art in a bad manner.

The fact that Africans did not have any form of writing hindered their ability to defend themselves against colonial expropriation and appropriation of their culture and arts. Art objects were plundered and taken to Western museums, where they were displayed as an indication of colonial subjugation. Africans had no control over how their culture was displayed in museums. These artworks were often depicted incompletely or incorrectly, distorting African societies and cultures. The idea that Africa was the “Dark Continent” helped to justify European cultural appropriation of Africa’s artistic heritage. According to Alice Walker in her book ‘In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, there was a lack of African input on how African art should be categorized (Hall, 2018). The categorization of African art depended on European descriptions and interpretations rather than local knowledge about African culture and traditions of making art.

The Commodification of African Culture

The terms “primitive art” and “folk art” were used to define African art in a derogatory manner. During the colonial period, these terms were used to categorize a form of expression that Europeans did not recognize or value. These two terms are still used today and refer to non-Western arts as inferior forms of expression that should not be considered of equal value with Western works.

Throughout the New World, black people have made their culture. Various events, such as the Atlantic slave trade, the plantation society, and freedom, have forced them to redefine their identities and what they were supposed to look like. To be regarded as a distinct culture, black people had to understand what it meant and how it could be used to describe themselves. Initially, they were often different from white people in many ways. Of transnational nature, making black cultures was a phenomenon that could be done worldwide.

Various objects and traits are selected through commoditization to represent the black culture (Manno, 2010). These are usually chosen to represent it in a way that makes it solid and material. Some of these have been used to identify individuals or to show success or mobility. Objects selected during this process referred to as inversion of value, have typically represented something special for blacks and were different from what they were used to by their oppressors.

The failure to recognize and value African art is also because many of these objects are removed from their original contexts. The lack of knowledge about their original purposes, meanings, and customs makes it difficult for Europeans to authenticate these works. Another way in which African arts have been marginalized is by considering them as a form of folk or tribal art. These categories imply that African art cannot be compared with Western forms of expression. However, some Africans have also been reluctant to categorize their traditions as art forms. Some anthropologists argue that these works should not be considered art but an inevitable part of everyday life in certain communities.

Ethical Complexities of Cultural Appropriateness

The cultural appropriation of African arts is a concept that brings up several ethical issues. Although the taking of African arts was morally and legally justified, it still brought about various negative effects. The main issue is that European powers did not acknowledge African cultures as having the same value or sovereignty as their own. Colonialists regarded African culture and art as works that belonged to them rather than being a forms of expression that belonged to Africans (Landau & Freemantle, 2010). This cultural appropriation eventually led to an inversion of value in which Europeans viewed African artworks and culture differently from how Africans perceived them. The process of commoditization was thus a form of a colonialist attempt at cultural domination and conquest.

Furthermore, Campbell and Power (2010) assert that African culture was considered primitive and backward. Colonialists thought that displaying African works in museums and other public places could show that African artworks are adopted from a more developed and advanced culture. These artworks were displayed in museums as symbols of European superiority. Not only were Africans not involved in the categorization and valuation of their arts, but they also were not allowed to see these objects because they were kept far away from them by their colonial masters.

Design-led Action

The design-led action for this investigation is to create a framework for artists and institutions to develop a deeper understanding of their cultural sensitivity and self-reflection. This process would involve consulting with members of various cultures to ensure their work is respectful of their heritage. Significantly, an important aspect of this process is that they should be able to explain how their work relates to the different cultures and communities with which they interact. This could provide an avenue for artworks that would be sensitive to local events and allow for African artworks to be integrated into new societal settings.

Furthermore, their work must be culturally relevant for those who wish to study and make a living out of their craft. In order to respond to these issues, they must undertake a deeper look into their cultural identity. This would allow them to understand the importance of African cultures and craft works that are meaningful and culturally appropriate.


The Design-led action can have positive consequences on the cultures borrowed from and the art world itself. By training individuals in cultural sensitivity and critical self-reflection, they can create works that are respectful of these traditions. The design-led action can also establish remarkable results on the cultures borrowed from and the art world itself. It can help create a more inclusive and equitable environment and prevent the stereotypes and power imbalances that continue to exist in the world of art.


Overall, cultural appropriation is a complex issue involving individuals and institutions. Ethical considerations of cultural appropriation include understanding the importance of cultural diversity, appreciating cultural differences, and working within communities to bring about more just and equitable structures. Design can play an important role by creating a framework through which individuals can examine their artistic work and understand how it relates to external communities. A design-led action aims to establish that there are various ways in which art can be done that are respectful of various cultures and communities. The aim is to provide answers to the questions posed by this article through an investigation into the ethical complexities of cultural appropriation.


Campbell, D., & Power, M. (2010). The scopic regime of Africa. Observant states: Geopolitics and visual culture, 167-195.

Dutton, D. (2018). But they don’t have our concept of art. Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art: The Analytic Tradition, An Anthology, 30.

George, E. W. (2010). Intangible cultural heritage, ownership, copyrights, and tourism. International Journal of Culture, Tourism and Hospitality Research.

Gosden, C., & Knowles, C. (2020). Collecting colonialism: material culture and colonial change. Routledge.

Hall, J. L. (2018). There is water in the world for us: the environmental theories of Alice Walker.

Landau, L. B., & Freemantle, I. (2010). Tactical cosmopolitanism and idioms of belonging: Insertion and self-exclusion in Johannesburg. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 36(3), 375-390.

Lott, E. (2013). Love & theft: Blackface minstrelsy and the American working class. Oxford University Press.

Manno, J. P. (2010). Commoditization and oppression: A systems approach to understanding the economic dynamics of modes of oppression. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1185(1), 164-178.


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