a case for non-originality
I’ve been thinking about appropriation. I think about why we do it, who gets to do it and who doesn’t. There is always an inherent desire to copy things, to replicate them in order to understand them, to build on the ground someone or something else has laid before us.
Our society holds high the genius, originality, the act of discovery, and yet, some of the most successful makers of our time are famous for their unapologetic acts of reproduction, appropriation, and straight up stealing.
Jeff Koons planted the face of Mona Lisa onto a Louis Vuitton bag and sold it for an absurd amount of money. Think of how many people actually bought and wore the thing. Remember the late Virgil Abloh’s 3% theory? There’s Sherrie Levine, the conceptual artist who made exact replicas of artworks made by her male contemporaries as a way of pointing out the invisibility of women in the art industry.
And what about all the ways musicians sample or cover other music? This has been such an integral part of making music - and just the same as with visual art, it can be paying homage, or a fuck you to the music industry, or maybe just because the familiarity of sounds comforts us all.
Then there’s all the ways we appropriate nature. Albert Hoffman, who isolated and synthesised LSD from ergot, a fungus that grows naturally on rye and other grains, or Alexander Fleming, who “discovered” Penicillin, an antibiotic found in Penicillium moulds.
May I also point out that we appropriate our own memories of experiences? Mustn’t we also honour memory as a living, breathing, shared entity of life? Something which we consume as both individuals but also as society at large? I wonder if memory isn’t given enough credit when it is a paramount way we carry ourselves collectively. Memory is the road in which we come together and move forward as a whole.
There are clearly countless examples of the ways we in which we appropriate, not just because the act of doing it is part of a conceptual process, but simply because we need to.
Like so many others, my artistic process usually begins at a place of study. I read, I watch, I learn, I speak, I digest. I find those, dead or alive, who have already worked with things circulating within me. I find ways for them to teach me. Sometimes my disagreements bring forward a spark. Sometimes my solidarity becomes a place of honour to carry things forward. Sometimes nature gives me gifts to share with others. Sometimes I take from others as an act of defiance. And sometimes, I appropriate someone else’s ideas simply because I believe that the way I’d do it would be better, for me, for right here and now, and for my community.
In Shedding Skin (2017), I appropriated a style of orientalised paintings of hammam scenes as a means of reclaiming an image which was stolen from my community, eroticised, and visually aided in an oppression which has lasted generations.
In Face (2017), I unconsciously took on a Western documentary-style of portraiture. I believed that by creating perfectly composed and focused, well lit, medium-format imagery, I’d be able to prove that I deserve a seat at the white, male-dominated photojournalist table. It worked. But, I soon realised I actually didn’t want to sit at that table. In retrospect, own appropriation spurred an immense growth, a decolonization of myself that I hadn’t expected, but absolutely needed.
Last year, I appropriated the documentation of Franz Erhard Walther’s Soft Sculptures. I enjoyed his concept of conveying togetherness with geometric fabric shapes, but I believed that after almost 60 years, it was far more important to have BIPOC represented within his performances. I built on his ideas, extended them using a different body within the work, and experienced what happened when I did.
Appropriation isn’t the main objective of my work, but rather, a tool to help me get from one point to another. I use it when I need to, when it feels right. Triggering a viewer’s memories, or my own, can be an incredibly powerful approach to communication, something that brings up the layers of why those memories exist in the first place. As I mentioned before, collective memory shapes us, but sometimes that shaping goes unquestioned. Using art to tap into those memories can provoke us, help us learn to be more critical of the whys and hows of what we think, both individually and as a whole.
While I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this topic, I’ve also spent a lot of time noticing how much shame I carry for the ways in which I’ve appropriated. Not only because I feel as though I’ve done something wrong, but because I’ve beaten myself up for not being original, more clever, a genius. While writing the opening of this text, I realised that most of my cited examples of appropriation were from men. I wonder if that is due to my own limited knowledge, or if it is simply because men are so often accepted for their appropriations. How many true story exposés exist of women who “scammed” their way to success? The Missing Cryptoqueen, Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, Molly’s Game, to name a few. When women do what men are notorious for, its thrilling, shocking entertainment. When men do it, it’s business as usual.
During a recent session with a mentor, she questioned why I feel the need to justify my work so much. She noticed that I tend to justify myself before people ask why I’ve done something, why I’ve made a decision about a direction I’m headed. I told her: I’m afraid that if I don’t, someone might think I’m a fraud. Maybe even by writing this piece, I’m trying to justify all of the things that so many others have the privilege of not needing to speak about at all.
I have a lot of issues with the ideas of discovery, of things unknown, of originality. The idea that we can reach a level of genius in which we are capable of discovering something completely unknown is a disease which has plagued the modern human. We know Christopher Columbus never discovered the Americas. His claim to have done so, even in death, has only caused innumerable suffering. I can say the same about every other conqueror and colonizer who claimed discovery or ownership on a land which simply wasn’t their own to do so in the first place. And today, has the language framing our human expedition outside of this Earth changed? I’m not so sure.
Nothing is untouched, nature is not original, we can never be first. Truly accepting that fact could be the most beautiful step towards a sustainable, respectful growth.
We have, and always will be, a series of circular processes, of appropriating and adapting, of growth which must always begin somewhere. That somewhere is never singular, never clear, never known.
Finding comfort within that appropriation is essential, it helps us move forward from The Creator As Genius, to instead, The Creator Taking, Learning, Repairing, and Growing Collectively.
I guess I should say hello to all the old and new readers of this newsletter.
I’d taken a very, very long break from outwardly projecting in the digital realm. I’m slowly finding my way back. This time, in a way I feel good about.
I hope you feel good, too.
Hey Yumna, thanks for sharing this!
Oana Stănescu has a lecture with the university of Syracuse I think? It’s about covers/appropriating in fashion, architecture, & music. That got me to think about the topic in a fashion sense
Rei Kawakubo at Comme De Garçons really contrasts Virgil in some ways. The value placed on always making something new, completely original, not research based. Maybe that’s just not the time we live in anymore? Living in the US, I also wonder about how the rest of the world views appropriation.
Beautiful, beautiful <3