I was in East Africa for a while earlier this year. I went to visit family, go to my cousins wedding and just relish in the happiness of being back home. As a part of that visit I made sure to attain as many crafting supplies as possible, mostly glass beads, vitenge, and jewelry making accessories. I can never find nice and affordable vitenge here in Canada, and all the other crafting materials are so much cheaper there than here. So I merrily went around connecting with other crafters in markets, in my home area, and with Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that support local crafting entrepreneurs to find wholesale prices. With every new product I came across I was ecstatic at the thought of the money I was saving for the quality I was getting. When I got back to Canada and found inspiration enough to get into the crafting groove I started making earrings. If y'all don't know by now, I love big earrings. Hate the heft though. So I thought that these super lightweight and boldy coloured kitenge earrings would be perfect. As I started making and selling them I had this growing feeling of discomfort and constantly thought to myself thought, 'am I selling my own culture for financial profit?' I started feeling like I was participating in the process of rendering cultural artifact to commercial product. I realized that I have absolutely no idea what the history of vitegne are within my countries of origin and instead of trying to learn their meaning I have rendered them nothing more than fashion accessory. For example, remember my post on kangas? Kangas often reflect current events. The sayings written on the bottom are not neutral or without meaning. They can tell stories of political or historical events, reflect religious values, offer advice and knowledge through proverbs, or have encouraging words. They are used during wedding rituals or when someone gives birth to carry babies. In short they have social value and meaning. Of course they are sold and produced for profit, but attached to them is meaning and purpose.
Beyond that I started looking at all the different ways that African cultures and artifacts have been appropriated as object for consumption or display. In museums, through micro finance projects in developing countries, curios shops, the north American/European fashion industry...and in all of this continental Africans gain little economically. In buying raw materials cheaply and selling finished products at a higher price am I contributing to sustaining poverty in my own home for personal gain? How am I any different from the multinational corporations who extract raw resources like oil, gold, tanzanite and diamonds then refine them and produce finished products for consumption? Am I excused simply because I have roots there? Oh Capitalism. What are the implications in representing my culture as fashion, is the financial or aesthetic trade off worth it? What do you think?