Decolonising Creativity: Why is the Western Standard What We Measure?

Decolonising Creativity: Why is the Western Standard What We Measure?

ABUJA, Nigeria: In 2018, I attended the GTBank Fashion weekend on assignment for EWP and it was an amazing experience. The weekend did not just showcase the best of fashion from all over Africa, but there were also notable fashion designers from other parts of the world as well. There were panels, fireside chats, wholesale productions brands and owners of smaller fashion businesses all marketing their impressive apparel designs.

Panelists for the main event included industry veterans like American fashion designer Dapper Dan but as panel after panel came and went, something odd struck me. I realized that despite the fact that the event was a fashion show being held in Africa’s largest city, in one of the most populous black nations on earth, half of the experts were white.

The Nigerian panelists were only accepted as experts either because they had worked with a Western brand or because they had shown their designs in some Western city say New York or Paris. Most Nigerian designers for their part, and regardless of how prolific their designs were, were considered by these former fellows as upcoming and emerging designers. African creatives who I admired and who certainly knew better than most on the panels were recognized grudgingly, if at all.

The event has come and gone but this realization has made me keenly observant ever since and that is why I can tell you that there is a similar state of affairs in different areas of creativity in my country as well as throughout Africa. There is always that African writer who becomes prominent only after winning or even being shortlisted for some Western award, even if he/she failed to win.

Decolonising Creativity- Why is the Western Standard What We Measure?
Photo: Retha Ferguson.

There is always that Latino musician who is suddenly thrown into limelight after a few American kids started streaming his music on Spotify, or that Black writer whose writing career remains stagnant because some Western agent decided that his/her work lacked African authenticity, whatever that means. Why is this the case?

Following the recent protests about the dignity of Black lives across the world, I came to realise that the answer to this question (and reflecting on what I observed at the GTBank Fashion Weekend) as with most similar things lies in our shared history.

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Nigeria was under the colonial leadership of Britain from the 19th century until 1960. In exercising their colonial powers, the British had cultural and creative control, deciding what was acceptable behaviour by the ‘natives’ and what was not. Whatever the British didn’t like or couldn’t understand was declared barbaric. What they did like, they Westernised and maximally dulled its cultural significance to native Nigerians. This extended to everything from artworks and traditional foods to methods of greeting and religion.

The greatest culmination of this creative control, I believe, took place in the year 1897 when British soldiers, numbering over a thousand, descended on the ancient Benin City in what is present day Nigeria. Part of the justification for that invasion was that the Benin Kingdom engaged in human sacrifices and all other forms of barbarism. Under this pretext, the soldiers sacked and looted the entire city. Hundreds of artworks were stolen and shipped back to Britain. The stolen artworks were later to form a sizable part of the collection for British Museums for years to come. I can tell this story as a Nigerian but Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos and a host of others will have similar colonisation stories to tell as well.

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This is the year 2020 and while the method might have changed, the colonial approach to art and creativity is still very much alive. I believe that in this history and all similar experiences lies at the root of the vicious gatekeeping that Black people and people of colour (POC) experience today in modern art, fashion and creative industries. The Western world through the process of neo-colonialism maintains the yardstick of what is artistic and creative and what is not.

A few months ago, the movie Parasite won the 2020 Oscars. The movie, directed by South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho, broke the record by becoming the first non-English movie to win “Best Picture”. And just like that, the film and its cast and crew, went from being relatively unknown to a global sensation in just one night. Not minding that it told a story so moving that millions of people could relate to it or because of its superb acting. It is now deemed to have attained its exalted status predominantly because the cinematic doyen of the West had deemed it fit and awarded it an Oscar.

This pattern of behaviour can be seen not just in arts or films but also in every other sphere of our communal living across the globe. Wherever you are, the Western standard seems to be the default upon which everything is measured. A week or so ago, celebrity chef and Masterchef Australia judge, Jock Zonfrillo came under fire when he made a comment to the effect that Vietnamese cuisine does not lend itself to fine dining, except with French influence. This was said casually, with no malice intended but it can give you an idea of how much of a default the Western standard has become. It does not seem to matter that Asian countries provide exquisite culinary delicacies in their own right, and have had empires with elaborate cuisines dating back centuries.

(Note: Zonfrillo’s statement prompted the winner of MasterChef season 2 Adam Liaw to tweet, “Asian cuisines are full of fine dining. Kaiseki, Confucian cuisine, Thai/Vietnamese court cuisine, almost any regional cuisine in China, Peranakan food… It’s just that the Eurocentric conceptualisation of Michelin, World’s 50 Best etc. constantly ignores it.”)

When it comes to what is stylish or out-of-season, the same unspoken rule applies. Sustainable fashion, eco-lifestyle and ethical travel are concepts defined only by the reality of the Westerner, with the principles that billions of others might not relate to so easily. When you talk about sustainable fashion, brand names like Patagonia and Reformation pop up and ethical production methods such as the use of fake fur and closed-loop systems are discussed. Very few mention traditional methods such as hand looming or skilled artisans like the Akwete women who have been creating ‘sustainable fashion’ for millenia because sustainability for the most part is what the West says it is.

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Another reason the West has dominated our world’s creativity is the fact that the Western market for creativity is the largest. As the saying goes, who pays the piper dictates the tune. Well, the West has done its job (rightly and wrongly) in building its creative audience and positioning itself as the ultimate adjudicator of creative success.

So, this structure has remained not just because of history, but because of what they built with that history. Being a budding fashion designer myself, I would love it if Vogue accepted my designs because I know of all its practical benefits. No matter how mediocre my designs may be, they automatically gain acceptance if Vogue endorses them. I would find my work in the limelight overnight and even though I might not like this by principle, I would probably grab the opportunity with open arms. And thus the circle goes round and round.

Decolonising Creativity: Why is the Western Standard What We Measure?
Credit: Alex Maloney.

As with most issues I write about, I do not have the answers here but I’ve learnt that I don’t necessarily have to. I believe in asking these hard questions not just because others reading this might be able to find answers but also because, bringing these issues to the surface inspires the conversation one way or the other. My point here is that even though I can’t claim to know how it should come, I know that the change has become overdue and so must come. We can’t continue in this loop of supposed diversified creativity while in reality, what we label as creative is whatever the Western audience favours at any given time.

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The effects of this Western dominance over our world’s creative talents may be unconscious and subtle, but any attempts at changing the status quo must be conscious and deliberate. The first step towards this is that we need to consciously project and accept our creative expertise because it is something that only we can do for us. This sentiment is already on the rise in most African countries and it gladdens my heart to no end. For instance, Nigerian musicians have become huge stars and celebrities; it matters less today than it did yesterday whether or not the Grammys recognise them.

The next step is to build our own creative markets in such a way that they cannot be ignored. In this regard , an admirable blueprint is what the Chinese have done with tech platforms such as Tik Tok. They have grown in such ways that a Western stamp of approval is not necessary for their wide acceptance and this matters more than you know.

Ultimately though, we need to recognise and support our own creatives. We need to give them chairs in our fashion week panels and amplify the works of our own writers for the shared reality they present to the rest of the world. All these would go a long way in helping these sectors maintain their creative liberties.

Until the day that the eurocentric, Western standard is no longer the accepted default, simple acts of rebellion that worked together to topple the towers of neo-colonialism in our countries, as well as our personal lives, should be used, in the arts, in humanities, and everywhere in between.

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Cover image by Retha Ferguson.

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