Opinion: Today is International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, recognising and honouring the role of Indigenous peoples in the inheritance and transmission of knowledge.
If you do a quick search online under the word ‘design’, most results will show a modern-colonial view of design, a Eurocentric perspective where mainstream design is a reproduction of modern-colonial ideas, where Indigenous creations are classified as ‘crafts’ or ‘folk art’ rather than fine arts or design.
What we see in media and learn in school reinforces this message of a single modern-colonial story of design reproducing power imbalances that dictate what is good, desirable, and valuable. This is often attached to the reproduction of classist, elitist, patriarchal, capitalist, and racist ideas of “good taste”.
This bias is increasingly recognised by design academics and practitioners who recognise the need to decolonise design and to critically reflect on the politics of design.
Indigenous design has often been ignored or not valued. And yet, it is common to see Indigenous culture used as “inspiration” in design. There are many cases of the misuse of Indigenous peoples’ cultural manifestations, such as using moko in commercial campaigns or Native American headdresses on catwalks.
Traditional garments have not only been used as inspiration but have been plagiarised. As was claimed by the Indigenous Mixe community of Santa María Tlahuitoltepec of a blouse that featured in Isabel Marant’s 2015 Spring collection. As the community stated in a press conference: “Isabel Marant is committing a plagiarism because the Etoile spring-summer 2015 collection contains the graphical elements specific to the Tlahuitoltepec blouse, a design which has transcended borders, and is not a novel creation as is affirmed by the designer.”
We need to understand that design is not only about the outcome (a material object) but the process … it is not only about how things look but also how things are done.
Marant was called out again in 2020 when the Mexican Minister of Culture demanded an explanation from her for allegedly plagiarising Indigenous clothing again, this time Purépecha garments from the state of Michoacán.
Indigenous culture and its different manifestations are part of Indigenous Peoples’ rights. This is manifested in article 11.1 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples:
“Indigenous peoples have the right to practise and revitalise their cultural traditions and customs. This includes the right to maintain, protect and develop the past, present and future manifestations of their cultures, such as archaeological and historical sites, artefacts, designs, ceremonies, technologies and visual and performing arts and literature.”
Technically, using Indigenous design without consent violates their rights as Indigenous people, involving aspects of laws and intellectual property. In the second part of article 11, it is mentioned that States must provide mechanisms to support the respect of Indigenous culture:
“States shall provide redress through effective mechanisms, which may include restitution, developed in conjunction with indigenous peoples, with respect to their cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual property taken without their free, prior and informed consent or in violation of their laws, traditions, and customs.”
In Aotearoa, the Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand has a specific section about Māori intellectual property to protect Mātauranga Māori which “also gives rights to benefit commercially while preventing exploitation or inappropriate use”. However, protecting Mātauranga Māori is more complex than a legislation reform.
While having institutions and laws to mitigate the misuse of Indigenous culture, they still exist under Western norms of individual property compared with Indigenous worldviews where culture does not ‘belong’ to an individual but communities.
At the same time, there are differences between developed and developing countries with different laws, resources, and power for Indigenous knowledge protection.
Decolonising design requires transforming systems that oppress people while privileging others, and design practices that prioritise profit-making. We need to change the single story of ‘good design’ under Western logic and systems. For this, we can start learning about the valuable work of Indigenous designers, black and people of colour designers, and designers from different ethnic backgrounds. This is especially important in design education.
We need to understand that design is not only about the outcome (a material object) but the process. For Indigenous design, this means the integration of their worldviews, values, and customary practices. Therefore, it is not only about how things look but also how things are done.
Design education and institutions need to change if we want to stop practices that reinforce power imbalances such as cultural appropriation. Institutions need to hire staff from different cultural backgrounds, especially Indigenous people from the land in which they are standing. Also, it requires transforming institutional systems to support Indigenous ways of knowing, being, and doing, and to challenge Western design models.
Decolonisation requires action and is personal. In Aotearoa, this means we need to recognise and support the work of Māori designers, Tangata Whenua and their communities. We must recognise how our position (our race, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status) influences our privilege, power and access compared with others. We must then seek to change systems and not take the space of others. And with this recognition and these actions will come the realisation that there are design projects that should be passed to people with the required cultural background or lived experience, rather than people and their culture being used simply for ‘inspiration’.