Thursday, May 21, 2009

Use It or Lose It

Panculturalism in Artistic Expression

I had an odd experience at a fiber art show once. I had entered a small, Navajo-style wall hanging, which was rejected on the grounds that I was not Navajo. (How the judge thought she knew this, of course, I have no idea.) An Amish-style piece by a different (non-Amish) artist was accepted to the show, however. The judge proclaimed it was accepted because it was a “tribute” to the style.

At the time, I had not heard the term “panculturalism.” To this date, I have been unable to find a dictionary definition of the term, but to me it means the intersection and blending of cultures, in life as well as art. “Panculturalism” is still not yet widely used, but I think, in our ever-faster evolving modern society, it will become an important addition to understanding artists’ underlying concepts.

Nearly fifty years ago, Firesign Theater, a comedy group with amazing prescience, said “Ecology means echo – everything bounces off everything else.” The same could be said of panculturalism as I understand it. Everything about weaving is borrowed from other cultures, from the spinning wheel to the very idea of warp and weft. Weaving truly is the “tie that binds” all of human society together. Every group weaves, knots, or ties, in some way. In many modern societies, old ways and old arts are dying out. Many artists in these places who do ply these arts are anxious to teach someone – anyone! -- if their own children are not interested. Thus, panculturalism will be the salvation of these arts, which otherwise could be lost forever.

Panculturalism implies a deep and abiding respect for the cultures from which the motifs, techniques, or both are drawn. I truly think that anyone should feel free to use motifs from another culture; and for the sake of ethics, the artist should acknowledge the culture of origin in some way, perhaps in the title. These artifacts are a deep-time part of the human lexicon, many of which are shared unchanged from culture to culture. It is fascinating to see how many similar motifs arise in cultures that are completely separated in time and space. Some must be the logical progressions of the weaving process. Others are more complex, and yet they crop up in cultures as diverse as the Rio Grande weavers and the weavers of the Caucasus Mountains.

For myself it is difficult to know what my true cultural references are. My mother was German, Scots-Irish, and English. My father was half-Italian and half-Melungeon. Even the Italian was diluted somewhere, many centuries in the past, by the Greeks who originally founded the little village of Cisternino, County Bari, where my grandfather was born. My paternal grandmother was a triracial mixture of Black, Native American and White. I think this qualifies me, if nothing else does, for a pancultural approach to art! As I have mentioned before, my Navajo weaving teacher, Sarah Natani, once said to me, “Remember, you are not Navajo.” When she saw how startled I was by this simple, obvious, but blunt truth she laughed and said, “You can use these ideas to weave other things, too.”


  1. We could not exist without Panculturalism. Each culture has adapted and been altered by those they have come in contact with. Religions have formed and/or added traditions of other belief systems in order to "convert" that culture's members. This isn't a new thing, it's how society has been functioning from day one! The only difference is now we have technological instant media and it's immediately obvious where as in history it took many generations to learn and adopt the icons of another culture.

    I could go on, but I am slipping off of my soapbox!

  2. I agree with you, Gloria -- and yet, there's also the issue of respect for the entirety of a culture. Look at what has happened to the kokopelli image in the last 20 years or so. How many people can tell you much of anything about the ideas behind it? It has become just a sort of "southwesty" image. Eventually I suppose it will just be generic "tribal." That seems like a real shame to me. At the same time, I'm intrigued by the fiber arts of many cultures myself and am not going to immerse myself in just one -- nor could I become, for instance, an Australian dream time artist even if I wanted to. But I hope I can learn and assimilate more from that culture's arts and ideas than "dots and visible internal structures."

  3. Rejecting the weaving piece is "political correctness" gone insane. For so many of these cultures (including some of the ones in my very mongrel background) the crafts they did became a way of making a subsistance living. When the children became educated, the craft had that feeling of being "poor" (which is why my cousins didn't knit, and I won't eat cornmeal!) If crafts/techniques etc. aren't going to die, they must grow.
    (How do even YOU know you aren't part Navajo, let alone that judge?? Who knows what the heck our great grannies got up to!)
    Great Article!

  4. Very cool. I know nothing about weaving, but everything you said applies directly to music--and really every form of art, I'm sure. Reminded me a lot of an interview I heard on NPR with an Indian-American saxophonist named Rudresh Mahanthappa: