Cannibal Culture: Art, Appropriation, and the Commodification of Difference

Cannibal Culture: Art, Appropriation, and the Commodification of Difference

Cannibal Culture: Art, Appropriation, and the Commodification of Difference

Cannibal Culture: Art, Appropriation, and the Commodification of Difference

Synopsis

In Arizona, a white family buys a Navajo-style blanket to be used on the guest-room bed. Across the country in New York, opera patrons weep to the death scene of Madam Butterfly. These seemingly unrelated events intertwine in Cannibal Culture as Deborah Root examines the ways Western art and Western commerce co-opt, pigeonhole, and commodify so-called "native experiences." From nineteenth-century paintings of Arab marauders to our current fascination with New Age shamanism, Root explores and explodes the consumption of the Other as a source of violence, passion, and spirituality. Through advertising images and books and films like The Sheltering Sky, Cannibal Culture deconstructs our passion for tourism and the concept of "going native," while providing a withering indictment of a culture in which every cultural artifact and ideology is up for grabs- a cannibal culture. This fascinating book raises important and uncomfortable questions about how we travel, what we buy, and how we determine cultural merit. Travel- be it to another country, to a museum, or to a supermarket- will never be the same again.

Excerpt

It is November 1994 in Toronto, and performance artist Guillermo Gómez- Peña sits in a bamboo cage in the Dufferin Mall. He wears studded driving gloves and a feathered hat beaded with a Native eagle design. He devours a human heart made of rubber. He repeatedly raises a clenched fist. Sometimes he speaks to the audience in a language meant to sound unfamiliar, then turns and clutches a package of Ancient Grains breakfast cereal, the front of which displays a photograph of a carved head unearthed at Teotihuacán. Sometimes he slumps drunkenly against the bars of the cage. As we stare at the man in the cage, Coco Fusco works the crowd. Dressed in feathers and face paint, she offers free interviews to shoppers, inquiring if we would prefer to holiday in an indigenous village in Chiapas or scuba dive off Port-au-Prince. She wants to know if we imagine grass skirts to be inconvenient. She assigns interviewees a number, and they move obediently to stand in front of Gómez-Peña's cage, awaiting the performance of what the artists call "ethnic talent" that he has created, seemingly just for them.

In Fusco and Gómez-Peña's performance the museum collapses into the shopping mall, where cultural difference becomes another commodity to be bought and sold. The mall has become the true axis of Western culture as most of us experience it in North America. Here, as elsewhere, commodification works by repetition and the recognition this fosters: Most of the shops are franchises, and the products on exhibition are identical to those on display in other cities. This particular mall lies at the center of "multicultural" Toronto, and on a typical afternoon you can see people wearing West African lappas, Indian saris, or rock-and-roll clothes, shoppers who are likely to know a thing or two about colonial history. Despite the appearance of plurality, Toronto remains a colonial city in which many prefer to forget the past or, rather, to assume that colonial history is something that is finished, over and done with, as archaic as the British North America Act and the fur traders of the Hudson Bay Company. Multiple histories exist here, those of what the newspapers call "new Canadians" watching the performance at the Dufferin Mall, those of the Mohawks and Anishnabe, those of the Scots and Irish who settled here, those of ex- Americans like myself. Some histories are more visible than others, and it is . . .

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