For this project, I chose to explore a specific kind of appropriation that exists within and peripherally to appropriation in art: cultural appropriation.
In the 1932 film Blonde Venus, Marlene Dietrich's character performs a musical number called "Hot Voodoo." At first she is obscured by the hideous gorilla costume, surrounded by white dancers in tribal costume. She emerges from the costume halfway through the number, donning a blonde afro to complement her extravagant tribal wear. The lyrics of the song also display the highly exploitative nature of this musical number - "Hot voodoo, black as mud // Hot voodoo, in my blood // That african tempo, has made me a slave" ........... "Hot voodoo, make me brave // I want to misbehave // I'm beginning to feel like an African queen // Those drums bring up the heaven inside me // I need some great big angel to guide me." There is clearly a use of the "other" to sexualize the performance. Also, not only is the African-voodoo-queen stereotype exotified here, the actual African-Americans in the clip are made into a spectacle - the bartender stuttering, the jolly bandleader.
Despite apparent social and political progression in America since 1932, a 2012 music video by Rihanna, one of the most popular current female pop stars, shows Rihanna in a similar situation as Dietrich's character. The video is for the song "Where Have You Been" who's lyrics are essentially: "I've been everywhere, man // Looking for someone // Someone who can please me // Love me all night long // I've been everywhere, man // Looking for you babe // Looking for you babe // Searching for you babe." Rihanna's character has apparently been searching all over the world for someone, and is shown in different dance sequences imitating different cultures - Aboriginal, African, and Asian. Like the scene from Blonde Venus, Rihanna's body is highly sexualized through the adoption of this other culture's visual presentation and dance. The focus here is not on the culture itself, but rather on the spectacle of the culture, as presented through dance and costume, and its "exotic" nature.
This raises a number of questions about appropriation and art, as dance and costume are both considered to be art, albeit collective art. It is interesting to ask what it means for Marlene Dietrich, a white woman, to imitate an African queen in 1932, versus Rihanna, a black woman, to imitate other cultures. The dance and costume they appropriate are both forms of collective art, with no clear author other than the culture itself. Does that dismiss their authorship? Who has a right to culture when it is produced collectively, as traditional dances and costume are produced? Is it offensive for Rihanna to appropriate "other" cultures even as an "other" herself? Could her use of costume and dance be considered an homage, despite its sexual nature? Is it perhaps empowering for her as an "other" to imitate "other" cultures? What is the difference between homage and appropriation? When does "borrowing" becoming "stealing"? Is there a copyright on "other" cultures?
In exploring these questions, I created a conversation between footage of the Hot Voodoo number and Where Have You Been video. Using Final Cut Pro, I remixed the footage. thereby engaging the footage in a dialogue about cultural appropriation.