Rethinking Cultural Appropriation

Portrait of Haroon Mirza

Writing on the subject of Third Culture Artist makes think about the debates around cultural appropriation (CultApp).  I am using this abbreviation as it indicates that the phenomenon is inextricably linked to social media apps. I feel that the culture of claiming CultApp has exceeded its tipping point and is now posing a threat towards freedom of expression.  To get the root of the problem I would like to explore if the culture of CultApp would even exist if we challenged our views on intellectual property.

TEXT: Haroon Mirza
IMAGES: Courtesy of Haroon Mirza

Portrait of Haroon Mirza


In 2017 advocates of indigenous communities called on the UN for a ban on CultApp.  Two years on the subject of CultApp has unfolded into a heated debate, which is impacting on everyday choices we make from what we wear to how we engage with peoples from elsewhere.

As a first generation offspring of immigrants to the United Kingdom I have had to adopt a culture different to that of my parents.   Now at the cliff edge of Brexit, the abyss of nationalist fear, I have to question what it means to appropriate a culture – is it my right, and more critically do artists truly have freedom of expression even if they embody a “third culture”?

The simple answer is yes if they are happy to come under serious attack from their apparent peer group. In 2017 I was kindly asked to reconsider the title of my work, “9/11-11/9”.  The piece documented sociocultural and political events during the fifteen year period between the attack on the World Trade Centre and the day it was announced that Trump would become president.  The piece was being shown in New York and because I was not from there it was deemed inappropriate for me to use the term 9/11. Having a Muslim name didn’t help.  The rationale was a fear of the potential backlash that this apparent provocation could cause.  “New Yorkers own the term 9/11” I was told, “there’s no telling how New Yorkers might react”.  Being faced with an accusation of CultApp, I renamed the piece “Fear of the Unknown” and learned that a group of people could take ownership over a date.

The type of censorship that we now face is not a discriminate decision that’s being made independently by parties with a differing political agenda, instead our peers heavily vet our choices in some kind of self regulated system of political hierarchy – a censorship based on an anti-social idea of network.  People are persuaded, heckled and even bullied and into not speaking their mind, even in art, a space where any voice can be critically interrogated in a remote and productive way. Do third culture artists have an edge being able to adopt ideas from more than one culture? No, because the market requires them to only speak about the cultures they have ties with, which is in fact prohibitive.

Having to even ask if it is my right to eat, dress, think like a ‘Westerner’ when actually physiologically I am ‘Eastern’ is a sign that something is indeed politically incorrect.  To address this I would like to turn my attention to the pronunciation of my name.  Haroon.  In syntax it’s universal.  Phonetically however, my name is pronounced differently depending on the accent of the person who is saying it.  In London, where I live the syllable split is “Ha roon” whereas in Urdu it’s more like “Har oon”, which is phonetically quite different.  I have adopted the anglicised version of my name, in public at least, because it’s simply easier to get on.  When my father arrived in London in 1966 he decided to call himself Tim because Temur was too difficult for the English to pronounce.  What this shows to me is that humans are adaptable – it’s one of the evolutionary advantages of our species – enabling large numbers of us to cooperate as Noah Harari argues.

So for me to simply get on I have to adapt, learn, share ideas and practices because the alternative is segregation and persecution.  A lot of my family fled from Pakistan because they belonged to a heretical sect of Islam that was discredited by the state and as a result violently persecuted.  My parents moved to a very white council estate in a western suburb of London where my siblings and I had no choice but to try and fit in.  One of the well-known consequences of the influx of South Asian communities in the UK was the declaration that curry was the nations food of choice.  Is that CultApp on a grand scale?  Should South Asians own curry? The ownership, commodification, monetisation of culture and ideas has become so aggressive in our capitalist democracy that basic sharing and exchange is becoming a complex mêlée.

Gucci recently apologised to Hong Kong funeral stores for accusing them of infringing their trademark by selling lookalike Gucci handbags made form paper.  The apology followed a backlash from communities who regard the burning of objects made out of paper as a funeral rite.

The inappropriateness of CultApp therefore lies not in the alleged ownership of a thing but to it’s meaningful intent.  A European walking around a Japanese home wearing Tabi Boots is inappropriate not because they’re wearing Tabi Boots but because they’re wearing outdoor shoes in a home.  Wearing Tabi Boots is just a sign that they’re attempting to embrace the culture.  Not knowing the etiquette is easily forgivable.

It seems important though to reassess what we apparently own and why? Were lies the difference between the use of an idea and the transgression of it. For me the use and celebration of an idea is productive and an attribute of cooperation, whereas the transgression of an idea is potentially confrontational.  Adopting an idea for a purely commercial intent knowing that the origin of that idea will not financially benefit is a diabolical product of extreme capitalism.  Entities, be it corporations, brands, groups or even individuals that proclaim ownership over ideas, concepts or traditions from others that are perhaps less privileged will need to rethink the fallacy of intellectual property.  If a brands only legal defence is that an idea cannot be owned then they undermine the myth of a brand itself.

So thinking about this notion of a ‘third culture artist’ allows me the liberty to think about CultApp as a beneficial imperative both as a survival technique or mechanism for integration but also and more importantly as a methodology for cooperation and exchange of knowledge and ideas.  This is of course only under the caveat that knowledge and ideas are not property but are freely available to all.   CultApp is social integration platform – not to be confused with social media platforms, which turns out are inherently anti-social.




Haroon Mirza was born in 1977 in London where he lives and works. He has a BA in Painting from Winchester School of Art, an MA in Design Critical Practice and Theory from Goldsmiths College (2006) and an MA in Fine Art from Chelsea College of Art and Design (2007).

He has won international acclaim for installations that test the interplay and friction between sound and light waves and electric current. He devises kinetic sculptures, performances and immersive installations, such as The National Apavillion of Then and Now (2011) – an anechoic chamber with a circle of light that grows brighter in response to increasing drone, and completely dark when there is silence. An advocate of interference (in the sense of electro-acoustic or radio disruption), he creates situations that purposefully cross wires. He describes his role as a composer, manipulating electricity, a live, invisible and volatile phenomenon, to make it dance to a different tune and calling on instruments as varied as household electronics, vinyl and turntables, LEDs, furniture, video footage and existing artworks to behave differently.

Recent solo exhibitions have been held at Ikon, Birmingham, UK (2018); Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA, USA (2018); Nikolaj Kunsthal, Copenhagen, Denmark (2018); Zabludowicz Collection, London, UK (2017); LiFE, Saint-Nazaire, France (2017); Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver, BC, Canada (2017);  Summerhall, Edinburgh, UK (2016); Pivô, São Paulo, Brazil (2016); Nam June Paik Center, Seoul, South Korea (2015); Matadero, Madrid, Spain (2015); Museum Tinguely, Basel, Switzerland (2015). He was awarded the Northern Art Prize in 2011, the DAIWA Foundation Art Prize in 2012, the Zurich Art Prize in 2013, the Nam June Paik Art Center Prize in 2014, the Calder Art Prize in 2015 and the COLLIDE International Award in 2017 which has given place to a two-month residency at CERN, Switzerland in the course of 2018. In the spring this same year, Haroon Mirza unveiled ‘Stone Circle‘, a large-scale outdoor sculpture commissioned by Ballroom Marfa, Texas, which will remain in the landscape for five years.



Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply