Cultural relativism as insult?

Deciding that a bit of optimism is required in the face of the many setbacks on the house-building front, I ventured out today in search of fabric for making window-blinds. Feeling a little disloyal to my neighbour Ahmed, the proprietor of Afrique Fabriks (I wonder whether the sign painter refused to do Cs), I ventured down Ridley Road Market to see what was on offer from his competitors.
I surveyed the designs on a stall run by two guys who seemed to be, perhaps, Bangaldeshi, although their produce was mostly imported from Ghana (whither it is, of course, usually imported these days from the Netherlands although historically this was from Manchester) and picked out one that i rather liked with a design of birds. Whilst I was pondering, a very angry African lady arrived and started yelling at the guys running the stall. It seemed she had paid a deposit on some fabric that had still not been supplied. Whilst they shrugged impassively, she became more and more furious and turned up the volume, showing no sign of giving up. She was very close indeed, and one my reasons for going out at that particular point had been to escape the combination of drilling, hammering and Polish radio in my own home, so, to avoid feeling deafened, I decided that the moment had come to pay and depart.
At this point, another African customer at the stall asked me what I planned to use the fabric for. I explained it was for window blinds and said how much i thought children would like to wake up in a room with these cheerful little birds lit from behind by the morning sun. At this point, the angry lady suddenly turned her attention to me. ‘These are for wrappers’, she said, ‘this is an insult’. As the full import of the scale of this insult sank in, she repeated it over and over again, ‘this is an insult; these are for wrappers; this is an INSULT; THIS IS AN INSULT!’. I stood my ground. ‘As far as I’m concerned’, I said, ‘it isn’t an insult, it’s a compliment. This is a beautiful design. What could be nicer than having it up at the window where everyone can admire it?’ (I didn’t labour the point by adding ‘and see what beautiful things come from Ghana’, burdened as I am with the terrible knowledge that the designs are created in Europe for the African market, albeit most probably using African ideas). The woman who had originally asked the question at this point started nodding vigorously. Obviously the last thing she wanted was to be caught in the middle of this row, whatever her private views about whether or not it was an insult. There was a temporary lull.
Deciding that this outcome constituted a draw, which was the most I could hope for, I went on my way thinking, as I find myself doing so often these days, ‘only in Dalston…’.
It is interesting, and i suppose says something nice about London culture that this woman felt empowered to tell me that she thought it was an insult. I suspect if I were a tourist in Ghana trying to make a similar purchase nobody would confront me that way. But it is also somehow depressing that the knee-jerk reaction to any transgression of any cultural boundary is to suppose it to be an insult.
I am made more uncomfortable in contemplating all this by the suspicion that a lot of my dislike of postmodernism (both as an intellectual approach and as a system of aesthetics) is rooted in a rather similar reaction. Hoist by my own petard? I have been wearing clothes made of African, Indonesian, Thai and Indian fabrics (mostly brought back by travelling aunts) since the 1960s and also listening to what is now called ‘world music’ almost as long. Appreciation or insult? A brave attempt to step out of an imprisoning aesthetic box or patronising neocolonialism?
In the current issue of Granta (which I was reading in the bath this morning) there is a short piece by Hari Kunzru reflecting on identity in Pakistani art that touches on issues related to this dilemma. I quote the opening: ‘We hear a lot – perhaps too much – about ‘identity’ in relation to South Asian art. Whether it is national or personal, this elusive quality is often seen as the primary concern of South Asian writers and visual artists, to the exclusion of all other aesthetic categories. By contrast, those who can lay claim to sufficient whiteness or Westerness are presumed to be the unreflective owners of secure but troublingly authoritarian identities whose dismantling is the proper task of progressive artistic practice.’ Hmm.


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