Nike Get Your Dirty Hands Off My Culture! Nike and the Cultural Appropriation of Pasifika Design

Nike have just launched ‘Nike Pro Tattoo Tights’ “inspired” by Indigenous Fijian, Samoan and Maori design, see http://www.nikeblog.com/2013/07/30/nike-pro-tattoo-tech-tights-inspired-by-fiji-samoa-new-zealand/

The fact that this is cultural appropriation is pretty apparent, so I just want to use this blogpost to tease out some of the tensions and complexities of this instance of neocolonization.

Firstly, it’s important to think about scope. Nike is a big, powerful multinational company. This usage of indigenous art differs from earlier historic colonialist interventions (i.e. the transfer of Pasifika indigenous art into European Museums) whilst simultaneously bearing the traces of this process of erasure and reinscription. Because it is inherently about the production of an “indigenized” commodity to sell in the global marketplace to people in the first world, it is also about how indigenous bodies and objects can act as products to be consumed. I am thinking here about bell hook’s useful analysis of “Eating the Other” where she describes the consumption of Black urban culture by white America, where aesthetic interactions with Black culture means that white people can appear more interesting and hip, but not engage in Black lives in any more than a very shallow and transitory way.

As Edward Said so famously pointed out in ‘Orientalism’,  discursive and symbolic representations of the Other by the West have legitimized a whole range of political, military and economic interventions. Representations of the Pacific as an ‘exotic’ playground for the West have had long-reaching consequences.

What is most uncomfortable for me about Nike’s appropriation of Pasifika indigenous design is that it relies on more dangerous and slippery tropes of Pasifika bodies. On the most obvious level, the sports gear draws on indigenous aesthetics influenced by traditional forms of tattooing.

But these images hint at another colonial imaginary: the trope of the noble savage or warrior. As Rojek has described, consumption is now a process by which the consumer engages with an idealised self made possible through consumption. In the Nike design, intended for sports wear, it is that the consumer is intended to make a connection between themselves, and indigenous “warrior” bodies. The aesthetic hints at corporeality, a western fantasy of indigenous corporeality via musculature and strength.

It is interesting that we are at a point in indigenous cultural consumption where different indigenous attributes can be so uniquely fetishised – so we have the consumption of Pasifika corporeality and First Nations spirituality for a diversified marketplace.

Pasifika corporeality is an uncomfortable ghost for Nike’s designs, because there has already has been a long history of the use of Pasifika bodies. And Pasifika migrant bodies continue to be policed as a site of threat in  Anglo nations. Feejee mermaid, anyone?

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