- And, Brother Decoo, could you come in your native dress?
It’s this time of the year again. Circus by the aliens. Officially it’s called Cultural Heritage Night, or International Fashion Show, or LDS WorldFest. Mormons love it.
The problem is that Belgians don’t have a native costume. Had I been Dutch, I could have come as a Volendammer in large, blue baggy trousers and wooden shoes. As a German, a white shirt and Lederhosen would have done the trick, with my wife in a Bavarian Dirndl. A pleated white skirt under a shirt with wide flowing sleeves, an embroidered woolen vest, a sash around the waist, and shoes with large pompons would have made me a Greek. And I am confident I would have made a somewhat acceptable Maori with a feather cloak, sufficient make-up, a wig, and a few hours of eyeball-rolling-and-tongue-sticking-training.
But how to dress like a Belgian?
Moreover, the good folks organizing the event also want us to bring typical Belgian things, for the display of Cultures of the world.
- You’ll have a little table to put everything on, between family Matsushita and sister Sebahat.
Between Japan and Turkey. No problem with that. Could become interesting. Sister Sebahat is a retired belly dancer from Ankara.
So much for the story! Beyond the anecdote, beyond the sympathetic surface of celebrated folklore, this topic is actually a serious and complex one. Even painful. My post will argue that we as a Church share some responsibility in amending the depiction of “other cultures” with an eye to true Mormon internationalization, emancipation, mutual respect and equality.
Inherently, there should be nothing wrong with a depiction of cultural traditions from “elsewhere”. It may be informative, may have historical value, may help some groups affirm their identity. But there are various drawbacks to the folklorization of others. Some of those drawbacks are trivial, others are sad, a few even tragic, depending on which groups are involved in which parts of the world, either as spectators or as actors on the scene. Much depends also on the nature of the traditions, which oscillate between two extremes: at one end of the spectrum the frivolities of a dress party reviving a romanticized past, at the other end the genuine, even sacred expressions of living cultures. I understand the immense difference between those extremes. One of my points is that spectators often do not differentiate them, which justifies my connected discussion of both kinds.
1 – The first drawback is that folklorization, in its attempt to build bridges, is basically alienating. The foreigner is confirmed in his difference. The focus is on distinctive markings, not on what binds us. The term “cultures of the world” implies, if not carefully monitored, the affirmation and preservation of cultural ghetto’s. A mature and well-informed viewer is able to put the depiction into perspective, but others, and certainly children, are led to see the other culture as, indeed, “foreign”. Those impressions may stay with them for life.
The “foreigners” themselves, when asked to present their culture, will instinctively respond to that expectation of divergence. They will be led to stress peculiarities in dress, objects, chants, dances, even if those are not any more present in their own daily life.
Of course, the measure of alienation depends on the distance in time and space with the spectator’s world view and experience. A modern Israeli folk dance in stylized, dynamic outfits will be less alienating than a Romanian village dance in 19th century costumes or a Tongan lakalaka dance. Traditional African masks will seem more distant than contemporary Japanese bamboo sculptures. We recognize those many variations.
2 – Folklorization has a trait of colonialism. Colonialism proceeds on the assumption of a natural superiority of the colonizer, who sees himself as more rational, more enlightened, more developed, more educated than the colonized. For millennia invading colonizers have tried to obliterate local structures and traditions that were perceived as menacing the new order, i.e. authority, judiciary, religion, sometimes even language. But, as a cheap token of deference, or for the charm of it, colonizers have usually tolerated the non-threatening traits: food, dress, art. The same attitude largely prevails today in our approach of “foreign” cultures. Disturbing, self-affirming, or difficult to grasp elements are ignored. All attention goes to the easily presentable, to the exotic appeal of handicraft, colorful garb, ethnic food and dance. “See the natives perform” is often accompanied, consciously or unconsciously, by the condescension of the colonizer who allows the performance as a tribute to his superiority.
3 – Related to the preceding is primitivization. A large part of the charm of folklorization stems from its fostering of nostalgia. Balkan dances evoke images of idyllic villages where young men and women play out innocent love relations or celebrate a pastoral marriage. The Irish reels, jigs, and step dances, driven by bagpipes and violins, danced by youngers in dresses with embroidered Celtic designs, call to mind an Irish countryside steeped in history. And, of course, in such a context folk art is favored. This primitivization is particularly evident in the depiction of tropical cultures. The Polynesian islands bring us the refound paradise of Blue Lagoon. Out of Africa, and its host of similar portrayals, fosters a longing for the untouched realm of safari landscapes where the noble savages live. The alienation itself becomes, for the viewer, a temporary haven in the past.
The tourist industry has fully understood that appeal, as is obvious from brochures, posters, commercials. Once in the country, tourists are cleverly led along the paths they must see. In some countries it obliges people, especially those on deprived social levels, to self-primitivization in order to respond to the expectation of the visitors. It’s cultural entrenchment as a way to be recognized. Yes, the native American tribes of Utah had their day of glory at the ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in 2002. Wise and dignified, they accepted their ambiguous use as a “picture postcard … firmly rooted in the past tense … presented only as a preface to America’s history“. The same happened to the Aborigines at Sydney in 2000. No doubt it was a splendid recognition of their respective cultures, but at the same time it sharply delineated the boundaries: never uttered, but so palpable — their “backwardness” versus the industrialized nations. And both Olympic shows cleverly left out their achievements and participation in the contemporary world.
Primitivization, out of so-called “respect for the local culture”, obliges that culture to remain in a realm of indigenous production. Aren’t we led to believe there is nothing, in the native culture, comparable to a Shakespearean play, a Beethoven symphony, or the Mona Lisa? Artifacts, yes, wood carving, pottery making, beadwork, basket and mat weaving, colorful textile, and primitive musical instruments. However artistic, however deeply symbolic, to outsiders it remains at the level of folk art, implying the lack of grandeur which characterizes our own sophisticated beaux-arts.
4 – Often folklorization leads to falsification and kitscherization. No Dutchman would ever dress like a Volendammer. The Lederhosen and Bavarian Dirndl are only worn by a small fraction of Germans, in certain regions, and on specific occasions like an Oktoberfest. In Europe these traditional dresses are only found in dwindling folklore groups at folk festivals. None of these is a “national” costume. The Venetian gondolier is not wearing an outfit typifying Italians. The Greek costume was originally just a royal court dress for military captains.
True, those examples are trivial, but folklorization can also lead to despicable fabrications, like Marlo Morgan’s Mutant Message From Down Under, which has outraged the Aborigines. Indian, African and Polynesian artists – I mean real artists – try to overcome this bondage by producing high-quality contemporary art, often with still some distinctive features. Critics are eager to call it “Westernized” because those artists dare to leave what should be “innate”. Moreover, most tourists will prefer the cheap, serial production of more “authentic” items — even if the bottom of the Kenyan carved lion or the Australian boomerang says “Made in Taiwan”.
It sounds congenial “to share our unique heritages”, but often it boils down to a sociable, if not clumsy, display of forced artificiality, falsifying who “the others” are. But never so for Americans if we turn the tables. Imagine an American presentation of “our unique U.S.-heritage” limited to a square dance by dressed up cowboys and country girls in the setting of a pioneer camp. Fascinating and fun! But all outsiders would know this is not the core of U.S.-culture, as so many other sources reveal America’s present reality and variety. That breadth of vision is not similar when Americans watch a Bulgarian Rachenitsia Horo village dance with men and women in “typical” dress. What else would the average spectators know about present day Bulgaria? What else, besides the images each of the next names evokes, would they know about Tonga, Lapland, Tibet, Kenya, Guatemala, Thailand?
5 – No doubt the local population may greatly profit from a tourist industry that plays out its trump card of folklorization. Even primitivization as daily performance, before returning to a comfortable home and switching on the TV, can be a profession like another. However, in many cases, exploitation and abuse thrive. The Aborigines, now widely used as window-dressing for Australia’s tourism, are still far from getting the appropriate return. Think of the regional traje dress of Maya women in Guatemala. The tragedy is the shameless touristy exploitation of those dresses by non-Mayan, while Maya women themselves suffer under social discrimination and economic exploitation for wearing those very dresses. Certainly as bad is the situation in African nations where the booming ecotourism is in the hands of small dominant groups who misuse local “folklorized” communities for their own profit. Violation of human rights, displacement, dehumanization, cultural prostitution are some of the ecotourism-problems described in this U.N.-NGLS-report.
Back to the Church.
Although I’m confident we are not involved in some of the more serious aspects described, we have to recognize that folklorization of other nations is very much part of our Mormon-American approach.
Whenever an article is published in Church magazines or in Church News about a foreign country or region, it will often include a fair amount of exotic emphasis, showing how differently people live, preferably in a primitive, rustic, romanticized setting. Sure, it is meant as a tribute to the simplicity of their lives and therefore of the happiness the Gospel provides:
It is late Saturday afternoon on the island of Vava’u. Samisoni and Meleane Uasila’a, who have raised 20 children in addition to their own 12, are preparing for the Sabbath. The setting sun shines through the freshly washed white shirts hanging on the clothesline and reflects off the lush green foliage surrounding the house. A child sweeps the steps as others clean up the yard. Pigs and chickens scramble out of the way. Inside, Sister Uasila’a and her daughters prepare lu for Sunday dinner. Each wraps a taro leaf around meat mixed with coconut milk, then rewraps it in a banana leaf to be cooked slowly overnight in an umu, an outdoor “oven” of heated rocks covered by banana leaves. Brother Uasila’a, a stake patriarch and the principal of the Church’s Saineha High School, and some of his sons work in the “bush” (their taro field). They toss weeds and debris into a smoldering fire. The sun is setting. Yellow light streams through the gently rising smoke, silhouetting one of the boys tending the fire with a long hoe. (LaRene Porter Gaunt, “Tonga: A Land of Believing People,” Ensign, Sept. 2001, 42)
Pictures accompanying such stories will often show members in “traditional clothes”, standing in front of an ivy-covered stone farmhouse, a rustic landmark, a red-tiled adobe home, a windmill, a hut.
BYU does its fair share to promote folklorization. The International Folk Dancers are our first ambassadors to depict an array of countries, with emphasis on traditional dances in colorful dresses. During International Week students of various nations are asked to man booths for each of their countries. Every booth accentuates differentiation, mainly with cheap tourist souvenirs and a rearview to some romanticized past. Thousands of Utah school children visit those exhibits, which impress on their minds that imagery. Particularly problematic are the Living Legends (“traditional song and dance from the Latin American, Native American and Polynesian cultures”). Their show not only reduces “cultures” basically to folkloristic acts, but it also imposes a simplistic thematic framework in order to give the show a semblance of coherence. The result is a brilliantly artificial spectacular, but greatly suffering from colonialization and primitivization. The most disturbing part seems it’s mixing of the genuine, sacred elements of living cultures with purely Latin American entertainment. The public only sees folklore. Did not the former Lamanite Generation, as separate entity, initially show more understanding and respect for Indian culture?
The Church also encourages historical commemorations and cultural celebrations, in particular at the occasion of multistake conferences, important anniversaries or temple dedications. Thousands of members participate in such festivals. If an international flavor is given to such events, the pageantry always draws on folklorization.
Is all the preceding meant to ban the depiction of “other cultures” in our Church programs and magazines? Of course not. We could fill pages with a description of positive aspects too, like the importance of preservation and protection of cultural traits and traditions, but without some of the handicaps described. This post only wanted to draw the attention to some problematic issues.
I have wondered how this topic would be understood by Mormon-American readers. There is a serious risk of misreading, as if folklorization is always wrong and painful. No, it all depends on the context and the perspective. There are indeed cultures or societies which can afford folklorization without apparent adverse effects, certainly if controlled in their own local realm. For example, Mormons enjoy their own pioneering past and related folklorization very much. They pay historic respect to Mormon pioneer life and to Mormon initial art such as C.C.A. Chistensen’s epic paintings, early temple murals, log cabins, pine furniture, or pioneer dance music. They celebrate Pioneer Day, dressed in appropriate costumes, riding chuck wagons and pulling handcarts. And after the mix of fun and nostalgic folklore, people return to their modern homes, schools, offices, and businesses.
However, change the context: if a similar Mormon Pioneer remembrance is publicly celebrated in Europe, the perception can be quite different. In 1997, at the occasion of the Sesquicentennial, Euopean Mormons organized a huge Pioneer parade in the city of Charleroi (Belgium). Some media covering the event depicted it as a celebration of how Mormons still live today, just like the Amish, reinforcing the image of Latter-day Saints as a strange, unworldly population surviving in the Rocky Mountains. Add to it the persisting image of polygamy, seasoned with some anti-Mormon slander, and one sees the result in the minds of outsiders.
In conclusion, here are a few constructive suggestions to avoid some of the drawbacks mentioned:
- When presenting a country or an “ethnic” group, make sure that also aspects of their modernity and their participation on the world scene are mentioned or shown. Who are some of their main scientists, authors, artists, athletes… ? What are some of their social, economic, political achievements and challenges? Such addition would counterbalance folklorization.
- Have one or more “actors” tell the audience or the visitors what they really do in life. I remember I once sat down with a Maori “warrior”, after a performance at the Polynesian Cultural Center. He told me he had served a mission in Japan, had recently married, was now a TA in mathematics, and worked to become a civil engineer. What a difference that perception made.
- Do not mix, in one program, genuine, sacred elements of living cultures and folkloristic entertainment of the past.
- Have one or more of the “natives”, if possible, also perform a totally different expression of their abilities. We should not limit the “talents” of “natives” to bamboo-stick-jumping, in-and-out-of-hoops-climbing, or bottle-on-the-head-balancing-while-folk-dancing.
- What can be done to raise the cultural experience and perspective of missionaries sent abroad? Their reunions often show the level of their memories and of their understanding of the foreign nation…
To be vibrant, cultures also need to progress and change, without forgetting the past. Present-day American-Mormon life and art has broadly moved beyond the pioneering phase, adopting modernity as it came, opening up new horizons, challenging us to never-ending creativity. We need to make sure that, in our perception, “the others” are not excluded from that movement. We need to educate our children to perceive all humans as equal world-citizens and as equal Church members.