Weaving Self-Determination through Cultural Heritage: NPMHR’s 23rd Morung Dialogue series

For Mo Naga, who is traditional tattoo artist and designer, a crucial point that he felt must be recognized, lay in the need to decolonize our ways of thinking, because we have been conditioned to believe that expressions of our creativity can only be categorized as art, or culture and not as design.

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The 23rd Morung Dialogue series was initiated to discuss the important role that traditional handicrafts and art play in sustaining our Indigenous communities; the various challenges being faced by our artisans and communities due to cultural appropriation, modern production and property right systems; and the responses that we may take to ensure the meaningful  preservation of our cultures, allow for the flourishing of innovation in art and design, and give our artisans and communities their due earnings for the creation of products that are the result of the labour of current and prior generations.

Dr. Achan, who chaired the event, began by discussing the connection between identity and self-determination, how the idea of self-determination becomes fulfilling only if there is an  identity to begin with, and the importance therefore, of preserving and carrying forward external cultural markers of identity like our traditional motifs and patterns in textiles, attires and tattoos.  Despite the important role this plays in our communities, she noted that as a trainer and researcher closely involved with this issue, she is of the opinion that our communities have yet to recognize and give this issue its due importance. She pointed out that one reason this was occurring was connected to socially constructed gendered division of activities in our traditional patriarchal set-up, since weaving was exclusively assigned to women, while the stories and knowledge behind the motifs and patterns being weaved was considered the domain of men. This is creating road-blocks in the attempts by women who are trying to preserve these traditions by initiating documentation of the historical background, stories and symbolism behind these motifs and patterns etc., knowledge of which is not available to them. She also pointed out that the need for documentation in this particular way is a new phenomenon that arose due to pressure from commercialization, globalization and its associated property rights system, which clashes with our traditional worldviews and systems. This is another reason why, despite the encouragement/ pressure from organizations like the Tribal Cooperative Marketing Development Federation of India Limited (TRIFED), we have members of Indigenous communities who are against registration for Geographical Indicator tags for reasons such as: it does not provide adequate protection to the indigenous cultural products and expressions; it is a threat to our cultural maintenance; or because it is designed to foster commercialization.  Dr. Achan left it to the two speakers to elaborate on the tension within these contentious issues.

For Mo Naga, who is traditional tattoo artist and designer, a crucial point that he felt must be recognized, lay in the need to decolonize our ways of thinking, because we have been conditioned to believe that expressions of our creativity can only be categorized as art, or culture and not as design. This assumes an implied simplicity; in that they are directly copied from nature without thought. In fact, like other cultures, the products and artefacts made by us also factor elements of Design, which requires inspiration, functionality and thought, he said, citing examples such traditional daos. This conditioning has affected how our aesthetics are shaped and expressed in the form of the motifs and patterns created in our textiles, tattoos etc., but also in the symbolism and meaning we attach to them.  We need to go beyond merely taking pride in staking ownership over our cultural products and artefacts, without understanding what it is that we are claiming ownership of. In order to do this, he said that we would have to learn how to see through the eyes of our forebears. He explained that for them, as it should be for us, art by its very nature was never stagnant but always evolved, and inspiration was taken from others but with great respect given to the deep meanings and functions attached to sources. He cautioned that our creativity would be threatened if the tribes were to too jealously lay claim to their symbols.  He also said that these were products not of individual efforts, but that of the community connected across time.  Mere imitation was therefore not possible in such a situation, he said, citing the great pride each tribe placed on the distinctive appearances and diversity of their mekhalas, shawls and tattoos.

Also read: “Indigenous Peoples and the Need for a New Social Contract”: NPMHR’s 22nd Morung Dialogue series

He further stated the dangers lying in other directions, such as cultural appropriation by non-indigenous producers and designers, or by our own people who have lost awareness of the meanings that lay behind the symbols of our cultural artefacts, which was leading to them blindly imitating motifs without regard for their significance. In response to a query from a participant, he also added that decolonization of what we consume was also required amongst us, since by imitating only Western Culture, we were failing to support our own artisans and our traditional handicrafts.

 Dr. Nesatulu Hiese, a scientist with the Patent Information Centre, NSTC, delved deeper into how cultural appropriation was occurring, by discussing a few recent cases in the textiles industry which involved the designers Ritu Beri and Ritika Mittal. She also discussed related cases in the Horti-Agriculture sector where there was potential for local farmers and communities losing access to bio-resources they have created and nurtured because those rights have been claimed by big companies. She displayed several cases of how fashion designers have laid claim to rights over our traditional motifs, methods of textile production, and even the associated words in tribal dialects used to describe these. Products based on these designs and often sacred methods are now being sold, on the one hand, with the symbols distorted and their meanings lost, without any regard to the deep significance many of the symbols hold for the communities they belong to. And on the other, without compensating the communities whom have created them in the first place, and were gracious enough to share their traditions and knowledge not aware that these would be copyrighted.

She then segued into the importance that Intellectual Property Rights played in the Naga context, and encouraged Nagas to make use of current mechanisms for property rights disputes like Geographical Indication tags, that would prevent the worst of the excesses observed. This process required documentation such as those related to the proof of origin, to be done by the respective tribes. However, this has not been accomplished yet despite attempts to do so, e.g. in the case of traditional shawls of the Ao, Angami and Sema tribes, due to which G.I. tags have been refused as of now. She said that this was partly due to the ignorance of the National Institute of Fashion Technology, whose help was sought in the matter, which wrongly stated the same descriptions for the shawls of the 3 tribes in the application. So it would require groundwork from the individual tribes to take it upon themselves to hold discussions with villagers, elders and experts; and ascertain cultural, historical facts, uniqueness of methods, motifs etc. for documentation. This was also in our best interests given the collective nature of the resources in question, because it is only with discussions and community consensus that we would be able to decide which patterns, motifs would be allowed for commercialization, and which ought to be retained by the community due to the significance they hold, and prevented from being commercialized.

In response to a question by participants regarding whether the sole recourse Nagas had was to rely on current institutions and mechanisms, given the likelihood that they would be inadequate, Gam Shimray, as a participant suggested the potential solution that the Sui Generis System of Intellectual Property Protection offered in this regard, which should be legally feasible via provisions like Art. 371A in the case of Nagaland. This would be especially important for the protection of our bio/genetic resources.

The Morung Dialogue is a talk series organized by NPHMR, Delhi since 2014 with the objective of strengthening the power of conversation and sharpening our understanding through sharing ideas and views on issues that affect our life and contribute to democracy, Justpeace and social justice.

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