China, Orientalization, and the P-Word

I went to the China: Through the Looking Glass exhibit at the Met yesterday. It was a spectacle, as I knew it would be, and it’s clear a lot of money was poured into it, but I have to admit it also made me uncomfortable.

For you all not in the NYC area, this show is meant to look at Chinese artistic style and fashion and how it impacted Western fashion from the 1700s on. A lot of the time, the haute couture dresses were displayed alongside–or, I guess, in front of–Chinese clothing, implying the play that was going on. The thing is that the Chinese clothing ended up being more of an afterthought or a “stand” to hold up the big names–Ives Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen and the like.

1-GETTY-vogue-suzy-menkes-6may15-bSorry everyone, I didn’t take any pics myself because there was a constant stampede in there and I didn’t want to be murdered. But a lot of the exhibit looked like this. Western take of Chinese dresses = foreground, actual Chinese clothing = background, behind some weird otherworldly portal? They also were playing clips of The Last Emperor in this room on about 5 million screens.

(Also, that tailored suit on the far right had a printed design that was way poor quality, not to get into that too much.)

The Met acknowledged in their blurb that the show is an explanation of the Orientalization of Chinese culture over the years, and I get that that’s the purpose of the show. Though it still made me feel weird. Part of it is that I’ve been trying to do cohesive research on China for years now (for my Silk Road comic AHEM AHEM AHEM) and I would freaking love a show that was actually just about the clothes of China. There was also this definite schism between the named creators (almost all Western–I remember one outfit being named as Chinese) and unnamed creators, or the fact that nearly all of the contemporary outfits were made in the West. I get that history is tough and getting the names of clothesmakers from 500 years ago is impossible, but even having a show on contemporary Chinese fashion would be interesting to me. So I can see how they interpret thousands of years of their own history (and probably Western history as well).

Instead of a show that is independently about Chinese culture–which is oftentimes rare for me to see in NYC–we’re only able to see the actual Chinese work as an afterthought and a prop to the Western work.

It also had a lot of Anna May Wong in it, who went through a lot of crap and, well, that made me a little uneasy, too.

But, hey, I know this show was a moneymaker and a crowd-pleaser. I know I’m in the minority on this. And I don’t regret going to the show, it’s just… made me think. It also made me appreciate the Museum of Chinese in America even more.

—————-

I have a friend who loves shopping at super high-end department stores. Disclosure: That isn’t usually my kind of thing, but when she’s in NYC I go with her and window shop, because why not?

I definitely noticed a couple of trends that were big this season: The color purple (so many purple things) and embroidery. This in itself is no big deal, but then I started really looking at some of these pieces. I came across this jacket from BCBGMaxazaria:

maxazaria

Um… err… looks…. awfully familiar… right?

yassir

Thanks, Arafat!

maxazaria3So, yeah, keffiyeh jackets (and skirts) anyone? Also, as if to drive the point really home, here’s a black-and-white version, for those times when you want to literally wear Arafat on your sleeves:

maxazaria2

Okay, maybe you think I’m being overly sensitive about this. Actually, I’m not all that upset about this weird usage of keffiyeh patterns, I find it amusing that apparently keffiyehs are okay for high fashion now. It was just a few short years ago that one of the nearby shops here was selling keffiyehs (real big with hipsters at the time) and they put this big, handmade sign in the window that read “WE NOW HAVE TALBAN [sp] SCARVES.” This is an improvement? I guess?

What I do find a bit more upsetting, however, is this little gem that was dug up by Twitter user @chezmoihoney–a dress from Forever 21:

forever21

The deal with this? It looks a hell of a lot like traditional Palestinian embroidery.

Forever 21 also had this dress that made me laugh out loud because it totally reminds me of Auntie Jamila (my husband knows what I mean when I say that), minus those ugly sandals:

forever21-2

I did a little searching on the intertrons for other instances of embroidery that just seems a little too similar to Palestinian sensibility but created for a Western audience/aesthetic. I didn’t do an insanely thorough search but did find this Asos company:

asos

Honestly, with this one, it’s more of the types of embroidery going on in this dress than the pattern… minus the sleeve cuff embroidery.

asos2

This one really made me laugh, too. This looks basically like a Ramallah-made two-piece. The white fabric peeking through rich, bright, and dense embroidery is very telltale of Ramallah-style dress. Here’s a comparison shot:

pc204

forever21-3

Chest squares + diamond shapes + flower shapes = very big with our people.

Here are some more pics of Palestinian dress for comparison purposes:

pal-woman2

pal-woman1

Jinaan 042

I think you get the idea.

Am I saying that getting inspiration is bad, that people should just stick with their own culture? No, not at all. Inspiration is great. The problem is that–as I probably don’t have to remind you, my awesome reader–negative stereotypes abound. I have serious doubts that the vast majority of Americans are even aware of the embroidery traditions of Palestinians, and how the clothes are basically freaking amazing. Taking inspiration without that context and hiding it behind words like “boho” and “peasant” (which is insulting in itself, to be honest) to sanitize and make the patterns “safe” for Westerners further steals the deserved identity of a people.

I was thinking if there would ever be a day that the Met would host a show on how Arab aesthetics were transferred onto Western stuff. I would have my complaints, but at least there would be an admittance. “Yeah, uhh, we were looking at Negev-style clothing when we made that…. *sheepish grin* *toeing the floor*”

First thing’s first: People need to start using the P-word. Then we’ll be getting somewhere.

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China, Orientalization, and the P-Word

High school

Yaayyyy, high school, yeeeahhhhh!

When I decided to make this blog, I knew the first thing I wanted to talk about was my high school, because IT WAS A TRIP. I like to tell parts of the high-school experience story to all kinds of people, at parties, to friends, to current high-schoolers, to the politically minded, to anyone remotely interested in education for even a microsecond. Really, it’s all there, in full glory. Since I’m writing this all down, you get to “hear” it FROM BEGINNING TO END.

I was attending a so-called magnet school, since it specialized in the arts and we had to audition/have portfolio reviews to get in. My discipline was in the visual arts, which meant that for two hours every afternoon, I got to draw or paint. Which actually sounds great when I write it down here, and it really should have been, as I loved and love to draw. The problem was that, guess what? I liked comics. Not even the cool comics at the time–I liked manga. That turned every art class I had in that school into a soul-sucking journey into purgatory.

Put down the Tenchi Muyo, gosh-dernit!!
Put down the Tenchi Muyo, gosh-dernit!!

I admit I didn’t quite understand the value of knowing how to draw naturalistically at the time (one of my favorite mantras nowadays is “learn the rules so you know how to break them”). The assignments were all very much geared toward the fine arts, with lots of drawing from life, including figure drawing in high school–a story I’ll have to save for another post. I still did the assignments to the best of my ability and reserved the comic stuff for my free time. That didn’t stop teachers from yelling “THAT ISN’T ART” when they saw such drawings in my sketchbook, or go on about how I was “wasting my talent.” I mean, come on, I was a freaking teenager, and a nerdy one at that. No one better put their hands on my X/1999.

And then there were the “academic” classes. Oh, goodness. At the time, California was going through a major public educational funding crisis, and it was clear that this school had vastly (VASTLY) prioritized their art programs to the point that the academics were laughably bad, even when I was a dumb teen who didn’t know better. Usually science classes have, I don’t know, experiments, maybe, or microscopes, or something. My “biology” class was a guy who brought in home footage of himself and his wife learning martial arts while also occasionally showing photos of his two dogs, Hooter and Bimbo. My “chemistry” class was someone who told us a story once about how a woman ate too many carrots while pregnant and the baby came out orange. Nearly all of the academic teachers were some variation of this.

ANYTHING BUT THAT!! NOOOOOO!
ANYTHING BUT THAT!! NOOOOOO!

Long story short, they were four years in which I learned almost nothing. I wish I was joking. If I could summarize the things I learned in high school, I guess it would be that I read The Chocolate War and it was pretty good, and I decidedly hated math. I started not giving a shit.

Since I was That Kid Who Drew Manga Whose Grades Were Slipping, the teachers (especially those hellish art teachers) began treating me like a delinquent by my senior year–which is actually really hilarious for me to think about, because I wasn’t disruptive, mean, or rude. I just drew freaking comics and didn’t get the best grades. I was starting to hear the phrase that was meant to instill fear in me: You’ll only make it to community college.

Community college. They made it sound as though this was some kind of death warrant, like a McDonald’s-employed cesspool I’d never crawl out of. Nevermind that A. I didn’t have the kind of money for the art schools they were conditioning us for and B. I was considered such a “bad kid” (again, for drawing manga) that the same teachers who were doing backflips to make sure some of these students were getting scholarships for colleges were doing nothing for me. The chance of running into RuPaul and Patrick Stewart on the street at the same time seemed more likely than attending “real” college.

To preserve my sanity, I took drastic measures: I cut. A lot. Nearly every day. I usually would cut school with two accomplices, Carlos and Dez. We were in a city, so this was entirely possible and easy.

So, what did we do when we cut? We went to the nearby college’s student union and played in their arcade (lots of King of Fighters ’98!). We went to Japantown and browsed Kinokuniya Bookstore. We went over to Dez’s house and played more King of Fighters ’98 and ate instant udon. We walked around the city a bit. That was about it. Real daring stuff, I know. But I almost didn’t graduate because I cut so much.

But here’s the thing: I don’t regret it one bit. Not for a single iota. I did go to community college. And you know what? It was awesome. Community college was freaking rad. I met some of the best people there, mostly hardworking older people who were there part-time, juggling jobs, kids, and life. They were happy to be getting an education and it was contagious. I learned much, much more than I did in high school, and the experience taught me to love school again.

THANKS OBAMA
THANKS OBAMA

And I did end up going to art school–just later than those high-school blorbs were expecting me to. I went to art school on a scholarship and grants and graduated with honors, so, you know, even us manga-reading cave-dwellers get it right sometimes.

I’ll tell this story to people and sometimes they’ll almost literally be clutching their pearls because, OMG, how could I do something like cut school? I hope this story exemplifies that life is not so binary, it’s not so easy as saying, “so-and-so is clearly a bad kid because a-b-c.” I was an angry kid, but not a bad one. Also, can we please, PLEASE get over the rhetoric that community college is a fate worse than death?

High school

Introductions

Hey, there. My name is Marguerite. Or you can call me Margo, that’s cool, too. You might know me as an illustrator, or a cartoonist, or an editor, or a writer, or someone who gets paid to makes things run behind the scenes at times. I’ve done a number of jobs.

I started this blog as a way to have longer-form discussion in a way that social media doesn’t allow me to. It might shape into something more concrete–we’ll see.

You might be wondering what the deal with the title of this blog is (it’s a pretty gross combination!). Hummus and ice cream were hands-down my absolute two favorite things to eat in the entire universe back in the day. Like, give me a giant plate of hummus for lunch, top it off with some ice cream after, and I was good. Nothing else. Not even bread.

Life is strange, like the combination is hummus and ice cream. I want to talk more about that.

Introductions