Image: Mexican embroidery
Many people can recite Oscar Wilde’s quip, ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’. Fewer, perhaps, will know the full quote: ‘Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.’
It’s somewhat ironic that, according to Candace Osmond, this proverb did not originate from Wilde. Rather, a turn of the phrase— ‘Imitation is a kind of artless flattery’ —was ‘used during the 19th century in Charles Caleb Colton’s work, Lacon: or Many Things in Few Words,’ and may be traceable as far back 1714.
So, was Wilde imitating, or flattering? Did he claim to have invented the phrase, or did his smart reinvention overpower the original? And does it matter?
Mexican Culture Minister, Alejandra Frausto, must have thought so when, in 2019, she sent a letter to Caroline Herrera, complaining that some of her Resort 2020 collection plagiarised traditional Mexican textile patterns. Herrera’s Creative Director, Wes Gordon, defended the collection as paying “tribute to the richness of Mexican culture.” Of course, Herrera is not the only label to have fallen foul of such an accusation. In 2015, Isabel Marant was said to have used a design remarkably similar to one native to the Mixe people of Oaxaca, in 2020 of appropriating a pattern unique to the Purépecha community. And similar charges have been levelled at many others, from Louis Vuitton to Inditex’s high street behemoth, Zara. In every case, the defence has been that ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’.
Image: Indigenous women in traditional dress
Mexico initially responded by amending its copyright law to acknowledge native communities as the owners of intellectual property rights connected to collective works derived from popular culture— or expressions that include traditional elements of Indigenous communities —and granted those communities the right to oppose alterations and unauthorised use of these inheritances. Then, on 18 January this year, the Federal Law for the Protection of the Cultural Heritage of Indigenous and Afro-Mexican Peoples and Communities came into force.
The law enshrines the people’s collective right to intellectual property, calls for the creation of a National Registry of Cultural Heritage, grants Indigenous and Afro-Mexican communities the authority to issue temporary licenses in return for payment, and allows the government to penalise acts of cultural plagiarism with fines of as much as 4 million pesos (approximately $200,000) or even 20 years in prison.
Image: Practising Indigenous crafting in Mexico
Impacto, a civil organisation committed to the sustainable development of Indigenous peoples, has been following the inception and impact of the new law. There has been particular concern that Indigenous communities have not been involved in crafting the legislation, and that the benefits afforded from these new protections might in practice only be accrued by articulate, established artisanal groups: “We want this benefit to be extended to all communities; for a woman who works in the mountains of Chiapas, or in the mountains of Oaxaca, to have access to this information and make use of it,” says Andrea Bonifaz, Impacto’s Project Coordinator.
The question of who constitutes Indigenous and Afro-Mexican communities is a pertinent one. According to Chantal Flores, “Mexico’s identity was built in part through the erasure of Indigenous languages and the appropriation of Indigenous culture, but Indigenous and Afro-Mexican peoples and communities remain systemically oppressed and excluded. It was only…in 2019, that the term ‘Afro-Mexican’ was added to the constitution…There are nearly 17 million Indigenous people in Mexico, representing around 15 percent of the total population, and over 2.5 million Afro-Mexicans. At least 68 Indigenous languages, and over 350 variations of them, are spoken. That makes the context surrounding Indigenous communities in Mexico complex, to put it lightly. And at times, it has been the Mexican state that profited from the Indigenous and Afro-Mexican aesthetic repertoire…”
Image: Indigenous women are often poorly reimbursed for their skills.
Indeed, one widespread criticism of the new law is the lack of clarity on what constitutes a community. Whilst the law stipulates that a case cannot be instigated by an individual, it does not state how many people must come together to initiate proceedings. There is a similar lack of clarity around how any compensation for cultural theft will be redistributed to these communities by the Attorney General’s office.
Finally, and perhaps most challenging, is the issue of ‘cultural heritage’ itself. Such cultural expressions are passed from generation to generation, and often subtly re-created and revised with each iteration. Establishing the origin of any particular form is difficult, and there is potential for the law to generate social conflict if several communities claim the same cultural heritage. There is the added issue that much Indigenous iconography is so old it has fallen into the public domain, where it can be used without consent.
Image: Indigenous embroidery features motifs and patterns that are passed through generations.
By the same token, it is obvious that Mexico’s Indigenous artisans have spent centuries perfecting their crafts, and passing these skills from generation to generation, only to now receive paltry financial rewards on the open market. As Flores points out, ‘A small blouse can take between 30 to 40 hours to make and might sell for as low as 200 pesos (less than $10 USD). For many Indigenous women, their textiles are the main source of income.’
If something is not done, the cultural inheritances of these communities will soon face extinction. So, whilst it is not without flaws, Mexico’s sincere and bold new legislation does attempt to offer a framework for protection, and the Mexican authorities seem to be pushing hard to make it work. For example, Amy Guthrie reports that ‘the Mexican Institute of Industrial Property and the Mexican Copyright Office have recently implemented courses to inform artisans and native communities about their intellectual property rights and how to protect them. Both authorities also offer discounted rates to help those communities register their works.’
Indeed, SELVEDGE are again working with culturaoriginalmexico on the programme for an event in Mexico City, hosted by the Minister of Culture, which will bring together artisans from across Mexico to train them on cultural appropriation. The event will take place from 17-20 November. In the meantime, Impacto’s Andrea Bonifaz is supporting the Cultural Intellectual Property Rights Initiative (CIPRI) to consult with Indigenous artisans. Currently meeting with over 100 artisans in Chiapas, the CIPRI is building a framework for fair and equitable collaborations between creative industries and Indigenous artisans, based on their ‘Three C’s’: consent, credit, compensation.
Many beyond these communities, beyond the borders of Mexico, and even beyond the world of fashion and textile, will be keeping a close eye on this brave and ground-breaking battle between mediocrity and greatness.
*The capitalisation of Indigenous in this article follows the work of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi and others.