Stealing the Stolen

Cultural appropriation is theft, as it’s said in the anti-racist discourse. Hunters of the new and imprudent multi-culti fans are plundering marginalized cultures in a neo-colonialist fashion to enrich their own lifestyles or works. From Rasta dreads on white heads to twerking imports in pop videos or the absorption of indigenous traditions. Deplored and ostracized, it is typically a Western hegemonic pop culture that degrades cultural resources from the Global South into commodity fetishes, worries little about notions of belonging, and doesn’t pay due respect to cultures or authors – let alone pay a reasonable price for it.

This critique of cultural appropriation makes intuitive sense. Nevertheless, it’s also been said: not appropriation but ownership is theft. Accordingly, in the context of historical appropriation art in the museum as well as contemporary pop culture, appropriation stands for a practice that strikes back at vested interests deemed inadequate or antiquated, one that celebrates sampling, remixing, versioning, copyright piracy, collective authorship, copy and paste processes, and meme cultures and has lastingly unsettled the divide between the foreign and one’s own.

The festival title Stealing the Stolen reiterates the fact that there is no essence of culture – and thus no evolution without (re)appropriation processes of what does not belong, what is lost, or what was simply not available before. Everything remains different, always has. But the question is: What frames of reference can be posited against appropriations that are undoubtedly exploitative or rightly judged as illegitimate? Which counter appropriations can have an emancipatory, or perhaps compensatory effect – and for whom?

donaufestival 2022 puts its trust in the power of counter appropriations – against hegemonic forms and for new connections. The Tunisian musician AMMAR 808 links South Indian vibes with the beats of a Roland TR 808 drum machine. Fehler Kuti doesn’t want to be just Fela Kuti but rather sings in Denglish of “The Price of Teilhabe”; Soap&Skin slips into sheep’s clothing and reinterprets the work of others. In the world premiere of Fire Walk with Me, Ariel Efraim Ashbel seizes the memory of David Lynch, while Ula Sickle speaks of the march of sadness into rap. In his installation at Kunsthalle Krems, artist and musician Julian Warner explores the appropriations of war metaphors in times of pandemic and the war in the Ukraine.

Whose music is playing there? It Is Not My Music is the name of a 1978 film about the hyper-absorbent jazz musician Don Cherry. Like Cherry, counter appropriations do not confide in ostracism, but in inspiration. They might reside in a liberating practice “from below and elsewhere”, which transcends the notions of ownership and theft.

Let’s call them Stealing the Stolen for the time being. And hope they take nothing from us, but enrich us all.

Thomas Edlinger
donaufestival artistic director

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