Is it OK to copy other cultures work?

When if ever is it OK to work in the style of another culture? Can this work honour the native culture or is it always going to be demeaning and is there a danger of craft homogeneity with all woodworkers from around the globe taking what they like from Native American, Maori, Scandinavian or West African wood culture? If I as a woodworker inspired by these old woodworking cultures appropriate elements into my own 21st century work is that a good thing or bad? This is something I have given a lot of thought to over the years. I love vernacular craft. Craft that is embodied in a place and culture, that uses local raw materials to serve local needs. I was asked many years ago to join a program introducing green woodworking into rural Honduras. They wanted me to teach my foot powered bowlturning which on the face of it fitted with my ideals of intermediate technology and sustainable development. It was well funded  and the scheme they had up and running already was green wood chairmaking, my problem with it was that they were making chairs using pole lathes and European technology. Actually they were introducing a technology which Europe cast off 80 years ago. What message does that give to the indigenous people? My position was that I would love to go, but my conditions were I would not go to teach bowlturning I would go and research local indigenous crafts and see if there was any way we could help develop something from the local vernacular that could be marketed in the west. That to me would honour the culture. I didn’t get the job. Native appropriation is a big issue, take a long hard look at this photo below and feel the emotions on either side.



How about this image?


I found both these images on a facebook page called Native Appropriations and there is a long and detailed discussion of the issues behind the image above from a Cherokee perspective here Basically they don’t like it when white folk appropriate bits of their cultural heritage.

So where does that leave us in the craft world? Should rich white folk not buy Native craft? That would be very bad news for native craftspeople. Should we never carve things that are not part of our own cultural heritage? What about if a tradition like spoon carving died out in England but continued in Scandinavia is it OK to reintroduce it in the way say red kites and ospreys were reintroduced? Having reintroduced the skills should we then continue carving Swedish designs or should we delve into our own museums to rediscover our own history? Am I any closer to a medieval English person than a 21st century Swede? Neither is truly my culture.

So let’s have a look at a few things I love. Scandinavian carved bowls particularly these ale geese. One day I will carve some for myself and I do carve kuksas but I don’t make them for sale. I feel they are not part of my tradition.

50e294814dbcc97ea0751462a03ebf72I also have huge respect for Native American carvers of the North West Coast bur again whilst I carve a few pieces for myself to help me understand this work better I would not be offering this work for sale.

haida PR


Few folk have done more to spread the knowledge of NWC art than Greg Bloomberg of Kestrel Tools. We have corresponded over the years and several years ago I asked him for his take on Europeans carving NWC style bowls. This was his response.

“NWC art is a world class art and like other world class stuff like Beethoven, the blues, the art of Egypt, we can be drawn to these things, almost compelled to do them. To copy old work, respectfully is to take an apprenticeship with an old master. It’s the way we learn. Even the natives learn in this way. There is so much magic in the old work that it is often spirit that draws us in, that we really want to get close to. The really great artists here produce new work of form and spirit that approach and occasionally surpass the old work.”

I want to share two examples of folk that I admire. Both have learned to turn bowls on a pole lathe and in the early days made bowls in the same sort of style that I do. Both have then taken it on and worked on their own traditions to very satisfying effect.

My friend in Japan Tomio Imaru started turning in 2008 most of his bowls were European style. I was really excited three years later when he sent me a most gorgeous little bowl which blended pole lathe bowl turning with Japanese form and urushi laquer. I adore this bowl, it seems to me to be a perfect example of drawing inspiration from one culture but then making it entirely your own.


Another great example is my good friend Jarrod Stone-Dahl. Jarrod is in the US but of Scandinavian decent and living in an area rich in Norwegian heritage. Having started to turn bowls he went to the museums, studied old ale bowls and is now making some real beauties. bowls a 023


I am not sure what the answer is here, it certainly is not easy. I think it is just important to be aware when we dabble with other folks cultures, to ask whether what we are doing is respectful, whether we credit our sources and hopefully develop something that is entirely new and part of our own culture going forwards, lets not end up as the craft equivalent of the guy in the top photo.


20 Responses to Is it OK to copy other cultures work?

  1. Nick West April 5, 2014 at 1:35 pm #

    This is a wonderful discussion. I have wrestled with this very idea since I understood the situation. I have always been compelled to draw, sculpt and generally create objects that are from the North American native cultures. I found the images breathtaking and I seemed to understand the visual forms and connections of the images and the myths ( I later learned they are called teachings). But, I began to struggle with the idea that I was somehow stealing the culture that my European ancestors attempted to distroy and assimilate, one more insult added to injury. Some years ago I met the most powerful and wise man, he was from one of our local reservations. He helped me understand a few things one being that the images and items are out in the universe and they are to be shared, in a reverent way with everyone. That is the most important differences between expression and exploitation. I am certain that when you explore those images you are not trying to exploit the power and popularity of the native people. Oh, it turns out that I have ancestors from Anishnabe and Cayuga in my distant past. Perhaps that is why I was drawn to those images. I have much more to this recountance but I take too much of your time.

  2. David Fisher April 5, 2014 at 1:42 pm #

    Very thought-provoking post, Robin. You have expressed the issue very well, I think. I wonder if it is a little restrictive for a craftsman/artist (no need to go down that road here) to think he is limited to work that is part of his individual ethnic ancestry or local culture. Certainly here in the U.S., and elsewhere as well, most individuals have diverse cultural and geographical ties. You also put it well when you questioned your own connection to a Medieval Englishman.

    Having said that, I would think that if one is going to focus on making reproductions of cultural or period crafts, then he certainly owes it to the people of that tradition (whether or not it is his own) to respectfully and truthfully immerse himself in that field and “get it right.” However, most makers today would make no claim to that specificity. Rather, they are, somewhat like your friend Tomio Imaru, inspired by a tradition or a blend of traditions. They then use that inspiration to make something their own, while maintaining a perspective of gratitude and humility.

    I admire how you demonstrated that perspective in your approach to the project in Honduras. I remember reading about the project years ago. The article, if I remember correctly, discussed the use of an adapted bicycle-sprocket lathe to turn bowls in the rainforest, but they were having trouble maintaining that technology. I recall wondering if it didn’t make more sense to use even simpler and more traditional local technology — an adze, and have them carve bowls using their knowledge of local trees. Getting the products to an effective market may be the bigger barrier.

    Dave Fisher

  3. Ingo Dyrkton April 5, 2014 at 3:51 pm #

    Was the pole lathe first developed in England ,there is evidence that the Egyptians used pole laths over 2000 years ago? I don’t see any Egyptian influence on your bowls. I personally don,t have a problem that the Hondurans learn to use the pole lathe method. I would if there was an untouched native culture and we came and forced them to change to our culture. They use chairs ,better they make it themselves then get it from china, it would be better if they were carving with there own style and techniques but then they would be catering to tourists mostly.
    I live on the west coast of BC, where there is a Salish culture,I carve bowls spoons and masks,I have no desire to copy their carvings and sell them,but I am influenced by their culture,the environment,and some of the tools that I use,like kestrel knives and adzes.
    I have a Norwegian background and am influenced by my heritage and I a lot of my tools are Appalachian style. I use all these tools and techniques to develop my own style of carving and techniques of bowls and spoons etc.My main concern is to keep alive my technique of carving that learned over the years or it might be lost and so the culture that developed it as well. I have taught carving spoons over the years and I would be happy to teach an aboriginal my method and I would encourage them to learn their culture with the skills that I taught them.

    • Robin Wood April 6, 2014 at 11:05 am #

      Nobody knows where pole lathe was developed but it was not Egypt, they used a primitive strap lathe, the same was used across Europe from around 2000BC. Pole lathe in my opinion was most likely introduced in Viking and Anglo Saxon cultures around 500AD. There is considerable discussion on this topic with all the available evidence in my 2005 book “The Wooden Bowl”

  4. Eugene April 5, 2014 at 7:31 pm #

    I can see absolutely nothing wrong with borrowing from other cultures whatever the art form.
    The important thing is not to ride roughshod over it or, even worse, to attempt to eradicate it – like the Americans with the American Indian or British colonialists with “annexing” all but 22 of the world’s countries. Religion, specifically Christianity, must accept a greater part of the blame in its contempt for other faiths and its arrogance and sheer violence in attempting to wipe out diverse, ancient and irreplacable cultures. (Now we must’nt use the cross because it insults the religious. Hypocricy unbounded!)

    Good design is good design – colours, shapes, textures, beauty……… The Greeks borrowed from the Phoenicians, the Romans from the Greeks…. Adaptation has a long history – and may it long continue!

  5. peter April 5, 2014 at 7:44 pm #

    Thank you for raising this issue.
    a factor that is i think behind what you have said and which Nick explicitly raised in his comment is the history of the respective cultures. for an englishman to tap swedish tradition is, i suggest, radically different from a white american, canadian, south african, or australian tapping the local traditions of those lands. it is not that the issues are of a different order but that there is a complexity and potential for offence in one that is unlikely in the other. the history of empire, exploitation and derogatory stereotyping means that any individuals engaging in a cultural exchange in such a situation facing a challenge that is bigger than themselves and their personal ethics and practice.

  6. Esben April 6, 2014 at 10:54 am #

    To be blunt it’s ok to copy cultures who’s forefathers where not oppresses by your forefathers.

    At that appears to be the current logic of US Political correctness.

  7. michael bennett April 6, 2014 at 12:32 pm #

    It’s a very interesting discussion. I feel that without some measure of cultural appropriation then the arts, crafts and music would stagnate within their respective countries.
    Imagine if the British hadn’t embraced African American Blues and Rock… what if the guitar had remained a folk instrument in Spain and no guitar music had been produced elsewhere?

    Of course the photos above show how bad things can get when people are insensitive to other cultures but I really think that we must be free with ideas and make the things we like making.
    Here is a very interesting and slightly confusing example of cultural appropriation but also clearly a source of pride for the people who practice it-

    • Robin Wood April 6, 2014 at 1:40 pm #

      great comment and link Mike

  8. Mike Siemsen April 6, 2014 at 6:11 pm #

    I lifted this from here:

    “The Borg never create, they only assimilate. When a vessel or planet has caught the Borg’s attention, they would sweep it with their sensors and then transport drones over to investigate the technology up close. If they deemed the vessel and its occupants worthy of assimilation, they would announce “We are the Borg. You will be assimilated. Your biological and technological distinctiveness will be added to our own. Resistance is futile.” They would then acquire the vessel by force and transform the occupants into drones, turning their bodies and minds entirely over to the Collective and its purposes.”

    Resistance is futile.


    “That great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil.” W. H. Davenport Adams 1892

    “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal” T. S. Eliot

    “A good composer does not imitate; he steals.” attributed to Igor Stravinski

    “immature artists copy, great artists steal.” atributed to William Faulkner

    “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” attributed to Pablo Picasso by Steve Jobs

    “The bad atrists imitate, the great artisits steal” atributed to Pablo Picasso by Banksy who “stole” it.

    The topic of the Native American headress is a bad one because the issue is so loaded with genocide and repression. It is really wrong to lump all of the Native Americans together into a “culture” each tribe was a seperate culture. The Cherokee woman who wrote the letter is not a plains indian. Her culture had nothing to do with that headdress. The Native Americans have banded together for survival of their seperate and disparate cultures.
    Images, iconograpy, language, ideas, technology all will spread. Moveable type made books less expensive, lithograpy even more so, recorded sound, photograpy, moving pictures, radio, television, the internet. The spread continues to speed up. All we can do is ride the wave. I always find it interesting to look at the artists and craftsmen that I admire and see who influenced them, and who that persons’s influence was. New cultures build on top of old, they are our foundation, we can see from where we stand because we stand on the shoulders of giants.

    This was written about 3000 years ago.

    A generation goes, and a generation comes,
    but the earth remains forever.

    The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
    and hastens to the place where it rises.

    The wind blows to the south
    and goes around to the north;
    around and around goes the wind,
    and on its circuits the wind returns.

    All streams run to the sea,
    but the sea is not full;
    to the place where the streams flow,
    there they flow again.

    All things are full of weariness;
    a man cannot utter it;
    the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
    nor the ear filled with hearing.

    What has been is what will be,
    and what has been done is what will be done,
    and there is nothing new under the sun.

    Is there a thing of which it is said,
    “See, this is new”?
    It has been already
    in the ages before us.

    There is no remembrance of former things,
    nor will there be any remembrance
    of later things yet to be among those who come after.


  9. Henrik April 7, 2014 at 9:27 am #

    Dear Robin,
    Good post – and thought-provoking! I been thinking this over.

    I don’t think the problem with the pictures here should really concern a craftsman. The problem is when we use traditional symbols of won status or honor. If the people above had gathered the feathers from Eagles nests on high-perched cliffs then they would in essence have received the “right” to wear this head-dress. But they just bought it. And that is the same flattening of the world which you will find with a lot of things in the postmodern cultural landscape; maori tribal tattooos, samurai hair styles, fashion-kabbalah etc. etc. We use our financial capital to “own” something which we are not. But for the craftsman things are different – a craftsperson is more or less skilled and capable of creating beautiful objects – and a true reverence of and respect for the tradition and medium (be it wood, drawing etc.) will shine through anyway, even when blending traditions.

    Here in Denmark we have the world-famous Viking Ship Museum, and they do a wonderful job of recreating the longships with period-correct tools. But of course they use these tools – it’s a museum and their job is to portray the ship-building as accurately as possible. But Danes don’t go around in general and behave like vikings – and probably a good thing too for a number of reasons, though the most important is that they are as far removed from the people inhabiting this country a thousand years ago that they are from modern Japanese. So if someone feels a deep, artistic connection with a viking ship and builds a modern equivalent then is that not a good thing – even though he may live in Fiji? He doesn’t claim to be a viking – but he has kept a remembrace of the past and I can’t see why that isn’t infinitely better than people showing up at football matches here in Denmark with plastic viking helmets with weird horns on their heads. Though that isn’t offensive in the way of the feather head-dress, it sure is weird.

    Another example, Jay Van Arsdale: I cringe whenever I hear him pronounce Japanese tool terms with his Amerian accent, and I’m not even Japanese, But I respect that he is a superior craftsman and that he has probably done more than most to introduce an exciting but little-known style of work to a larger audience and has therefore done much to ensure the survivability of that tradition (just think of the work commisioned to Japanese blacksmiths by westerners) instead of it being forgotten, buried among plasterboard and blended wood products. So I think that is good, and whatever language skills he has is really irrelevant.
    Wille Sundqvist is neither a viking nor of Sami origin (what I know of), but his work draws extensively on these traditions. And I think his work is good and his teaching has brought much good to the world of woodworking.

    I really understand your dilemma on this issue, but to begin deciding who is enough within a given culture, based on blood-line or point of birth, to do a given work tends to get ugly really fast (it is a huge and ugly discussion within the Humanities).
    So maybe its better to do as jazz musicians do: To listen, learn and absorb – to transform this knowledge into something beautiful and unique and perhaps leave it to the museums to do “correct” work (unless that is what you want, but then label it as such) and otherwise leave it to the academians of posterity to trace your influences.

    Hope this makes sense, You bring soul and craftmanship into woodworking and that is a huge gift to the (modern) world. Don’t bother with the shadow boxing, it has ruined academic and art careers trying to find a subject/style/tradition one was sufficiently entitled to claim part in or the mysterious “knowing about”. The answer is 42. Best regards from Copenhagen.

  10. Adam Peterson April 7, 2014 at 12:09 pm #

    Fantastic article! A lot of fine responses as well. As a timber framer and spoon carver in Ohio I am always borrowing from other cultures crafts. English joinery, American square rule layout. Should a hammer beam only be layed out with the scribe method? Is my Scandinavian heritage justification for the style of spoons I carve? I dont know. This is a very grey issue. However, I will say that this has been happening for a very very long time. As you put it a pole lathe probably came from Scandinavia long ago. So where do we draw the line?
    Culture like our blood lines have been shared, transported and watered down as long as they have existed. This kind of reminds me of genealogy. Is the Scotch-Irishman Scottish or Irish or the Dane is he well Danish or Gothic? Genealogy is the study of the migration of man, so it becomes very hard to state being of a specific group when that group hasnt always been there. You almost have to pick a date.
    If Marco Polo brought pull saws back from Japan, does that make said saw an Itailian tool, by today’s standards?

  11. Adam Peterson April 7, 2014 at 12:22 pm #

    Well, Marco Polo never went to Japan, so it would have been hard for him to acquire a pull saw. The Chinese saw which he may have seen would have been rather similar to those used in Europe.
    Its always humbling to have your ignorance’s open for observation.

  12. Richard Blake April 7, 2014 at 4:31 pm #

    An interesting and controversial topic. Let me tell you where I stand as a musician. I am one of the last East Anglian dulcimer players, I find that If I don’t do it no one else will, although I would be delighted if someone else would,whatever their background.
    Francis Bebey wrote that in order to achieve a ‘marriage of cultures’ one must first understand one’s own. As I see it, that doesn’t make such a marriage impossible.

  13. graemeu April 8, 2014 at 4:11 am #

    As usual Robin, you have provoked some serious thought. On a general level cultures evolve in part due to internal changes but increasingly in response to rubbing up against other cultures. The Wharenui or meeting house “Rongopai” built in1887 demonstrates this in a positive way:
    “Ironically, the best known of the Te Kooti houses is painted rather than carved. Rongopai at Waituhi was built to welcome Te Kooti but he never saw it because settler and Māori alike objected to him returning to the scene of his worst atrocities two decades earlier. The big (25.9 by 10.6 m) building of tōtara and pukatea pillars went up in just three months. It marked a sharp departure from tradition. ‘Old conservatives met youth, traditional practices met innovation, and the communal impulse met individualistic impulse, all in creative tension’, Lloyd Gretton wrote, observing that ‘the artists were expressing through their work their image of their own world in flux’.
    Indeed, it is said that elders were so worried by the young artists’ exuberance and innovation that Rongopai, although used for Ringatū services, was placed under partial tapu for almost 80 years.”
    or get a hold of Witi Ihimaera’s novel ‘The Matriarch’ for a locals version of the house and its relevance. Other modern houses are partially carved with a traditional side and a contemporary side portraying modern events in the history of the people for example At Omaka the Wharenui is pictorial on one side and traditional on the other.

    Cultural exchange needs to be both ways, I’m with John Lennon, a globalised society can’t come soon enough and the misunderstandings represented in your first two photographs would be less likely to happen
    In your first photo I can see the problem, the guy is a parody as is the head-dress. The rest of his clothing also says he’s not taking it seriously. The second photo strikes me as being artistic first and then falls into the pit of cultural misunderstanding but then I am not convinced it is an authentic head-dress either (looks like red dyed malibu feathers). It doesn’t help that there appears to have been a publicity element to it as well.
    Then finally what is Indian art/craft; Maori art/craft, English art/craft? Is it the style, is it the material or is it the ethnicity of the creator that makes it fall into a category. Ralph Hotere was an acclaimed Maori artist but a lot of his work has no obvious ethnicity. Owen Mapp (not Maori) carves bone and stone, drawing on many influences including Scandinavian and Maori

    . In case you missed it your William and Kate got a full Maori Welcome, Powhiri, at Wellington yesterday (sorry about the long advert in front) and while there is an element of “Hire a Maori” at such times, there are other elements of borrowed culture on display such as the Mayoral Chain.

  14. John Wolf April 11, 2014 at 1:54 am #

    I guess I never considered copying an item I find beautiful or useful to be dis respectful, but then I never use religious motives and don’t have the skill level to do an exact copy or a parody of an item. Being born mid 20th century, I arrived in an era when what might have been my own tradition to work within was barely a memory, so I have borrowed heavily from others to provide myself with one.

    Thanks for introducing me to William Lennon and co., the boots are great.

  15. jamie April 16, 2014 at 8:20 pm #

    Ask yourself before you make a thing – what is it I intend to do? If you are even asking this question then chances are that the thing you make will be a good one (or at least a good attempt!). By good I mean having some merit and grace. As in all things intention is everything. Be creative with good intention and honesty and the rest will follow. Be inspired by the work of others and keep going. Don’t worry about others copying you. Be flattered, use it to be even more creative. Any idiot can walk around in a ersatz chief costume. It takes something extra to make a thing of beauty.

  16. Bob May 11, 2014 at 4:47 pm #

    A point was recently made to my wife and I, one of those, hmm you are right moments. Respect for ones culture comes from not make gift shop toys and trinkets out of your heritage. There was no disrespect done on the part of the governors daughters part, the problem was those who work to try and discredit political party figures through promotion of racism. We all need to grow up and start seeing things for what they are and not what some I need tells us they are.

  17. Gerald Boggs May 19, 2014 at 12:33 pm #

    I first came across this idea when reading about Pacific Northwest Indian warfare. That led to “Northwest coast Art” in Wikipedia and this statement: “Today in British Columbia it is debated that only First Nations artists of the appropriate nation have the moral right to produce art of given types and using given motifs” It took me three seconds to think about that and reject it. The idea that the descendents of a culture have exclusive rights forever to the style of design of said culture, is quite frankly absurd and in my view a form of the very racism that the “cultural appropriation” movement claim is happening when a non-appropriate person uses said design. I view the claim of cultural appropriation when applied to art as nothing more then protectionism.

    To read a bit more on how tricky this has gotten, here’s an article on the subject within the realm of Pacific Northwest coastal art.,d.cWc&cad=rja

    I exspecally like this bit: Complicating the issue further is the question of the more specific ethnic identity of the artist. While the stretched beaver pelt tag claims to guarantee that the object was made by a Canadian Indian, it does not always certify whether, for example, a Haida hat was made by Haida weaver or whether it was made by a native person from another tribal group. That the authenticity of a Kwagiutl mask by Crée carver Gene Brabant or Cherokee carver Lelooska is questioned by some experts, artists and collectors illustrates an additional concern as to whether the Indian person who created the piece was the “right” kind of Indian. It is ironic in this regard that the work of a white woman who has achieved Indian status through marriage may be considered more authentic than the work of a native artist working in another tribal style.

  18. nate March 14, 2015 at 1:52 pm #

    The main trouble for me with blogs is that they often times seem reactionary and not well thought out. And by well thought out I mean in the way that Wendell Berry is writing, the consequence being that he might be seen as an effective critic of the society in which he lives by writing, and then editing, his work. The trouble with reactionary writing is that it tends to introduce more than one topic and quickly looses focus due to the very nature of that type of writing, I have seen this happen in Jarrod’s blogs as well. So my challenge to you would be to re examine this particular post/blog to better explain what seems to me to be a very unclear and muddy topic: is the question “Is it OK to copy other cultures work?” or is the question “Is it OK to introduce one type of cultural work to another culture?”
    I know the people involved in the green woodworking project in Honduras. It is a completely valid process and has been very helpful to people who did not have a skill set prior to the emergence of the project. No where in that process have I found anyone to be guilty of what we might find in the kernel of this quote by Edward Abbey: “The missionaries go forth to modernize the savages. As if they weren’t savage enough already.” The greenwood project is about care and love of craft and sharing.
    The example of the photo you provide at the top of this blog is what we call hyperbole, the most exaggerated form of rhetoric. On the right we see the redneck buffoon who is but a parody of both himself and the Native American. On the left we see the “real” Native American, who must represent tradition, “pure” work, and authenticity in a way the man on the right parodies because he has adopted those things he likes in a cheap way devoid of any real tradition which leads to lack of knowledge and understanding. It would be like me taking an English or Nordic bowl pattern design I liked and aspired to make and then turning it out of plastic. Which, incidentally (since I am somewhat of a conceptual artist) is something I am interested in doing: chucking up plastic tupperware bowls on the spring pole lathe and turning them. But that is another topic for another time and place.
    So my question is: what, precisely is the topic we are discussing?