We often get emails or messages asking us about the history of the prints we use: if they’re a tribal print or ethnic print, what the meaning is behind them, and the context of their cultural significance. As a brand that works with a curative philosophy inspired by tradition, we source heritage prints and styles while reinterpreting them in a modern manner. Most of which are motifs that have long existed before us, and only came upon our path when we went through the archives of our traditional textile artisan partners – so we thought we’d open up the conversation to our community here and elaborate a little more on why we should stop using the terms ethnic print and tribal print. With that said, welcome to your regularly scheduled vocabulary lesson, this month’s edition: why we should stop using the terms tribal print and ethnic print.
The problem with calling any motif a tribal print or ethnic print:
We believe in products with story and soul, and it is with this philosophy that we uncover heritage prints from the archives of our artisan communities with simple yet compelling stories. All prints hail from an existing heritage motif tied to a place and time, with a cultural story and provenance of its own.
Take the Trikora motif, its up-facing three-sided shape usually symbolises stability with the elements of earth and water and it was traditionally used as a border design for Rajasthani houses, as a sign of protection and defense of loved ones. The unique Mobi print, memorable in its clean lines and an organic pattern, refers to the growth and harvest of the cotton bol. This motif has its origins in the Meghwal community from Northwest India, a peace-loving tribe traditionally engaged in the handloom weaving of cotton and the Mobi print resembles a ripe cotton bol bursting open, and is always represented with three petals.
When we group prints under a category of tribal print or ethnic print we are confirming and continuing a narrative of generalization. Prints have their own cultural significance, but when we approach it with a limited perspective, our default understanding makes it difficult to appreciate that individuality. Having a single frame of reference perpetuates this pigeonhole belief that all prints are tribal or ethnic print. The problem, is not just that it is untrue, but that it is also incomplete. Repetition begets belief. When we talk about prints as a tribal print or ethnic print over and over again, the narrative will shift to a generalized reality.
In an industry that capitalizes on taking the most commodified aspects of a culture and appropriating them for profit, we should take extra intention to be more aware of the way we talk about prints. The fashion industry, more often than not, has bastardized the significance and meaning of traditional prints. A common occurrence being taking sacred objects or traditional Native American symbols and transforming them into commodities completely removed of its cultural context.
This minimizes the significance of the print; reducing them from a mark of tradition with its own history to a consumer product. Prints were used as a medium to record history, and as periapts to ward evil and welcome luck. The Mystic Mountain motif, for example, it draws inspiration from the mystic geometric patterns of the worshipping seats used in Kumaon that mark the different stages of life – from birth to eternity. This unique linear art represents the traditional folk art of Kumauni people in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand, India.
As brands, cultural prints deserve responsibility on our part to research how to uphold its integrity. As customers, taking the time to understand the history of a print is a big part of cultural appreciation, and staying clear of cultural appropriation. When we call prints tribal print or ethnic print, we remove the important consideration of their contextual significance, and reduce it to a commodity whose purpose is for our consumption and aesthetic pleasure.
Let’s talk about the word ‘ethnic’, it’s a throwaway word that’s been used to describe anything from clothing to food, not to mention, even people. The word ‘ethnic’ puts the noun (whether it be clothing, food, or people) into a box with no sense of specificity in its diversity. Perhaps it’s something to give pause to and consider. Why are we quick to call some things ‘ethnic’ more so than others? The uncomfortable truth is that people often expect to pay a lot less for ‘ethnic’ or ‘tribal’ commodities. We need to have a larger conversation about the racist connotations associated with those words today and what is really inferred when these terms are used.
The irony is that prints of this calibre are often made with traditional techniques passed down from a time when fast fashion didn’t exist, so as to say they are made to last a lifetime. Ikat, for example, is a type of tie and resist-dye technique. The process takes 65 days from graph marking to the finished textile, weaving alone takes 57 days. When we know the care that goes into a product that takes 65 days to make, passing through more than 10 steps and 5 people in its journey, we understand the love that has gone into it and the value chain of creation.
For all the heterogeneity of cultural prints that exist, we should take the effort to recognizing their heritage and significance. It’s 2019, perhaps it’s time we move on and remove from the terms tribal prints and ethnic prints from our lexicon. For good.