Cultural immersion or imitation?

Andrew Potter says many cultures' supposedly pure recreations of their past are often diluted into mere museum pieces. Photo / Supplied
Andrew Potter says many cultures' supposedly pure recreations of their past are often diluted into mere museum pieces. Photo / Supplied

What do Maori haka, Fijian firewalking and yoga have in common? According to a book by Canadian writer Andrew Potter (The Authenticity Hoax, Scribe, $40) they are all part of an authenticity hoax. People try to avoid the fake and the prepackaged by demanding authenticity, yet these activities exacerbate the artificiality people seek to escape. This extract looks at how the authenticity hoax operates in the world of tourism.

On the western edge of downtown Mexico City sits Chapultepec Park, a 988-acre oasis of trees, playing fields, and gardens that is one of the world's outstanding urban playgrounds. And one of the great attractions in Chapultepec itself is the Museo Nacional de Antropologa, a museum that contains a seemingly endless succession of exhibition halls, each dedicated to a separate period or culture in Mesoamerican history.

Just off the plaza that dominates the entrance to the museum is a dirt-covered clearing ringed with benches. At the centre is a 65-foot-high metal pole with a platform on top. This clearing is where tourists gather to see the dance of the Voladores, an ancient pagan rite performed by Totonac Indians from the Papantla region of Mexico.

For the performance, five men dressed in brightly coloured traditional costumes climb to the top of the pole. Four of them tie to their ankles thick ropes that have been wound around the top of the pole, then fling themselves off headfirst and backwards, like scuba divers. As the ropes unwind, the four Voladores spiral to the ground in slowly expanding circles, while the leader of the group, plays a drum, a flute, and prays to the fertility gods. While all of this is going on, a handful of assistants - clad in the same traditional get-up - canvass the crowd for donations.

No one knows for sure the origins or full significance of the ritual. This is partly because the Spaniards made a point of destroying all of the indigenous documentation, but also because these same Spaniards were quite sure it was not a religious ceremony but some sort of sport.

The upshot, anyway, is that the dance of the Voladores is a living artifact, a museum piece as frozen and uncertain as the masks and figurines and objects that fill the Museo Nacional de Antropologa itself.

This is far from an isolated phenomenon. Just about every place worth visiting makes a point of promoting a preserved form of its supposedly pure and undiluted cultural past to tourists. Often it involves aboriginal groups: singing and drumming by the Cowichan people on Vancouver Island, for instance, or Maori dancing in body paint and traditional clothes in New Zealand.

But you can also go to resorts in the Caribbean where they all dance around with fruit on their head even though you know darn well that no one carries fruit on their head in the city. Or you can visit the Jewish quarter in Krakow to drink kosher vodka and listen to Klezmer music played by university students from Toronto.

The accusation against this sort of cultural preservationism is that it comes at the cost of turning a living tradition into a museum piece. As a Pacific Island dancer replied when asked about his culture: "Culture? That's what we do for tourists."

The idea that cultural authenticity is something fit only for tourists is the logical consequence of the idea that a traditional society is meant to be closed, particular, and internally homogeneous. What has been lost is the way any living culture has to be open to and engaged with the world.

Philosopher Dennis Dutton illustrates this with a nice thought experiment. What would happen if one day La Scala were to lose its natural, indigenous audience? Italians and other Europeans stop going, local newspapers stop reviewing new performances.

Instead, it becomes a destination almost exclusively for tourists, for whom the La Scala opera is maybe the first and even last opera they will ever attend. It is for them the cultural equivalent of kissing the Blarney Stone or visiting the Grand Canyon.

As Dutton points out, the opera still has an audience, but it has lost its connection to an evolving culture. Indeed, the nominal culture of origin might eventually forget where the artform came from in the first place, and lose track of what the signs and symbolic elements of the form mean.

This is pretty much what has happened to the Voladores of Papantla. And not only to the Voladores, but to the countless rituals, ceremonies, traditions, and even entire cultures that have been preserved for display, in all their authentic glory.

But at what price authenticity? These have been preserved only in the most literal sense: the crowds come to gawk and gape, but like the thousands each day who shuffle past Mao's embalmed corpse in his mausoleum in Tiananmen Square, it's context-free amusement.

The closer you look at it, the more the idea of authentic culture seems to drift away into incoherence. Kwame Anthony Appiah, a Ghanian scholar who teaches at Princeton, says examining a culture is like peeling an onion, where you discover layer upon layer of influences, borrowings, re-imaginings, and wholesale imports from other places.

He points out that in West Africa, traditional Herero dress for women comes from 19th-century Lutheran missionaries. In Canada, it is customary for political leaders to give as gifts to visiting dignitaries Inuit soapstone carvings, but few Canadians realise carving was introduced to the Inuit by a white carver in 1948.

Every aspect of almost every culture, from musing to music, from dining to dance and everything else you can think of, has been shaped by trade in goods, ideas, technologies, and - more than anything else - by the simple fact of people moving around the planet and interacting.

One of my favorite examples is the steel drum ensembles of Trinidad, whose main instruments are the 50-gallon oil barrels left behind on the island by US forces after World War II. These drums almost completely replaced the indigenous drum technology, which used bamboo. But does anyone think Trinidadian steel drum music is any less "authentic" for it?

A healthy culture is like a healthy person: it is constantly changing, growing, and evolving, yet something persists through these changes, a ballast that keeps it upright and recognisable no matter how much it is buffeted by the transformative winds of trade.

We can even expand the analogy a bit, and think of a culture as something akin to a society's immune system - it works best when it is exposed to as many foreign bodies as possible. Like kids raised in too-clean environments, cultures that are isolated from the world are beautiful but extremely fragile.

That is why, when it comes to protecting the particular cultures of the world, "authenticity" of the sort that natives engage in for tourists is probably the last thing we should be concerned with.

- NZ Herald

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