"Splendid" Colonialism? Time To Change How We Talk About Fashion And Culture
A lavish book to celebrate Cartagena, Colombia's most prized travel destination, will perpetuate clichéd views of a city inextricably linked with European exploitation.
BOGOTÁ — The Colombian designer Johanna Ortiz is celebrating the historic port of Cartagena de Indias, in Colombia, in a new book, Cartagena Grace, published by Assouline. The European publisher specializes in luxury art and travel books, or those weighty, costly coffee table books filled with dreamy pictures. If you never opened the book, you could still admire it as a beautiful object in a lobby or on a center table.
Ortiz produced the book in collaboration with Lauren Santo Domingo, an American model (née Davis, in Connecticut) who married into one of Colombia's wealthiest families. Assouline is promoting it as a celebration of the city's "colonial splendor, Caribbean soul and unfaltering pride," while the Bogotá weekly Semana has welcomed an international publisher's focus on one of the country's emblematic cities and tourist spots.
And yet, use of terms like colonial "splendor" is not just inappropriate, but unacceptable.
I was born and raised in Cartagena de Indias, once a thriving entrepot of goods and slaves, and carry it inside me even if I no longer live there. On a recent visit, I could see a city that is both intact and injured, if not battered, by "development."
The enduring legacy of colonialism
Even from a distance, I have never ceased to observe Cartagena with critical intensity. And no observer could miss an intrinsic ugliness behind its surface beauty, which, for me, relates specifically to the colonial legacy.
The splendor is that of human resilience.
Its signs are everywhere. The churches are a vestige of a process in which a faith imposed itself on a territory, robbing millions of people of their most intimate beliefs and private freedom. The cross was bloody from the start, and the city's very name indicates the grandest of colonial ventures.
Colonialism is etched on the coast's ethnicity and physiognomies — or the "pretty faces of my black people" celebrated in Ismael Rivera song Las caras lindas. The statue of the city's founder (the conquistador Pedro de Heredia) is testimony to Spain's resolve to conquer and impose its ways.
Cartagena's colonial trail cannot be separated from the physicality of the millions of Africans enslaved over two hundred years. Their specter hovers over the city and constitutes its spine. The colonized territory is a land of redefinitions, but also of compromise and resistance. In the mixing of populations, hybridity and the disobedience it supposed, there is splendor: that of human resilience.
Johanna Ortiz's new book, "Cartagena Grace"
The regime of the visible
But what about colonial splendor? I like the word, which describes a splendid, shining quality. It sounds beautiful, and playful. The sociologist and critic Edward Salazar has observed that the processes around clothes making are also an interplay of historical wounds and aesthetic construction. You could say the same of other arts and see Latin America's aesthetic and artistic output as precisely a vast process of negotiation between the pain suffered and the splendor that emerged in spite of it.
Is there anything splendid in the achievements of colonialism? Its arts and architecture convey abundant prosperity, but inevitably, at the expense of hidden elements. The colonial order — which endures in the modern socio-economic system — is the "regime of the visible," says the academic Rolando Vásquez. The colonial period meant exploitation, pain and indignity for millions of subjects, and let us not deceive ourselves into considering it past history.
Exploitation, an essential part of the colonial order, endures in modern and far less aesthetic manifestations than 18th century architecture. In Cartagena, it has duly reinvented itself.
The city is a playground for the rich in this country and the gringos and Europeans who come seeking the beach, the sea and, why not, some "exotic" females. A more-than-favorable exchange rate makes this exercise of power possible.
Splendor for whom?
Where is the splendor today? In the city's ring road or the shantytown districts removed from the old quarter, where all the "fantastic" stuff happens? If the regime of the visible in Cartagena consists of colonial homes in pastel colors, flowered balconies, opulent parks and dreamy beaches, what is the splendor hiding?
What are the city's services like, and how are they linked to its geography? Are there links between services and skin color? Who rakes in the millions of dollars glamorous tourism pours into the city every year? Is it good for the city and its residents that people should see it as a place where you can 'let your hair down' and do as you please? "Splendor, for whom?" local activist Teresa Asprilla recently asked online.
Exoticism is crucial to the colonial mindset.
I would consider two issues here: one, that the idea of splendor is not the right word for the city and its heritage, and two, that design and production of clothes cannot be restricted to the fashion concept defined in Europe and the United States.
I studied fashion in New York, where I realized as a Latin American woman, that the fashion paradigm constituted, like so many areas, a way of seeing and understanding other contexts.
It can foment its own "orientalism," to cite the academic Edward Said's term regarding Western literature and written analyses. It broadly means the subjective "fixing" of others.
This subjectivity will, inevitably and thankfully, prompt reactions, which has led myself and others to consider what fashion and clothing can mean in a regional cultural context. Exoticism is crucial to the colonial mindset. Like the orientalist outlook, it likes to see "the other" as exotic.
Colonialism is also patriarchal: the colonial world may be a place of freedom and adventure, but only for some (white males?). Indeed, the subjection of "exotic" or "peripheral" regions is partly undertaken through the definitions and redefinitions that abound as part of the West's "epistemic arrogance." The "center" and "periphery" debate in politics and developmental studies can thus encompass fashion, tourism and culture, as components of the global economy.
The trap of self-exoticization
It is interesting to see how and why Latin American and even African designers willingly adopt Western exoticism as a sales strategy and to validate themselves inside the "centrist" narrative, which here means the international fashion circuit.
In fact, fashion, cloth-making or couture, if we prefer the French term's tailoring nuance, can choose to transcend the ephemeral and disposable, the branding imperative, exercise of power, and the exploitation and waste production that mark the fashion industry. The modernizing discourse is both arrogant and forcefully binary, with contrasts like history/tradition, fashion/folk styles, center/periphery etc.
In it, fashion is perforce modern and innovative, idolizing desirability and fueling it with constant change and a belief that its only valid source is the West. Anything outside is "ancestral," local' or, well, old-fashioned. It relates to the "unfashionable" world of arts and crafts..
Anthropologist Angela Jansen has identified "self-exoticization" as a powerful marketing tool working both at national and international levels. Nationally, she says, it provides the "local flavor" absent in foreign brands, and abroad, an exotic flavor to catch the foreign eye.
But she also sees its trap, as marketing the local style is tied to cultural differentiation, which is precisely an obstacle to entry into the community of international designers. These usually seek freedom from all restrictions, including cultural ones, on design.
Fashion can be political
A decade ago, I myself proposed a critique of local styles sometimes termed Caribbean chic. Dresses worn in the city's dancing festivals are beautifully ornate, even reminiscent of the extravagant outfits of such festive figures as Carmen Miranda. But who are they for? What kind of women should don such elaborate outfits?
Fashion can be political, for the imagery it projects.
Social class is a constant tension in Colombian fashion, and Caribbean chic is certainly not without its class (and race) overtones.
Yet, I believe that a critical view of fashion means accepting the uncomfortable reality of its simultaneous aspects. Johanna Ortiz has enjoyed a decade of global success and shown us that fashion can be political, for the imagery it projects. Her political contribution is to have helped change the image of Colombia as a land of drug lords and violence. With her, Colombian fashion began to enjoy global visibility.
This shows the cultural strength of fashion, which can help entire communities revise their self-image. In a cultural departure, Colombians began to dress in such a way as to honor their identity. And celebrations of the Caribbean style may have contributed to this, but at a cost.
With projects like Cartagena Grace, who is admiring the city if not the élites of Colombia and wealthy travelers? And that is when culture and fashion help perpetuate the colonial perspective — the view from the five-star balcony! Is that what brands like Johanna Ortiz wish to fix with the word "splendor"?
The debate is far from concluded, but fashion should know it can break the rules. It needn't equate clothing and stylization solely with the fashion world we know. We can always redefine splendor. There is an abundance of splendor in Latin America, utterly alien to the dictates of Western fashionability.
Our splendor is in our resistance, even if certain labels remain wedded to beauty as a big-business product rooted in Western modernity. Fashion can be more than a fad: it can be a posture in life, critical attitudes, culture, politics and meaning.
There is splendor when design, art and heritage become an opportunity to picture another world, beyond the one that has reached its point of exhaustion.
- No Mercy For Conquistadors, But We Can Let Their Statues Stand ›
- The Folly Of 'Degrowth' Economics — A View From The Global South ›