When the trailer of “Raya and the Last Dragon” was recommended in my youtube feed, I couldn’t help but get captivated by the poster character, Raya. I played it several times, I was so mesmerized watching the features of the new Disney heroine – she looks just like me! Well not exactly like me, but you get what I mean.
I haven’t seen the movie yet, so don’t worry there are no spoilers here. What actually made me view the trailer several times and in slo-mo was to see the representation of the indigenous material culture of Southeast Asia. I have a fascination with textile and fabrics, especially those made by indigenous communities or ethnic minorities.
Like the issue of representation of Southeast Asia on the choice of voice actors in the production of the animation, there are also layers of conundrums patched on their use of motifs from the indigenous textiles of the region.
There’s a scene when Sisu, the last dragon, shape-shifted into a human being. She turned out a hermit-looking girl wearing an indigo dyed-kimono, a similar garment can be seen among the ethnic minorities in Northern Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand.
Raya’s cloak also caught my attention. The collar is embroidered with blue thread shaped in triangles, and I can see it took inspiration from the embroidery technique of the Kalinga, one of the indigenous communities in the Northern Philippines.
The waistband of the princess in the white tribe has a similarity with the ikat weaving design of the Indigenous Peoples in Borneo island.
I am nitpicking the details that I see are inspired by the textile design of indigenous communities because I anticipate a merchandise trend (from dolls, to stickers, to T-shirts and whatever kind of items you can think of) will come along from it that could complicate the already complicated argument about cultural appropriation of the material culture of ASEAN Indigenous Peoples.
My friend in the Philippines recently shared a post on Facebook about a mass-produced copy of the traditional weaving design of the indigenous communities in the Cordilleras of Northern Philippines. The copies are new in my country, but fake ethnic textiles seem to have arrived earlier in Vietnam. Anywhere in Hanoi, I see fabricated traditional textiles of ethnic minorities printed in cheap polyester fabrics.
Cultural appropriation of Indigenous Peoples’ material culture happens when the power is taken away from the production and yielded to capitalists. Take for example, Max Mara, a billion-dollar owned Italian fashion house was accused of plagiarising the traditional designs of the Oma ethnic minority group of Laos in 2019. Similarly, Christian Loubotin came out with limited edition designs called Manilacaba in 2018. He used woven fabrics from different indigenous communities in the Philippines for his designer tote bags.
Both Max Mara’s and Christian Loubotin’s ethnic-inspired apparels are sold at a hefty price, you can only afford if you belong to the privileged class. The only difference is that the former atelier denies the allegation of plagiarism while the latter is open about its source and has donated 10 percent of the profit to a women’s organization. Max Mara is the culture vulture and Loubotin is the benevolent capitalist.
The intricate patterns of hand-woven fabrics take years of training to perfect and many days of labour to produce. It took generations of artisans, mostly women, to enhance patterns that are not only palatable to the eyes but are also exquisitely excellent. Not to mention, these practices survived colonization. To have the likes of Loubotin, Max Mara, or producers of fake ethnic fabrics earn more profit than the people whose blood and ancestry flow in every fiber of the design – is capitalism.
Capitalism is the economic system that placed Indigenous Peoples to the margins of society, most communities exposed to tourism rely from the sale of handwoven textiles for survival. Disney having a humongous clout would have a positive financial effect on the artisans and merchants of indigenous textiles. But it would also signal the interest of bigger players on taking inspiration from the ‘undiscovered’ aesthetics of Indigenous Peoples. Thank you, Disney – but no.
Taking inspiration, borrowing is not necessarily being frowned upon by indigenous artisans. In their communities, learning a particular craft is open to everyone. There is also no such thing as private Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) – concepts, values, systems, patterns, designs are community-owned. Sounds like socialism, right? But this is where indigenous communities get disadvantaged in the capitalist system. Big fashion companies copy or use ethnic designs then have their product patented with IPR – meaning, it is a criminal act to imitate their expensive apparels.
It is high time Disney produces animations that aim to represent under the radar communities in the entertainment industry. But this comes with a price, albeit not directly correlated, an unworthy cost for us Indigenous Peoples nonetheless. Unless, big ateliers and even medium-scale fashion companies will be sensitive and ethical enough to find a way not only to advance equal financial gain, but also take inspiration from our beautiful almost egalitarian traditional economic systems. In short, do beyond what Disney did in tokenizing our motifs for their profit.
Disney has made me excited about Raya, but I have yet to watch the film to see if their inspirations rolled in the credits. If they’re true to their advancement of representation, then we deserve at least to be acknowledged.
By Dumay Solinggay for Vietnam Insider