Monday, March 27, 2006

IP and Gender: The Unmapped Connections: Boatema Boateng and comments

Boatema Boateng spoke about the art and trade of cloth in Ghana.

Artisanal productions are treated as folklore under Ghanaian copyright law; fabric designs were protected from 1985 until recently, through state ownership of the rights. This was the result of panic in third world countries about commodification and appropriation of indigenous culture. Fabric design doesn’t fit tidily into copyright, since it also has elements of industrial property. Indeed, cheap imitations of the artisanal adinkra and kente cloth were protected under industrial property law until 2004. (The way owners did that was by registering their designs but disclaiming the traditional elements, so they get to claim property rights despite the folklore law.) Boateng prefers to call it indigenous cultural production rather than folklore or traditional knowledge – I think because those terms are static and past-looking even though cultural production is alive and ongoing.

Indigenous cultural production is usually gendered female in opposition to male mass production, but that’s not how it works in Ghana, where kente and adinkra clotha re made by men. The origin stories for the cloth go back to the Asanti royal house, whose property they became through conquest and invention; some designs are still produced exclusively for the royal house. Now, the owner is in effect the Ghanaian state, on the theory that we don’t know who created the traditional design, so the state will take control; the state doesn’t share with the local community.

Women control the trade in retail markets, including the sale of cloth, except in strongly Islamic areas. Most women operate at marginal levels, but there are some “market queens” who are wholesalers. They commission cloth from the mechanized textile industry. In the 80s and 90s adrinka cloth began to be copied, commissioned by women competing with traditional male producers. Women’s registrations of traditional designs (tradition disclaimed) under the industrial property law showed their agility in operating as legal subjects within the law’s space, while male designers didn’t.

Class and economic power enable women to do this; at the same time, the law calls certain kinds of citizenship into being. For now, men are feminized in problematic ways by this setup. However, men remain powerful in their own sphere (connected with Asanti royal power), so Boateng doesn’t want to be making claims for these poor oppressed men; they negotiate their relations in contexts of varying power.

(To see some commercialization of adinkra outside Ghana, try here or here or here.)

Comments: Ann Shalleck drew on the morning’s discussion of dualisms, mind/body and original/copy playing out here in specific cases. There are related processes – objectification, in which an idea becomes a thing; alienation, which is not necessarily the same process; and commodification, which can also be distinct. To what extent does commodification deprive artisans of meaning or give them control as authors? Boateng’s paper shows women beginning with commodification, then registering designs and gaining social power. Scafidi highlights the tension between creativity and copying, and the use of other mechanisms of social power besides IP to regulate relationships.

Scafidi commented that she wanted to reject the tyranny of the prescriptive. We aren’t just rational economic actors, and we should map the realm of IP before we start making prescriptions.

Comment (I missed the attribution): In some circumstances, imitations can be more valuable than originals – this comes from Baudrillard, but we can also see it in street styles appropriated by high fashion designers, and the women of Gee’s Bend whose quilts are imitated by expensive rugmakers. Boateng pointed out that imitations may not supersede originals; they can both exist in markets targeted at different groups, for example natives versus tourists.

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