Kenan Malik in Art Review:
Maqbool Fida Husain is perhaps India’s greatest artist of the twentieth century. His work linked ancient and modern traditions and helped transform Indian modernism. But not everyone appreciated Husain’s work. His depictions of Hindu deities, often naked, outraged Hindu nationalists who questioned his right, as someone of Muslim background, to depict figures sacred to Hindus, accusing him of ‘hurting religious feelings’. His home and gallery were ransacked, many of his paintings destroyed. He faced law suits, including ones for ‘promoting enmity between different groups’. The harassment spread beyond India’s borders. In 2006, London’s Asia House Gallery shut an exhibition of his work after protests and the defacement of two paintings. Husain, who died in 2011, was forced to live his last years in exile, in London and Qatar.
Were he still alive today, M.F. Husain’s Hindu critics might well be accusing him not of sacrilege but of ‘cultural appropriation’ – the ‘theft’ of images and ideas that truly belong to another culture and that he had no right to take without permission.
The idea of cultural appropriation has, in recent years, moved from being an abstruse academic and legal concept to a mainstream political issue. From Beyonce’s Bollywood outfits to Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, and from the recent controversy surrounding Sam Durant’s sculpture Scaffold (2012) to Omer Fast’s recreation of an old Chinatown storefront at James Cohan Gallery, New York, there is barely a week in which controversies over cultural appropriation are not in the headlines.
So, what is cultural appropriation and why has it become such a contentious issue?