On Saturday at the Egyptian Theater in Park City, Carrie Mae Weems moderated a conversation between artists in the industry who have pushed the envelope when it comes to storytelling and representation. The panelists each had films at Sundance including Lin-Manuel Miranda (Siempre, Luis, We Are Freestyle Love Supreme), Ai Weiwei (Vivos), Kerry Washington (The Fight) and Julie Taymor (The Glorias). When the topic of appropriation in storytelling came up, Taymor chimed in.
“Before Across the Universe, I really didn’t do anything that had to do with me personally,” she said. “I lived in Indonesia for four years, I had a theater company — my work was very cross-cultural.”
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She continued, “I did Frida in Mexico; The Lion King is whatever you want to say — I heard the term ‘cultural appropriation’ in the past and it’s a fascinating subject.”
She went on to talk about authenticity and said that authenticity to her is what are you doing as an artist. “If it’s authentic to me, it’s authentic to me,” she said. She then went back to her work with The Lion King musical. She said that she wasn’t doing an authentic African show and that she was doing “an authentic Julie show”.
“We have gone so far to the other extreme that we say, ‘no don’t touch’ and it’s interesting,” she said.
Taymor further went on to say that seeing white people perform a black story would be an outrage and added that “it’s necessary to see all stories with a new perspective.”
“To me, my whole mission is perspective,” she said. “Until you step outside yourself you can’t really see yourself.”
Weems points out that Taymor’s cross-cultural work and folklore and how she uses that to learn and bring forth in her own practice. Taymor compares storytelling to being shamans and that their job is political but for her, “it’s more about amusing, inspiring and healing people — healing to me is a big part of it.”
Washington graciously and honestly responded to Taymor: “There has been great healing in the community of artists to be able to identify appropriation when it happens. I acknowledge with deep respect how you have approached cultural art forms and devoted yourself to a deep understanding of practices that other cultures use to create story.”
She continued, “The focus of where appropriation has been is that the intention of borrowing from other cultures has not been done with the same integrity and heartfelt respect.”
Taymor chimed in, “It’s another form of colonization.”
Washington added that she was glad that Taymor associated appropriation with colonization. “It’s different when that privilege of cross-cultural exploration is allowed to some and not to others. That’s why there’s sometimes anxiety of when one community tells the story of another. There is so much to be learned with how you’ve done it.”
Taymor went on to say that with The Lion King she didn’t appropriate Javanese wayang kulit puppetry. “The language, the music, the code — that’s not what I’m doing,” she said. “Technique belongs to everybody.” She then threw it to Ai Weiwei, who earlier in the panel said that as a Chinese man, he was gracious that the Mexican community was allowing him to tell their story with Vivos. She asked him how he felt about it.
After a beat, Weiwei smiled and said, “Oh, come back to me.”
Watch the full panel below.
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