Collaboration as decolonization: Or what can we learn from the Indigenous textile arts of Abya Yala

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I always end up writing for this blog at the very last minute after thinking all day that I might not be able to publish it on time. But every time I skip a publication I hate it so much that I even start regretting having started it to begin with. So I forced myself to sit down, write, and send this out before the end of today—the third Tuesday of the month—when it is supposed to go out.

But why give myself all this extra pressure in the midst of trying to finish writing my Ph.D. dissertation, teaching full time, having a bunch of fashion advising projects, and wanting to have a life?

Well—I don’t really have an answer. I do enjoy writing and I do want to have more alt-ac gigs as a writer, so there’s that. And I guess I’ve gotten used to the last-minute pressure over the past few years as a Ph.D. student… But the most important part for me is, quite frankly, to be able to share my ideas and some knowledge with the people who might otherwise not have much access to them in more formal “academic” settings!

I actually was just talking about this on Instagram Live (in Spanish, sadly). I’ve been collaborating for the second time with the fashion history podcast Historia y moda on a capsule about Latin American fashion and, this time around, we’ve also gone live twice to explore more in depth some of the topics we’ve discussed in the podcast. But today’s Live also gave us the space to reflect about what “Indigenous” fashion is or should be and, more generally, on how to reject colonialist ideas in the Latin American fashion system.

I proposed collaboration as one of the main strategies for decolonization.

And it’s not just a frugal idea that came into my mind as we were chatting live on some social media platform. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for years, and actually one of the reasons why I’ve insisted so hardly on trying to detach my own name from Culturas de Moda, the fashion studies digital humanities platform I founded several years ago.

Collaboration, when successful, is actually quite powerful and life-changing. I could spend a lifetime sharing all the positive experiences that have come out from successful collaborations with colleagues—many of whom have become close friends—even though they, naturally, had their own challenges.

But collaboration somehow works against the logic of how we’ve been taught to navigate the world. It is not how we’re told our professional or academic lives should work. And definitely not how we visualize the road to success.

In fact, collaboration seems so counterintuitive—impossible, even—that some people choose to take terribly troublesome paths simply to destroy the results of positive collaboration. That happened to me a few years ago when a group of people who call themselves fashion scholars tried to shut me and my work down. They did so by requesting the editors of a major journal in which I had just published my first academic paper to take it down because my argument was supposedly founded on false information.

But it was collaboration what had led to that publication in the first place. And it was collaboration what helped me navigate the process—scary and frustrating as it was!

Books, essays, and many traditional research outputs are the result of long-term collaborations, even though their nature suggests that they are the product of individual work. As a research assistant, I’ve worked collaboratively with mentors in manuscripts and exhibitions that feel as much my own work as theirs. And I’m not saying that my name should be listed in the book cover or exhibition wall text, but that we need to recognize that these are collaborative projects as well.

As an author for chapters of books I’ve seen this too: editors, copyeditors, the people in charge of image permissions, and book designers are among the many people involved in the publication of a book. And when they all work together towards the same goal, the outcome is beautiful! This I had the pleasure to see and experience, for example, in the creation of the exhibition catalogue for “Threads of Power: Lace at the Textilmuseum St. Gallen” at Bard Graduate Center, which came out last week. (You can see a sneak peek of my visit to the exhibition here.)

And through my Ph.D. journey, I’ve seen collaboration come up front and center of much of my research and academic work. I’ve been exchanging drafts for my writings with colleagues—who’ve also become friends—for years now, and I truly am convinced that my dissertation is their work as much as it is mine. I’ve been informally exchanging ideas on social media also for years now, and I’ve begun to think that my professional success is inevitably tied to the few sparks of “success” (whatever that looks like!) I’ve been able to find on social media.

And while it sounds like I’ve gone on a massive tangent, this is all connects back to textiles in Abya Yala (so bare with me for a few more seconds and I’ll get into it, I promise).

One of the most enriching conversations I’ve had in my life was with Brandie Macdonald and Debra Yepa-Pappan in a roundtable for the symposium I co-organized for the Digital Equality Lab at William & Mary last year. We were talking about decolonizing museums and Western impositions on the ways we see and understand art throughout the world. This of course includes Indigenous arts, both historic and contemporary.

And we ended up talking about how textile arts, especially Indigenous textile arts, are often considered “inferior” to, say, European painting, because they are not the result of one single artistic genius (who is also white and male). It’s quite funny, actually, because we now know that many of the “genius” painters of European art have had a handful of assistants who also worked—collaboratively—in the creation of their works, even though only the Master’s name and signature is featured in the final result.

Indigenous textiles, for the most part, don’t have traditional, textual signatures, but they do contain the traces of the hands and bodies who made them—a sort of signature embodied in the works themselves. And, to be honest, I find this interweaving of signatures—and hands and bodies—much more powerful than the outstanding signature of the European artist.

So perhaps one way to decolonize fashion—and the arts, more generally—from Abya Yala is to extend this collaborative logic of the textile arts into other cultural manifestations and even the ways in which we research and write about them more broadly. This might—and I want to say should—include more collaborations between artists, designers, and researchers so that creative processes are substantiated on critical thought and analysis.

Only in doing so will we be able to truly take knowledge outside of privileged spheres and insert it into the wider world. At the same time, we’ll be able to engage in more ethical practices within design, especially when it comes to working with racialized and marginalized communities—a practice increasingly common in the Americas.

The question remains of how, exactly, to achieve more collaboration within the terribly individualistic world that we live in. What strategies can you think of? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments.

Thank you for listening, sharing, and commenting. Until next time!



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