Fig Leaves & Face Paint Do Not a Homage Make

I’d heard about it a few weeks ago. Russian ice dance pair, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, debuted an original dance program that incorporated face paint  and fig leaves at last year’s European Championships. Calling it a melange of Aboriginal cultures (because, you know, all “natives” dance, look, sing, eat, and pray alike), the pair found love with that competition’s judges, while the Aborigines of Australia had a different take: offensive.

Grainy video on YouTube left me gawping (see below). An Al-Jazeera report quotes one Russian citizen as saying, “Why is it wrong from them to do a performance like this? On the contrary, it is interesting and funny. I think it’s fine.” The operative word in that quote is “funny.”

Last night at the Olympic Games in Vancouver, with heavy criticism hounding them,  yet armed with the blessing (and blankets) from Canada’s CEO of The  Four Host Four Nations, Tewanee Joseph, Domnina and Shabalin took to the ice with no face paint and a few less fig leaves attached to their costumes to perform the original dance once more. The percussive Aboriginal music thumps and the pair swooshing here and there on the ice, perform dance moves more akin to Tarzan and at one point even cavemen (Shabalin pulls Domnina by the hair more than once). The stadium’s audience staunchly refused
to urge them on. I can’t blame them.

There is a clear line between homage and misappropriation. Homage is underscored by serious research, consideration, and respect for the thing or person being honored. That respect can easily be seen in the reverence with which the homage is rendered. The finer points are adhered to; shown upfront to take away any doubt that the portrayal is less than an appreciation. What Domnina and Shabalin did last night was on the wrong side of that line. The monkey-like hunching, the hair pulling, the random swirls on their customs, the vibrant fabricated fig leaves spat on the complex symbology and mores of the Aborigines. That Domnina and Shabalin were quoted as saying that the dance was a “melange of native cultures,” adds insult to injury, gutting the cultural differences that define individual Aboriginal peoples around the world for the sake of what amounted to a “Me Tarzan, You Jane” Hollywoodesque take on Native cultures.

That they still don’t get why folks are in an uproar about this points to what keeps racism going strong: entitlement and an unwillingness to examine intent versus outcome as it relates to who might get hurt and why. Domnina and Shabalin’s performance was punished with poor scores from the judges, who may have received the memo that the pair refused to read.