Citizen Parables and Dmitriy T.M. alerted us to this month’s French Vogue. According to Jezebel, it features exactly zero black models. It does, however, contain several images of Dutch model Lara Stone painted so as to look black.
The photos are being condemned as contemporary blackface. I’d like to open it up to discussion:
1. Is painting a white model so as to look black the same thing (in some important and significant way) as the derogatory minstrelsy with which blackface (with white mouths and red lips) is associated? Is the intent (dehumanization) the same? Is the effect the same? Why or why not? If not, could it be that we are as inured to racism now as they were then?
2. Is the real (or part of the) problem the lack of actual black models? That is, if there were black models in the magazine, would we read these images differently?
3. If we saw models of different races being painted various colors, would the white model painted black cease to be significant? Or, because of history, should this always (for the foreseeable future) be off limits?
4. Is this “edgy” (and, therefore, fashion forward) exactly because it references historical blackface? In that case, should fashion play with such topics? Can people in the fashion industry do so responsibly? And, if so, what would that look like?
More examples and discussion of contemporary “blackface” here, here, here, here, and here. Also, Bugs Bunny.
Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Alicia — October 17, 2009
I'll speak to point no. 1. I think the problem with this sort of imagery is that it heightens the idea that whiteness is normal or default, while minorities are defined through their features outside of whiteness. While a white person can be define through multiple features, black people are defined, ala this photo shoot, by their "non-white" skin. Blackness seems to be a costume a white (aka "normal") person can put on to seem different, or edgy. At the same time, though, the model still lies safely in the realm of whiteness by her facial features (and hair) that are more aligned (but not exclusive) with Caucasians. Features of another race should never be used for what is essentially dress-up.
Amber — October 17, 2009
Yes, it's derogatory blackface. Where the model's skin is very dark, her dress is exotic. Where the model's skin is lightly tanned or freakishly white, her dress is avant-garde urban or HEAVILY suggestive of colonizers. (See: Tricorne hat.) Yes, this photo shoot will be very different if the model (or different models of different races) were painted different colors (e.g. blue, purple, pink, etc.) in all the photos, because then it would be clear that the paint is purely an aesthetic decision with nothing to do with race. No, this interpretation will not change if Vogue used black models to portray black women, but I think that this photo shoot will be different if there were black models painted as white women. Then, to me, there are two ideas pitted against each other: white's impression/interpretation of blackness and black's internalization of oppression, aspiring to be white.
I believe that it is possible to reclaim the art of painting someone's skin, even painting it black. I'm not sure what it would look like, but this is not the way to do it.
Tiara — October 17, 2009
There was a season of America's Next Top Model where for one shoot they changed the races of all the models. It was interesting to see the transformation.
Dave — October 17, 2009
Given that pastries named "tête à négre" (nigger head) are still being sold in France, I would say, "Yes."
T. Martinus — October 17, 2009
but Lara Stone is Dutch, so she's used to dressing up in black face. it's done very year in from the beginning of november until the 5th of December, Sinterklaas.
somehow the white majority still claims that it's part of their tradition and thus resist every discussion on the 'holiday'. even after decades of protest that it's deeply hurtful and racist the majority simply refuses to see the problem with a white person putting on black paint, large hoop earrings, colorful clothing and a black wig and in some cases even adopting speech patterns(!) that illustrate that they're not native Dutch speakers. and the worst thing is, is that it's considered a children's holiday. so the kids are being taught that the white, old and wise Sinterklaas rides a white horse as his athletic, child-like and subservient Black Pete's run around like fools forever smiling and doing his bidding...
so Ms. Stone is just perpetuating what she was taught as a child.
Melinda — October 17, 2009
I don't understand why they would paint the model in black paint in the first place. The 'tradition' of blackface is a racist one, but not only because people perpetuated ridiculous stereotypes while in blackface. Another reason was because black people either weren't allowed on stage or were frowned upon being on stage (I can't remember which one it is). Now that black models are allowed to be in front of the camera, why do they have to get a model painted? They could be edgy or different in other ways, and it bothers me that blackness is treated as this costume you can don whenever you like (See Alicias comment).
Jeremiah — October 17, 2009
Can someone link me to a hue chart where I can determine if a skin of (X) lightness has been darkened by (Y) degrees (under any circumstances, theatrical or otherwise), and the threshold at which the racism charge can be invoked?
Dan — October 17, 2009
I'm not sure about this, but the first thing I thought when I saw that last photo in particular was this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Madonna
Could it be that they are imitating the aesthetics of the Black Madonna? It was a Virgin Mary sculpted in dark materials, so it had caucasian features but her color was black. These Virgins are popular in Europe, and given that Vogue is European and this was done with an European public in mind, maybe this could be it. We might be giving an American interpretation to something that could have a very different reading over there.
That said, I might be wrong and this could be just intentionally racist. Nevertheless, I believe that the potential inspiration on the Black Madonna is something to consider.
Jonathan — October 17, 2009
She wasn't painted black. She was painted Black. She wasn't painted the color black; she was painted the color of Black people. That is a huge difference.
urbanartiste — October 17, 2009
The fact that Black models are rarely featured in Vogue makes me feel that this is racist. Over the past year Vogue in various countries, including the U.S. where race is a daily conversation, has produced questionable covers and layouts exhibiting a complete ignorance of economic class, gender and race issues. They do this all in the guise of art. Well, it is a magazine, not a painting of an individual artists perspective and expression. These publications are representing a very dated and prejudicial perspective.
Alice — October 18, 2009
A few points, the first is that this shoot is pretty clearly making art history references - the black maddonna one was well picked up. The second is that, more so than American and British Vogue, French Vogue does use black models (that aren't Naomi Campbell), and Steven Klein shoots them too. I think by using Lara Stone this shoot is making a very intentional point about the LACK of black models in mainstream fashion. While Italian Vogue attempted this by having an 'all black' issue, I think painting a white girl black makes the case much more strongly.
Also, T. Matinus, you have no idea how a photoshoot works if you think Lara Stone had any say in any of what the shoot was about, I can assure you, she didn't.
French Vogue is known to be provocative, and this shoot certainly is that, but it looks graceful and elegant, not buffoonish so I think the point is to make a statement about racism in fashion, not be racist itself.
Alessandra — October 18, 2009
First picture reminds me of African tribal chiefs in the very old Tarzan movies, all these plumes and feathers and the stick, the pose and stare. There's something very old-fashioned about some of these elements,something very Tarzan, TinTin, colonialism, 1920's, late 1800s.
Second picture doesn't bring any specific association with the weird white petals headwear, an odd fashion element?
Third picture has nothing to do with Africans, but with Oriental/Islamic and slightly gypsy associations from the waist up, which are completely contradicted by the black bikini bottom or whatever it is she is wearing that shows her legs. Can't see clearly. The pose and lighting look exactly like the old "explorer" pictures of "exotic" Oriental people in their ceremonial or traditional ornate costumes.
I hate Vogue so I don't read it, but insofar as a magazine such as Vogue doing this as a deliberate critique of racist practices in fashion or in their magazine, it makes me laugh. Although not impossible, my guess would be this is just another ultra famous photographer who wanted to have some fashion and aesthetic fun, and decided to do a big mish mash of ethnic symbols and garments and why not, skin color. They do this all the time in all kinds of way, although changing color skin is rare.
And although she really does look physically painted, if they wanted to do it all in Photoshop, we wouldn't be able to tell the difference.
Unfortunately, like many such photographers, they may send out noxious messages, but this is one more example of good quality fashion photos from an aesthetic perspective.
Sue — October 18, 2009
I read the photo of the model in the headdress as a reference to the Black Madonnas, and I thought it was interesting. The others in the spread seemed uninspired to me.
Issues of the hiring of black models aside, which is important to me as a woman of African American descent, I don't see this as blackface.
citizenparables — October 18, 2009
High fashion sees itself as an art form.
Some may dispute this status, but what's important for my point is how fashion sees itself. As artists, fashion photographers and magazines are conscious of the images they create and display; as conscious as possible of the meanings, associations and responses they may evoke, far beyond response to the actual clothing.
I would guess that Vogue's Artistic Intent did not include the message 'black people are comical'. I believe that the intent was to be provocative, certainly, to have the viewer look closely at the model and feel a response to the artificial skin painting, and also to raise questions and discussion such as this about the concepts of race, fashion, and the social ideas of beauty.
While I'm not suggesting that French Vogue is a sophisticated artistic social commentator, I would suggest that this was a brave image to produce, and one which they knew full well would bring a great deal of spotlight. Yes, they are a spotlight-hungry industry, but I believe that, rightly or wrongly, French Vogue felt it's conscience was clear and it could stand up to the intense scrutiny -even if, notably, other areas of it's industry could not.
As such, I have a degree of admiration for the Artistic Intent.
As opposed to the low comic Artistic Intent of the Australian TV blackface performance.
However, then we reach the point which all works of art and artists partly dread, partly live for, the point where Intent becomes secondary and Interpretation becomes paramount.
Whatever Vogue's intent, once the images became public, their audience are bound to interpret it in any number of ways, some of which include the concept 'racist'.
My own response is, I consider this to be, if nothing else, a work of sufficient artistic consciousness and sophistication as to make a simplistic interpretation, of any kind, inappropriate. This is not an ignorant work of art. (Again, contrast the Australian example, where all involved professed total ignorance of the racial overtones).
I find the 1st and 3rd images quite beautiful, theatrical and (the 3rd in particular) thought-provoking. The model's sickened look in the 2nd image (so unlike the power displayed in the others) evokes nothing but pity and repulsion in me.
I think that, compared with the utterly thoughtless inhumanity of some of the images presented by the wider fashion industry on this site, these ones rise above.
Whether we like them or not.
Jeremiah — October 18, 2009
Jeremiah — October 18, 2009
Oops, I should point out the above link comes via Copyranter:
Sarah — October 18, 2009
Jeremiah, enlighten yourself. Look up the issue of "blackface" in American society, and then you might get it.
Wikipedia is a good start, and there are many other resources you can try.
urbanartiste — October 18, 2009
The pages of a magazine are too tainted with corporate money to be considered art. It is commercial, particularly the fact that these so-called artistic photos are used for the promotion of consumption, not enlightenment. I will accept they have a right to attempt art, but this is not on the same level as Warhol or even the Sensation exhibit that pushed boundaries. Once again the fashion industry has one focus and tends to be pushing an agenda rather than exploring, whether it is a standard of beauty or commodities.
Joy-Mari Cloete — October 19, 2009
@Alice and others who feel this is 'edgy', 'art', or making a statement about the lack of black models on the covers of Vogue: This would only be 'OK' if it is accompanied by an article that discusses the history of Blackface or the lack of black models in Vogue and other fashion magazines.
On its own, it's pretty disgusting.
Amber made a good point about the 'aspiring to be white'; it is one that I hadn't even considered.
@citizenparables and Sue: Art can be racist; beautiful things can still offend; and something can still be offensive, even if you as a member of the targeted minority does not find it personally offensive.
Filmi Girl — October 27, 2009
This is really interesting! I just discovered this blog by way of Jezebel - I just did a post on the use of black face in Bollywood. Removed from the western cultural context, black face is just another in the wide variety of racially stereotyped costumes that Bollywood comedians use - from the "sexualized gypsy girl" to "drunk Punjabi" to "greedy Arab."
The French Vogue shoot is just baffling taken on its own. I wonder if we would have responded better if the shoot had included a dark skinned model painted white...
Joka — October 28, 2009
Can ya'll just stop and think. It is ok when a black/asian woman:
wears a blond wig
bleaches her face
and so on in order to appear more white...but when a white woman,for fashion-extravaganza purpose is painted black...that is controversial?!
come on people, don't we have other urgent issues do deal with?
Jess — November 3, 2009
An interesting interview about the photo shoot
(about 2/3 in)
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