Over the past few weeks, Edward Enninful, the Anglo-Ghanaian editor of British Vogue, has celebrated the new cover of his magazine, where he featured nine “dark-skinned” models of African descent.
The February issue, available on newsstands since January 18, includes an accompanying article by editor Funmi Fetto, exploring “the rise of the African model” and “highlighting[ing] The new generation”.
In the story, Fetto invites readers to celebrate what she calls a “seismic shift” in the fashion industry. The Spring/Summer 2022 shows, she explains, were “inundated with dark-skinned models”. “For an industry long criticized for its lack of diversity, as well as the perpetuation of beauty standards seen through a Eurocentric lens, this shift is momentous,” she wrote. The photographs that accompany her story, however, raise questions about what exactly we are being asked to celebrate.
Although Enninful and Fetto claim a revolution, “a major change, a major and powerful moment”, the photographs seem to give us – unknowingly, perhaps – the same old.
The cover – and all the other images used to illustrate the cover story – replicate European colonial fetishistic obsessions with portraying Africans as inanimate statues: lifeless, mobilityless, motionless objects. The complexion, in particular, is made dark and shiny, giving the appearance of polished wood. The color photographs are manipulated, in post-production, making the skin glowing and ultra-dark. In this way, photographs that claim to celebrate blackness are reminiscent of Anish Kapoor’s blackest oversaturated black pigment. The sculptural nature of the models is exaggerated in post-production, in a way that silences their movements. As a result, we’re greeted with a matte black that lacks distinction, though other shades of black manage to emerge.
The cover image that shows the nine models together, in particular, has an interesting and unsettling structure worth noting. The “lighter” skinned models are sandwiched between the “darker” skinned models, showing bursts of “lighter” skin tones, as the photography‘s tiered structure has the models at the “darkest” skin turning into a black field, all individuality quickly disappearing. Additionally, no afro or any type of natural hairstyle is apparent in this so-called “revolutionary” image. It remains to wonder who is imagined as a spectator who would see this as radical?
The images evoke images of primitive bodies in civilized places, in the style of Sally Price (Primitive Art in Civilized Places). Black skin, or rather black flesh, is a blank canvas onto which an art director and photographer has grafted the culture’s racist unconscious. Both danger and sexuality are suspended in favor of a surprising docility, parallel to the demand for revolution made by Eninnful and Fetto – and indeed, the world of haute couture as a whole. The sad truth is that nine models on the cover of British Vogue – or on the season’s catwalks – do not constitute a revolution in an industry where whiteness remains the standard flaw of beauty.
Projects such as this Vogue cover, though they appear to counter racist fashion practices by celebrating the dark beauty of black and African women, are nevertheless deeply intertwined with racist histories of imagery of minority communities.
The photographer of this cover, Brazilian-born Rafael Pavarotti, explicitly states in his biography that he is “passionate about addressing the imbalance of black representation in fashion and broader historical narratives.” Yet his editorial work, when it includes black people, invariably reproduces a disturbing aesthetic deeply embedded in racist iconography. His work for the cover of British Vogue – which he described as “a celebration of women, matriarchy and the beauty of black women” – also draws on visual tropes long used to correlate black people. , Africans and primitivism.
Europe has long fetishized black skin in different ways – exploiting it either for its apparent associations with sexuality or for the lure of danger it represents. These ideas collectively fall under primitivism.
Eninnful, Fetto and, indeed, the photographer Pavarotti, are probably only too aware of this. But they seem blind to the fact that the images in British Vogue’s February issue don’t offer us a new narrative of what beauty is; instead, in its highly anticipated cover, black women are posed, once again, in stark opposition to whiteness. At best, they are an addition or appendage to “true beauty”, which remains safely white.
Our way of seeing, that is to say our gaze, has a history. More specifically, our view of black skin has a very particular history. None of us are outside of this story. Black skin, especially darker black skin, has long been viewed by many non-black and black people as flat, unattractive, and fraught with danger. The slogan “Black is Beautiful” was not born for nothing; it was a counter-assertion to the long maligned history of black skin and other bodily features as demarcations of ugliness. The shift from a tale of unattractive and dangerous black skin to one now celebrated on the catwalks of European haute couture does not reverse that story, nor silence it, but rather offers it as an exotic and pacified version of the late modern primitivism.
Contemporary photographers often reproduce the aesthetics and politics of colonial images that removed black people from their individuality, autonomy and subjectivity. In Defiant Images: Photography in Apartheid South Africa, researcher Darren Newbury – writing about the photography of Constance Stuart Larrabee in South Africa in the 1930s – notes that her images obsessively refer to “the photogenic quality of black skin [which] stands as a metaphor for an interest in the aesthetic surface quality of photographed lives”.
Today, a multitude of photographers, white and black, fashion and fine art photography, continue to work in this tradition. They continue to employ visual tropes that exoticize their black subjects, including the use of amplified colors that flatten and darken skin tone, and bold colors, animal prints, “jungle” or “savannah” patterns. to situate black subjects in “natural habitats.” which emphasize accounts of their “uncivilized” or “savage” character. The decorative quality of these Technicolor images is often misinterpreted as a pleasant alternative – an antidote – to racist caricatures. They are seen as a nice fix for all the bad color photographs taken in previous decades, when poor cinematic technology meant photographs of black people sometimes made them look like Blackface caricatures.
Audiences, too, readily recognize images that fall within this aesthetic tradition and respond to them as “beautiful” and “striking” photographs. Such responses are steeped in the history of seeing black skin as outside the category of beauty, and as something that can only be celebrated when a flat aesthetic is provided to it, where all animation is removed. At stake is what counts as black aesthetics, worthy of the black persona – practices that allow for aesthetic autonomy and, of necessity, must be able to oppose blackface. To be clear, blackface is a practice of subordination, not a practice of bodily autonomy. When black artists and fashion photographers effortlessly produce new and improved blackface aesthetics, they enhance tradition, not upset it.
Understanding this story allows us to see why Enninful’s famous cover shows glowing, fetishized black objects, not people. The cover of British Vogue cannot be read apart from the convoluted and appalling story of the aversion and revulsion that many have for people with dark black skin. Combine this aversion and revulsion with the violence of blackface and we begin to see how much our gaze needs education and reorientation. It’s also worth pointing out that the images in this Vogue cover tell a racist story – a story that makes these images necessary in the first place. One thing we can be sure of is that you don’t need black polish to black out in our technologically advanced society. Indeed, blackface is circulating in all sorts of ways these days; like its discredited history, some black people also continue to blacken and/or participate in its repeated practices. Once we identify them as working in the discredited practice of blackface, it’s easy to see the nefarious history they contribute to and sustain in the present.
It’s long been claimed that black models don’t sell high fashion magazines, but in the niche marketing moment of late capitalism, this cover and its images are likely to inspire many black people, especially women, to pick up this issue of British Vogue. They surely did it with the September issue with Beyoncé on the cover across the Atlantic in 2018.
Fashion continues to sell the white lie that it is inherently a non-racial practice and a business. With black men and women running some of the biggest institutions in high fashion right now, we can’t be surprised that racist images persist. This is because modern fashion has not taken seriously the way its very modes of practice are married to and grounded in the denigration of black bodies and personality.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.