Thursday, November 26, 2009

When is Dark Makeup Art?

When the producers of "America's Next Top Model" decided to make up its contestants to represent various ethnic groups, we here at StyleList were taken aback.

While it wasn't the first time this sort of thing has occurred on the show, we saw this editorial challenge as borderline blackface - it seemed to recall a historical form of entertainment rooted in the demeaning and inaccurate portrayal of African Americans.

But in a poll taken by more then 20,000 StyleList readers, 53 percent considered the "America's Next Top Model" images to be "a beautiful celebration of biracial women." A significant number of readers - who identified themselves as women of color - did not find it offensive. In fact, they thought it was more offensive to label it as blackface.

"ANTM" host Tyra Banks recently apologized if she offended anyone, but said she was proud of the show and felt it celebrated bi-racial women. Coincidentally, two prominent fashion magazines – French Vogue and V – have also featured white models painted in dark makeup.

What is really going on here?

The photo shoots have garnered mixed reactions from editors, makeup artists and scholars: Is it offensive for white models to wear dark makeup? Is it new racism? Or is it an artistic statement in a multicultural world?

"The first images I saw were from French Vogue and I hesitated to call it blackface," said Robin Givhan, fashion editor of The Washington Post, "because that refers to a "cruel, nasty and rude form of mockery and I don't think that was the intent."

Blackface arose in the 1830s as a theatrical device used in minstrel shows, variety acts in which white and black actors would paint their faces black with burnt cork or shoe polish, exaggerate their lips and don wooly wigs.

Givhan believes that it's a sign of the times that people feel more comfortable playing with images that refer to race. But she points out that when "it comes from an industry that is hurtful and dismissive it comes across as suspect." (The American modeling industry has long been criticized for a lack of models of color.)

The concept of painting models in full body, black makeup isn't new to the fashion industry -- Italian Vogue did it to critical acclaim in 2006, and designers Viktor and Rolf painted themselves, and their models, for their Fall 2001 "Black Hole" fashion show. Celebrity makeup artist Sam Fine, whose clients include Halle Berry, Tyra Banks, Iman and Naomi Campbell, sees it simply as art.

"I think we're very sensitive to these models being painted darker, but clearly they weren't trying to make them black," he said of the recent instances. "It doesn't speak to our blackness."

Fine dubs it as "makeup noir," and contends that if he were a fashion editor doing a similar photo shoot he would not cast a black woman.

"I would make sure to cast a girl with clear eyes and European features – it adds contrast to show off the art and the juxtaposition," said Fine. "Fashion is all about stories. I don't see it as something more than a spread of interesting hair and makeup."

But where some see art, others spy passive racism.

Dr. Yaba Blay, an assistant professor of Africana Studies at Lafayette College, argues that "we don't have the ability to desensitize ourselves on the historical legacy of blackface."

"I would place this in the guise of new racism," said Dr. Blay. "Whereas, the old racism was blatant with the Tom, Coon, and shuckin' and jivin', new racism works in a way that depends on these controlling images, but it remixes it."

V Magazine's "Beauty 2010" feature with model Sasha Pivovarova dipped in dark makeup embracing clearly pale model Heidi Mount reminded the professor of the 1991 United Colors of Benetton ad titled "Angel and Devil."

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