Limpieza pa’ la Tristeza

IMG_6751

 

Estoy triste
so I’ll light my candles
one by one
and when all the candles are on
and all the lights are off,
i’ll draw the blinds open
so the neighbors can’t see
and the moon can trickle in
to heal the wounds
the daylight sun rays left behind,
i’ll open the window
to change the air in my room
the way doctors change
the blood in a dead body for preservation chemicals,
no,
the way a snake sheds its skin to grow a new one,
yes,
and then I’ll light the incense
while I turn on the shower

I’ll take a hot shower, with the bathroom door open, so the steam will fill up my bathroom, and then flood my room, empañando el vidrio, fogging the glass, and with the heat, my pores will open, like cactus flowers in the morning sun, and to remind myself I’m in my body, and it’s all I’ll ever own, I’ll clean it like a cat licking its fur, slowly, to heal, to enjoy it, to move on, to pass the time, to feel, and when I’m still in the shower I’ll scrub my hair with apple vinegar and water to take out the bad luck, spirits and oil like abuela and Reema said, the water will trickle down my face, flooding my wide pores, and I’ll wash off the salty remains with my face looking up at the sky and then I’ll rinse it all off, I treat my showers the way characters in books do, a shower or a bath is rebirth in my high school English class, now naked and still dripping, I’ll step out to the sink, look in the mirror and think how odd my body looks when the steam fogs the mirror, it makes all the colors blur, shapes get confused and I can’t tell where my hips end and where the toilet seat begins, I’ll dry my face to tone it with rose water and lavender extract and then I’ll spray it with the aloe I blended with hand-picked rose petals, I’ll dig up the coffee I don’t drink to exfoliate rub my face my butt my stretch marks, my bloated belly and swollen feet and then I’ll lay on my floor to rest until my thoughts start slipping away into a light dream, that’s how I’ll know it’s time to get up and shower again, a final cleaning to wash off the salt, I’ll rinse with cold water and think about the candles, they have been burning for too long, and I’ll realize my aloe also needs a shower, my journal needs ink, my head needs my pillow, the book on my window sill needs to be read, and my dried flowers need to be hung so I’ll rinse and step out again,I’ll feel a bit better, clearer, more fresh, but before crawling in bed I have one last step, a thick Aztec clay mask, I’ll spread it evenly on my skin, with a brush I’ll pretend my face is a canvas and the clay the paint, I’ll spread it until my face turns grey like the moon on my looking glass, and then comes the music, a fifteen minute salsa freestyle dance between my bed and my desk with a broom sweeping the floor and my hair tucked tight behind my ears and when the last beat sounds, I’ll wash my face with cold water again and then add a drop of maqui berry oil, I picked maqui in Santiago when the days got warmer and my skin got darker, I’ll spray one more time, moisturize in a circular motion with the tip of my fingers and I’ll be fresh, I’ll blow out the candles, read, sleep and I’ll be ready to wake up again.

 

Image by William Eggleston

 

Makeup as Healing

I was always late to class because I didn’t want to show my face outside or even leave my bed. My depression and self-loathing weighed me down and I constantly felt as if I was sinking. Painting my face is incredibly symbolic for me; this form of expression brings me light and hope. When thoughts fill my mind of how ugly I am or how I can’t seem to motivate myself to get out of bed, my makeup is the only thing that I can control. Putting on makeup in creative ways brings so much joy to days that can otherwise be dreary and depressing. I’m very bad at vocalizing this feeling and I always worry that friends and professors think I’m stupid or I’m taking the piss by putting so much time into my makeup. But I try not to care about these assumptions and rather focus on working to better this art form and brightening my hard days.

 

 

 

Simone Hadebe is a senior art major at Skidmore College.

Tracing Identities by Tóia Azevedo

“No models were harmed in the making of this collage”, mixed media collage

Tóia Azevedo’s main artistic research is on the concept of identity. She uses her own body to make this search: in self portraits, mixed media collages, embroidery, performance. Additionally, she likes to look at the faces of the strangers she sees in magazines, and imagine what stories lie behind them. Who are these people? What can their features tell us about them? And about us? And about Azevedo herself?

In the following works, Azevedo has burned some faces to show what lies behind a perfect pair of model’s eyes: some could say that it’s an act of uprising against our society’s ruthless beauty standards, a kind of revenge against the perfection persisting in the spotlight. By burning, Azevedo takes away their identity or showcases things that we don’t usually see in them. She has used embroidery to draw facial features from people she doesn’t know under a thin layer of tracing paper: the result is some confused lines that we identify as human faces. It is a projection of the real humans under the paper as if they are immersed in dim waters.

Finally, Azevedo has covered herself in pink organza fabric in an attempt to hide her body as a sacred unseen goddess – but it isn’t enough. She is forced to trace the lines which both shape and imprison her at the same time. It’s all about lines, really. It’s all about finding maps, locations and therefore, identities in the body’s features. What all these works have in common is the necessity of finding unknown places, hidden identities, that one would not be able to see if there wasn’t any kind of burning or hiding or covering of the lines.

“No models were harmed in the making of this collage”, mixed media collage
“No models were harmed in the making of this collage”, mixed media collage

 

“Tracing Identities”, mixed media collage
“Tracing Identities”, mixed media collage

 

The High Priestess, self-portrait mixed with embroidery

 

Tóia Azevedo lives in São Paulo, Brazil, where she currently studies Visual Arts at São Paulo State University (UNESP). She works with portrayals of her own body in space, time and society. Tóia’s research involves goddesses and primordial feminine elements and how they manifest in our era. Some of her media includes photography, collage and embroidery, ceramics, performance, painting and poetry.

conditioner

& couldn’t we be
softer? flyaways tamed,
cowlicks domesticated, &
all the scallops filed
away. we could make this world

more than His dollhouse,
remind our minted, plasticky
selves of our own
fragility – the shredding
of a nail, temporariness
of skin, disobedience
inherited
in the curl of our hair:

rebel. i go
to the salon to be so
mutinous, palms
sweating under hairdresser’s cape.
i come to be beautiful
for my female gaze, eyes seaming
gently shut, as janice

kneads my shoulders. her tagalog rattling
above my scalp, knocking
with anna’s at reception, like a thousand
little cowrie shells. maryam dips

mulchy dyed paintbrush
into a mother’s roots, her arabic basting
the hairdryer’s din. two french women toast
their hands under
hot igloos calcifying
color on their hands quoi,
c’est magnifique, look

how pretty we
arm ourselves. & nobody
but us can ever know
how it feels: “for women only”

once, you set us
apart so we kept
making rooms for ourselves, steaming &
polishing our own kilns,
where we come under
fire, but only for the pleasure
of ourselves. see, the swing

of my smoking mouth, my smooth
jazz hair – this is all mine,
ours, this space where we lacquer
& buff all the edges
you sink in our silkened surfaces: yes,
we’re the paper you toss
after glossing upon, with
all the errors of your hands.

 

 

Image by Ciu Xiuwen, documentary still from “Ladies Room”, 2000

Behind the Beautiful Mask: A Collage Series by Natvipa Tejapaibul

The entertainment and fashion industries seem like wonderlands of glamour and success. But there is another side to this beautiful story. Many models and actors are physically and mentally abused and assaulted, and there is heavy exploitation of fast fashion workers in third world countries. We’re only able to grab a glimpse of the truth from the news now; there is something dark behind the appealing masks of what it takes to be and sell “beautiful” in our society.

“Nana” Natvipa Tejapaibul was born and raised in Bangkok, Thailand. She is a recent graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design with a BFA in Graphic Design, and is currently based in New York. See more of her work here.

Frida Kahlo, Making Herself an Exhibit

 

the-two-fridas

I am younger than I am now and wearing a green velvet dress. My face is painted and I have violet flowers tucked within my dark hair. My earrings drip to my shoulders and I feel dazzlingly happy as I sit in the passenger’s seat beside the man I love (and who loves me!) in his fast car–we are going to a faraway party in Western Pennsylvania. It is winter and still bright outside, the windows are sealed, but as we leave his house and round through the winding roads leading to the highway, a blue silence like a haze descends over us. His fingers grip the steering wheel, his knuckles whiten, and his mouth becomes menacing.

“I can’t believe you,” he hisses, still staring at the road ahead.
“What? What?” I ask, bewildered. I have no idea what I have done wrong.
“Think,” he spits, letting his tongue slap the roof of his cold mouth, “You like to do that, don’t you?”
I search the interior of the car for clues. Door handle. Dashboard. Radio nozzles. My slinky purse on the floorboard.
“What?” I beg.
His face is tight like a canvas tent pinned to breakable earth. I stare at his profile and after a punishable time, he snarls, “Your chin. It’s disgusting. You disgust me sometimes.”
I instantly free my hand of my glove and brush the sides of my face and feel the distinctive bristles, a family heirloom–my mother and her mother were flowery too. I want to shrug. I had felt resplendent.
“People will laugh at you. Everyone can see,” he scolds me.
“I don’t think it matters,” I say weakly, but he continues to humiliate me and to augur an inevitable humiliation by others until I am crying and he turns the car around. “If you loved me, you’d take care of that.”

I see my tears transforming into sea ice as they drip downward and this slender ice grass grows high and sharp in the car like an ice meadow. My knees shake as the glacier glass ascends around us with polar majesty–can’t he see? Blue ice stalks grow over the armrest and between our legs, from the vents, on the dash, while the polar chill strangles all the flora and fauna of my being, and everything is winter suddenly. When we reach his house, I assume we are finished for the evening–or forever–but instead he shuts off the engine, and says quietly, “I’ll wait here. There is a razor in my cup.”
As I open the car door, I imagine the ice stalks following me, becoming water, and flooding out of the car, but as I turn back around, the ice has not melted but grown thicker and now the man is encased in the ice, unrecognizable as a blur. I slowly let myself back into his house and climb up to the bathroom, where I stare at myself in the mirror. Am I a barbarian? My makeup is ruined, two smudgy charcoal trails that fall over my cheeks, my hair is fussed and raging from our argument. I pick up the razor and lean over the sink, still tearful as I shave off the undesirable thistles of me. As I do it, I wonder what I am doing. Then, like a clear burst of air, a bird of thought, Athena’s owl, Frida Kahlo’s spirit flies into the room. That unmistakable whiff of moustache, the monobrow, but mostly, her defiant eyes. I go to the party, shaven. I drink and dance, but in my heart, I feel the drought coming, the cracking of something once fertile, but it isn’t my dermis – it is something else.

frida.png

Frida Kahlo, Julien Levy, American; From the collection of: Philadelphia Museum of Art

How and why do so many folks find inspiration in Frida Kahlo, and not just in her paintings, but in how she lived her life? “For [American Art Historian] Parker Lesley, she epitomized ‘the Byzantine opulence of the Empress Theodora, a combination of barbarism and elegance” (Phillips 95). Is it this — her timeless brutal regality without mystification? And is it part thrill of her unorthodox face, more familiar and universal than the faces on most world currencies? With her radical choices, she gives us permission to be ourselves. Carlos Phillips Olmedo, Director General of Museums Dolores Olmedo, Frida Kahlo y Diego Rivera Anahuacalli, claims “There is art that is so highly personal in nature that it becomes universal. This is true of the art of Frida Kahlo” (Henestrosa & Wilcox 10). London’s Victoria and Albert museum’s current exhibition, Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, seeks to answer this question and more. And it succeeds, without falling into idolatry, hagiography, or beatification. Or an uninventive mise-en-scène of a mad misunderstood genius. Or myth-making.

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up is an exhumation of a subversive feminist-artist-activist who is still able to teach us new ways to live and think. By unearthing Kahlo’s personal artifacts (literally, the artifacts presented were revealed in 2004 from Kahlo’s sealed bathroom), we do not supersede her paintings. Instead, swimming through the blue exhibit rooms (painted blue in homage to her Casa Azul home in Coyoacán, Mexico), visitors temporarily evolve the lateral organs of fish and are able to feel all the vibrations, impulses, histories, and pressure gradients in Kahlo’s life, which imbued her easels and her untraditional canvases (her own plaster corsets and prosthetic leg) with her singular force.

The exhibition’s co-curator Circe Henestrosa writes, “It is her construction of her identity through her ethnicity, her disability, her political beliefs and her art that makes her such a compelling and relevant icon today” (14). Henestrosa’s words echo Olmedo’s idea that it is the highly personal aspect of Kahlo that draws in her acolytes; Kahlo exemplifies how mess and integrity in your art and lifestyle is attractive, whereas being too broad and noncommittal in order to please does not actually appeal in the long-term. The exhibition, which also throws light on modern Mexican history, reminds us that this daughter of a German immigrant and a Mexican woman “wore many hats” as people say today–she even reinvented her own birthday, turning her clock forward by three years, so she could be a daughter of the 1910 Mexican Revolution.

frida dress.png

Frida Kahlo’s wardrobe inspired by the the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Photograph Javier Hinojosa

Some reviews of this exhibition bemoan a lack of Kahlo’s paintings or suggest we are ogling Kahlo with a modern gaze. Jonathan Jones of The Guardian writes, “This exhibition reinvents Kahlo as a 21st-century artist whose life was a kind of performance…” and “I suppose this is what artistic fame looks like in 2018.” I would counter that all lives are performances and in the most enlightened scenario, the performance is a person living out their essences for their own fulfillment and pleasure, which Kahlo demonstrates. There is a difference between performance and self-publicity; I wager that Kahlo was less interested in self-publicity than contemporary artists and social media darlings are today, but she might have been just as much a performer. For example, while viewing her painting Self Portrait Along the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States at the exhibit, the curators remind us that Kahlo stated, “The most important thing for everyone in Gringolandia [America] is to have ambition and become ‘somebody,’ and frankly, I don’t have the least ambition to become anybody.” Kahlo didn’t want to become somebody, which is what the performer does. Kahlo was comfortable with the existing contradictions of her life, body and history; a publicity campaign-minded person also prefers a more linear and uncomplicated message. For instance, the exhibition takes us into Kahlo’s home where she spent most of her life, a place just outside of Mexico City. She and her partner Diego Rivera collaged her home’s interior walls with tiny votive (or retablo or ex voto or lámina) paintings (she collected more than 400), because they were part of Kahlo’s national and maternal history, not because she actually believed in god and the saints (Gotthardt). The votive influence is also felt in her own art and the V&A exhibition features many such votives to consider along with their context within Mexican history.

votive unknown.png

Votive by unknown painter (Mexican, 19th century). Image courtesy of El Paso Museum of Art

Other reviewers wish there had been a more unequivocal focus on her communist politics, or her atheism or feminism. I will note The Communist Manifesto was being sold alongside dozens of Kahlo biographies at the robust gift shop, and a black-and-white video of Kahlo, Leon Trotsky, and Diego Rivera at Casa Azul plays early in the exhibition. In addition, an exhibit highlight was Kahlo’s plaster orthopedic corsets, one of which featured the unmistakable symbol of proletarian solidarity, the red hammer and sickle. Seemingly, co-curators Claire Wilcox and Circe Henestrosa chose to “show” Kahlo’s story instead of “tell” it, which means the likes of Chekhov and legions of creative writing teachers would enjoy the storymaking of this exhibition.

Ultimately, underlining this empowering and uplifting exhibition is a tension between the Flaubertian notion that the artwork is all that should matter, and the alternative, that the artist’s life is worthy of study, and enhances our experience with their art or with our world. Furthermore, there is a subtler idea, that artists themselves are deserving of our time, but only if we are engaging in discourse concerning “serious” matters, like the artist’s politics or gender-bending. If we are entranced by Kahlo’s stained lipstick print on a photo of Rivera or the grey-green stone beads she most likely acquired from Maya sites in southeastern Mexico, we are somehow superficial, plebeian, mere idolaters. All these ideas are myopic and do not apply to this exhibition. One easy reason is that humans, particularly women, are still enduring in binaries, boxed like madonna or jezebel as caring wife or career woman, or problematic sub-boxes like muse, manic pixie dream girl, feminazi. Kahlo provides us with a modular life; she does not live in a box–she lives in sieves. Things pass through her and she passes through them, from Tehuana headdresses to medical operations to being Madame Rivera to engaging in her infidelidades to being a person with lifelong physical disabilities. All these passages infuse her artwork and give us a new way to consider being human or woman or artist or bodied or partner or citizen.

In the United Arab Emirates today, because of her physical limitations, Kahlo would be considered a Person of Determination, which is a new and bold take on inclusive language issued by Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum. This distinction, decreed in time for March 2019’s Special Olympics World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi, is a far cry from the language many folks grew up using around disability– and language changes thinking. ‘People of Determination’ signs are now found everywhere in the UAE, from airports to queues at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. And if there is any doubt in the language, look to Kahlo for affirmation. The exhibition reminds us that Kahlo once said, “I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy as long as I can paint” and Tristram Hunt, Director of the V&A, states, “Her rejection of gender orthodoxy and conventional fashion–as an artist who also transcended disability–allowed her to forge a unique identity which spans ages, gender and geography in its global appeal” (Henestrosa & Wilcox 11). In fact, the opening text within the exhibit is organized under the titles ‘Roots’ and ‘Sickness’ because these two elements of her life are the muses of so much of her artwork. It is gratifying to understand the multifarious influences in her life and not perpetuate the idea of the artist being visited by some mythical muse who imparts ideas in the artist’s hands like the spirit visiting the Four Evangelists. There is hard reflective work and corporal pain inherent in every painting, evidenced in works such as The Broken Column. Furthermore, through ‘Roots’, we learn of her photographer father, who liked to take self-portraits, perhaps animating her own lifelong obsession with self-portraiture.

garden.pngJohn Madejski Garden, Samantha Neugebauer

On the afternoon I visited the exhibit, the crowd was surfeit with matriarchal magnetism—mothers, daughters, grandmothers, sisters, girlfriends, all huddling over captions, smiling, reading, and nodding their heads together. It was especially arresting to see young boys enchanted by Kahlo, grasping their mother’s hands and asking questions about her life, ideas, and art. There was innocence and hope inherent in these little boys’ fascination; they had not yet been conditioned to fear powerful women, to feel intimidated, or to fight (sometimes subconscious, sometimes conscious) urges to want their women conformed into boxes. Outside, in the museum’s John Madejski Garden, children leaped inside a steel face of Kahlo for photos of the flower queen. It felt like a safe haven in a world that is as of late (as of always) hostile towards women. Kind of like how, according to curator Adrian Locke, Kahlo’s Mexico felt to many artists, photographers, and academics during the outbreak of WWII and rise of fascism in Europe. At this time “Mexico was viewed as a safe haven that welcomed refugees” (Henestrosa & Wilcox 46). Kahlo, likewise, has become a stiff caryatid holding up new ideas for us to consider, but also someone we can stand below for pride and safety.

Back inside the museum, there was genuine excitement in the air; it was a different energy than the V&A’s relatable David Bowie Is exhibition or even another exhibit of a female art icon, Georgia O’Keeffe, which was on at the Brooklyn Museum in 2016. Both these exhibitions were extremely well-done and expansive, but in some ways, Kahlo’s subversion is more necessary now, more timely. Kahlo did not live to see many of the dark repercussions of communist leadership, so, we cannot predict exactly what her politics would look like today; however, we can look to her art and lifestyle for elements of her politics which would still serve us well, especially if we feel trapped in the grid of capitalism but aren’t sure what to do. For example, many of the costumes on display were handmade or altered by Kahlo herself. Her wardrobe was intentional, inclusive, and I’ll say, the wardrobe of an environmentalist. Her clothing was typically comprised of a huipil (square-cut tunic) and an enagua (skirt) with an holán (flounce). She wore the same accessories and clothing frequently, as evidenced in many photos and paintings reunited in this exhibit with Kahlo’s real wardrobe. She also kept clothing that was imperfect —paint splatters, ink, cigarette burns, and other marks of life. She altered, shared, and borrowed stones, beads, fabrics; some of her famous swaps were from notables like her comrade Picasso and Peggy Guggenheim (Phillips 89). She was generous and inventive. Alternatively, in a recent article about Rent the Runway in the The New Yorker, Alexandra Schwartz writes, “…the average American buys sixty-eight items of clothing, eighty percent of which are seldom worn; twenty percent of what the $2.4-trillion global fashion industry generates is thrown away” (46). If we admire Kahlo’s style, why not create our own and eschew the anodyne of fast fashion? We don’t need to imitate her look, but rather follow her attitude towards style cultivation and wardrobe accumulation.

Other unmissable exhibition highlights included a short clip of Miguel Covarrubias’ film El Sur de México, which features strong female figures from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, an inspiration of Kahlo’s as reflected in her artwork and her élan. The famed Mexican writer Andrés Henestrosa from Oaxaca was a friend of Kahlo’s and Henestrosa gave Kahlo her first Tehuana dresses (Phillips). Furthermore, Covarrubias had stated, “To the average city Mexican, a Tehuana is as romantic and attractive a subject as a South Sea maiden to an adolescent American” (Phillips). Once you familiarize yourself with Tehuana sartorial traditions and post-revolutionary nationalism, it is impossible not to discern its spell on Kahlo.

A key item for poetry lovers is Kahlo’s copy of Leaves of Grass (the Spanish translation of Whitman’s poems by Armando A. Vasseur was found at Kahlo’s deathbed). Lastly, make sure to check out the exquisite bracelet from China that Kahlo wore; it is featured in the exhibition’s last room.

giftshop.png
Victoria and Albert Museum Gift Shop, Samantha Neugebauer

Following the exhibit, one exits, rather obviously, through the gift shop. While the capitalistic cacophony of Kahlo goods for sale might have elicited disdain from the artist if she were around to witness it, there is a sense that the eager shoppers have a specious impulse that by buying a flowery headband or bulbous necklace, they will never detox from the euphoria of their Kahlo experience and the empowerment she radiates. These actions come from a good place; they also support the museum (which has free admission)–and in some cases, contemporary Mexican artisans. There is not only a gift shop of Kahlo wares as your exit, but also Kahlo-inspired souvenirs and books in the V&A’s main gift shop. In this space, you’ll find exclusive pieces of jewelry and other fashion goods, like painted guaje purses, by female Mexican artists, such as Iris De La Torre of Guadalajara, Carla Fernández of Mexico City, and Franco-Mexican designer Sophie Simone Cortina, who all designed pieces especially for this exhibition. One necklace by Cortina called ‘Hummingbirds’ expresses how these birds represent good luck in Mexican culture and the piece also evokes the term of endearment Rivera used to refer to Kahlo’s eyebrows: her hummingbirds. I purchased a pair of chaquira earrings by Carla Fernández, made in collaboration with the Mooy artisans from the San Pablito community, which feature one figure wearing a long skirt and another in trousers. When I asked for this pair from the salesperson, a young seemingly kind-hearted guy asked, “Oh, you want the boy and girl pair or the two girls?” There was another pair by Fernández with both figures in skirts. I was temporarily taken aback that we were still making distinctions on sex related to a human’s clothing choices, especially in such close vicinity to the masterful Kahlo exhibition, one that even featured photographs of Kahlo in trousers. That brief experience was quickly usurped by my eavesdropping as I heard a young Glaswegian-accented boy make pleas to his father to buy some bright plastic bracelets as he slipped several of them up his thin arms. His father quickly instructed him to “Put those back…those are for girls”.

Nevertheless, these two antidotes did not break the magic of Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up. In truth, these final brief episodes bolstered my reverence for the exhibition, its necessariness, and seriousness. Ultimately, it makes me believe, as I finish writing this while brushing the small dark hairs on my chinny chin chin, that we have as much to learn from Kahlo about how she lived her life, in her body, with her uncompromising body hair, and in her clothing, as we do from her paintings themselves.

earrings.png
Victoria and Albert Museum Gift Shop, Carla Fernández

References
Frida Kahlo Making Her Self Up. 16 June 2018- November 2018, Victoria and Albert Museum,
London.
Gotthardt , Alexxa. “A Brief History of the Mexican Votive Paintings That Inspired Frida
Kahlo.” Artsy, 1 Nov. 2016,
https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-the-traditional-mexican-votive-paintings-that-inspired-frida-kahlo.
Henestrosa, Circe, and Wilcox, Claire, editors. Frida Kahlo Making Her Self Up. London, V&A Publishing, 2018.
Phillips, Claire. “Frida Kahlo’s Jewellery.” Frida Kahlo Making Her Self Up, edited by Circe
Henestrosa and Claire Wilcox, V&A Publishing, 2018, pp 85-97.
Schwartz, Alexandra. “Costume Change.” The New Yorker. 22 October 2018: 44-49.

 

Artwork by Frida Kahlo, “The Two Fridas”, 1939.

The 126-Year-Old White Gaze of Vogue

It’s no breaking news that Vogue, controversially considered the world’s ultimate fashion bible, will finally have a cover shot by a black photographer for the first time in its 126-year-old existence. The magazine’s iconic September issue, the most esteemed and awaited of the year for which even a documentary film was released, has been “lent” to Beyonce this year. She apparently has free reign over the creative production in exchange for her presence on the cover, and has picked the African American photographer Tyler Mitchell to shoot it.

Trevor Noah’s reaction to the news is my favorite, because it’s both celebratory and uncomfortable, like good alcohol – “Finally a good headline with the words “black person” and “shoot” in it! This is dope!”

What is undoubtedly a cause for excitement is also a prime opportunity to examine the historically dominant whiteness of media outlets that control the circulation of images and perceptions of global trends. Who are the major puppeteers of what’s deemed “hot or not” and why are their channel-flip-fast trends so colorful yet their playing fields so colorless? Why does it take a black person, whose extreme levels of fame and global influence almost elevate her above conventional race hierarchies, being given the opportunity to temporarily control a historically white space, in order for young black, talented creatives to break out in the absolute upper echelons of their industry? One could argue that the Vogue cover, normally coordinated by the steely hands of editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, is typically reserved for highly established photographers. But why are no black photographers considered highly established, or plainly speaking, good enough? The deeper issue is that creative industries of fashion and other arts continue to be white dominated arenas where we have to constantly be questioning whether white people and people of color are being given equal opportunities and advantages.

It all boils down to: representation matters. The truth is I could’ve tweeted about this news but I chose to write this piece instead because even now, not enough people get it to take action.

So I’ll break it down here. Why does it matter so much to have a black photographer shooting the cover of Vogue?

A photograph, although static, still serves as a medium of narrative. Images tell stories and if they didn’t, we wouldn’t care so much about Instagram and how our timelines make us feel everyday. We wouldn’t pin ourselves to screens – TVs, laptops, iPhones, magazines. Our generation has simply never been more visually generated and motivated, and the effects of this reality can’t be judged with accuracy either, because we are the first generation to live this way.

A photograph on the cover of the most famous magazine in the world has the power to influence millions of people worldwide. This means its narrative is scarily pervasive around the globe. Rihanna’s recent Vogue cover, the one with her skinny drawn-on eyebrows, has thrown the world into a tizzy, questioning the entire culture of eyebrows, and spawning think pieces on the evolution of eyebrow styling and its impact on style and beauty perceptions. See what I mean by scary influence?

When we analyze the narrative of an image, we look at several factors: what/who is in the photograph, why are they there, how are they positioned and placed, and who put them there. The creator of the image is important because in their creation, we are seeing through their eyes. The image is a product of its creator’s specific bias and perspective. If the holy grail of fashion produces images that are always shown through a white lens, then we always experience a white narrative. The positioners and placers, the narrators of high fashion, are white, so our views of style morph into constantly examining high fashion through a white lens. And this, today, is simply unacceptable. No one should have to be writing a think piece about why style, image and creativity are produced equally well and thought-provokingly by all races and cultures, and that displaying their diversity not only matters, but just signifies common sense.

Tyler Mitchell is a 2017 graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He grew up in Atlanta, becoming a photographer in his teens, taking pictures of fashion and youth culture, particularly surrounding the local skateboarding scene. In 2015, he self-published a book, El Paquete, containing photographs of skateboarding youth, architecture and fashion in Havana, Cuba.

He has come to be featured in several prolific media outlets such as Complex, i-D, Teen Vogue and Lomography. His cover for Teen Vogue featured gun control activists Emma Gonzalez, Sarah Chadwick, Nza-Ari Khepra, and Jaclyn Corin, wearing all-black in perhaps a nod to the outfit of historic freedom fighters, the Black Panthers, with the hashtag #NEVERAGAIN.

“I depict black people and people of color in a really real and pure way,” Mitchell stated in a New York Times profile last year. “There is an honest gaze to my photos.”

 

Screen Shot 2018-08-04 at 22.27.09.png
Tyler Mitchell, 2 Men (2016). Photo courtesy of the Aperture Foundation.

Mitchell’s work is currently on display at the Aperture Foundation in New York (through August 16), in the show “2018 Aperture Summer Open: The Way We Live Now”. His vivid portraits, showcasing a refreshing tenderness, introspection and hope, of young black men, are partly inspired by 1980s street photographer Jamel Shabazz, and serve as a response to Mitchell’s own coming-of-age struggles as a young African American.


“I was always mentally placing myself in relation to others and very conscious of my blackness. There’s a form of what I can only describe as ‘racial schizophrenia’ that goes on in the mind of an adolescent boy,” wrote Mitchell in his artist’s statement for the exhibition. “I am synthesizing what I see to be a full range of expression possible for a black man in the future.”

Looking at Mitchell’s work, it seems fitting why Beyonce chose him. Although a weak song, Beyonce’s music video for “Apes**t” with husband Jay-Z also employs image as narrative in a powerful way. The couple often stand in statuesque poses in front of some of the world’s most famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, at the Louvre Museum, what is known as a historically white space. The most famous artworks displayed at the Louvre are almost always white images and thus, white narratives, with occasional displays of people of color either as slaves, servants or savages, or depicted through a completely orientalist lens. In the video, Beyonce and Jay-Z literally place black bodies amongst the white marble floors and statues of the Louvre to assert black presence and excellence into the artistic narrative of the space they’re in. A row of black women dance in front of the painting of the coronation of Napoleon, one of history’s biggest colonizers, while Beyonce sings “I can’t believe we made it”. Jay-Z raps his verse in front of the painting “The Raft of Medusa” which depicts survivors spotting their rescue after their boat suffers from a fatal crash; the comparative slave boat narrative becomes apparent. An image of a painting where a white woman hugs a white man with a stab wound, is recreated with a black man and woman, and the stab wound morphs into a symbol of police brutality. This is emphasized further by an image of black men kneeling outside the museum, literally “taking a knee” in reference to NFL football players, led by Colin Kaepernick, kneeling at their games to protest racism and police brutality. Even the censored title becomes a symbol of erasing black presence and excellence out of global artistic, social and political narratives for centuries. And plenty more metaphors abound, too many to recount in full here.

Screen Shot 2018-08-04 at 22.29.38.png


What this video and the upcoming Vogue issue can remind us of is that there is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to diversifying the arts and its various narratives. As a society that is increasingly interconnected through media and its distribution of the arts, we need to do better when it comes to being aware of what we’re consuming and producing, and through what particular shade of lens.

 

Photograph by Tyler Mitchell