Thursday, February 21, 2008

Ajuma The Conquered

Last season Vivienne Westwood raised a few eyebrows when she publicly lambasted fashion editors, calling them racist for refusing to use black models on their pages. Westwood even went as far as to call for an affirmative action of sorts, to force editors to use a certain percentage of black models. Later, she also spoke of her upcoming ads which would feature the beautiful Kenyan model Ajuma Nasenyana, no stranger to Westwood's runway, as the face of the Spring campaign.

I was impressed with Westwood's willingness to speak so openly about what we've all been decrying for years and looked forward to seeing the new ads with Ajuma (who I think is one of the most stunning models to emerge in the last few years.) In my view, the grande dame could have just as easily said nothing, accepted the status quo, and had another cup of tea.

Well, low and behold, the ads have finally made their way into fashion magazines and sadly, I am not impressed. Westwood's ads are usually on the fringe but seeing Ajuma posing with a spear and gun in a series of ads that also includes African masks, animal corpses and even bananas is crossed the line from provocative to stereotypical and wholly unnecessary.

Is it a political message? I don't know. Shot by Juergen Teller, they are certainly eye-catching. Nasenyana's dark shiny skin absorbs ever bit of the stark white background. In one, Ajuma wears a yellow and green dress reminiscent of the plumage of an exotic bird while holding a machine gun. In spite of the dress, Ajuma, with her closely cropped hair and somewhat androgynous appearance, could easily be mistaken for a young boy, or more aptly, a child soldier, much like the ones who are all too often shown on the evening news or in documentaries on Africa's war torn regions. Is this 'empowerment' or is Westwood alluding to the 'force' she wants used to put models like Ajuma on the pages of Vogue and Elle?

Another image show Ajuma standing behind an armchair, casually holding the hand of a casually seated white male model who is also holding a gun while yet another has her alone, holding a spear.

Maybe it's just my own irritation at this subject but I can't help but wonder what the reaction would be if say Gisele or Kate Moss were photographed in this 'safari chic' manner nearly every time they appeared in an ad or editorial. Or better yet, as cavewomen? Wouldn't it be promptly dismissed as tiresome or unoriginal? I have honestly seen Ajuma, and other black models, used in this exploitative manner dozens and dozens of times.

Where fashion used to be a fun past-time for me, it has now become repetitive and tiresome.

I've posted before about the refusal of some fashion photographers to view black female models as anything but an exotic other, to be dressed up in feathers or pelts to exploit their racial origins. To see this trend continued into yet another decade is troubling. Haven't we made any progress?

As for Dame Westwood, to her I would say that although I appreciate her support of the struggle, maybe next time she should just send a check.

Photo source: BerlinRocks!/TFS


Camille Acey said...

I am holding out that Westwood is trying to make a political statement. Something about the assumptions of what black and "on film" should mean. Unfortunately, I don't think the point was made. I've seen much smarter Diesel ads and frankly she might have done well to get DavidLaChapelle (or whoever shot those Diesel ads) to get this together instead of the ever-earnest Juergen Teller.

On a somewhat tangential note,I just watched that horrificly bad movie Juno and am wondering why white people get the monopoly on "cute". Probably the same reason they get the monopoly on almost everything else...

Brigitte said...

I'm hoping for some insight from VW too but I'm not holding my breath.

aulelia said...

@brigitte -- I see where you are coming from. Why do black models have to be in fotos with whites all the time ? Ajuma is fierce and I love her to death!

CHIC NOIR said...

I think they want Ajuma to be the new Naomi Campbell.

CHIC NOIR said...

Doesn't Juergen Teller shot the Marc Jacob ads? and if so he is known for using a white background.

Invisible Woman said...

This is completely off topic, but you might want to check into joining helps with you blog rankings, and you have a great blog :-)

AnyaPosh said...

I like Ajuma and all, but the outfits & colours she was adorned with are not flattering at all! I believe that with her androgynous features she should be outfitted in softer materials and styles that accentuate her feminity, but they did not achieve a really great look with her this time.

Carla said...

Yeah, these are samo, samo. Just because Westwood spoke out doesn't mean she doesn't harbor neo-colonialist stereotypes about the black bodies she defends/hires. You're right--we've seen it sooooo many times as to be quite obvious at this point. This is a duck.

And thank you, Camille! Juno was unwatchable, for many reasons. I just don't understand this spate of accidental-pregnancy movies in which the plucky white heroine opts to carry the pregnancy to term regardless of the circumstances surrounding her conception. In this era of the erosion of women's reproductive rights in the U.S., they simply aren't funny. They're dangerous.

Carmen said...

Hi Brigitte,

This is such a great post. Sorry for posting this publicly - feel free to delete this comment but I couldn't find an email for you.

Would it be possible for me to cross-post this as a guest contribution from you on my blog Racialicious, about the intersection of race and pop culture?

We've had a lot of conversations about racism in the fashion industry, and the whole celebration of colonialism in fashion magazines - and I know our readers would love to read your take on this ad campaign.

Brigitte said...

Thanks for the suggestion Invisible Woman, I just joined Technorati this evening.

Carmen, I didn't realize that I didn't have an email address enabled. Please feel free to cross post. Thanks!