Today is President's Day. And what better way to acknowledge the accomplishments of our Founding Fathers and salute American culture than to paint my face white and don my version of post-colonial American accoutrement.
You say that George Washington accomplished more than being white and wearing breeches? You say a better way to honor him would be to, say, talk about his heroism in the Revolutionary War or his work as the nation's first president? You say white face and faux colonial wear has naught to do with American culture? You say my way of honoring is, at best, a narrowing of one man to his race and imagined sartorial choices?
Bah! I say you know nothing of homage.
Now, L'Officiel magazine--they know how to do things. In a purported tribute to musician and afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, they dressed none other than Beyonce in black(er) face and so-called African-inspired garb for a high-fashion spread.
According to iLulu Online, the copy accompanying the above images reads:
The fashion magazine is about to celebrate its 90th birthday. To celebrate this anniversary, the festivities start with the March issue, with Beyoncé on the cover. She agreed to pose for an incredible fashion shoot, with the theme of African Queen, paying a tribute to the legendary Fela Kuti (*a political singer who died in 1997). Far from the glamourous Sasha Fierce, the beauty posed for the magazine with amazing fashion designers clothes, but also in a dress created by her mother. A return to her African roots, as you can see on the picture, on which her face was voluntarily darkened. All the pictures will be available in the collector edition, on sell at the end of this month.Taking my tongue out of my cheek now...Oh dear!
I think the fact that this particular fashion shoot features a black woman scarcely makes it less offensive than the many similar ones we've seen in recent months. If the copy above truly represents the magazine's thinking, then the motivation for this fashion shoot was a melange of misguided notions about Africa and what it means to be African or African American. Worse is the deeply offensive casting of Fela Kuti as simply some guy from a continent where folks wear vaguely "tribal" clothing.
Let's pull L'Officiel's statement apart, shall we?
The theme of the shoot is "African Queen." And what is an African queen exactly? Africa is a large continent of 53 countries and more than a billion people representing a variety of ethnic groups, races, languages, traditions and histories. There is no queen of the continent of Africa. The terminology is as confusing as a theme called European Queen. (Would the dress in a European queen-themed shoot be traditionally British or Danish or Spanish...?) "African Queen" connotes a continent that is simply a really big country of really black people who separate themselves into tribes and wrap themselves in head dresses and kente cloth.
The magazine is "paying tribute" to Fela Kuti. How is this so? How is blackening the face of a celebrity model and dressing her in faux African gear (see point above) paying tribute to an iconic musician and activist? It isn't. What do blackface, head wraps, bones and fringey dresses have to do with Kuti's Nigerian culture? Nothing.
Far from the glamorous Sasha Fierce...What? Bey is glamorous. All day. Every day. Indeed, troubling as this fashion shoot is to me, Beyonce still looks gorgeous in it. So, what indicates to L'Officiel that Beyonce is setting aside her glamour on this occasion? Because her skin has been darkened? Because she is mimicking (poorly) African style? Because Africa and Africans are not glamorous? (Someone set Iman and Alek Wek straight.) There isn't an answer that isn't offensive.
A return to her African roots...Again. WTF, L'Officiel? Is this how the magazine thinks people with African heritage reconnect with the Motherland? Why would Beyonce need to darken her face to celebrate her African heritage--as if Africans and African Americans don't come in a variety of skin tones? And...again...what about fake tribal/jungle print, designed and swathed just so by a mostly white and European fashion team says Senegalese culture or Nigerian culture or Sierra Leonian culture?
I suspect the real story behind this fashion shoot is this: The European fashion community is enamored of blackface these days, as we have seen in a variety of controversial shoots over the last year. L'Officiel wanted to do such a shoot and figured one way to pull it off and make fewer waves would be to employ a black woman. Better, they snagged an internationally famous black woman, whose husband is involved with a dynamic, popular Broadway show about an iconic African musician. This way, the fashion shoot can be wrapped in language about rediscovering roots and honoring African heroes.
Well, you fail, L'Officiel. We're on to you. Your "tribute" has nothing to do with African or African American culture. This fashion shoot is simply a reflection of Africa, Africans and African Americans through a biased, colonialist, European lens.