Why British Vogue’s ‘celebration’ of the African model fell short

Fashion continues to trade in the white lie that it is inherently a non-racial practice and a business.

British Vogue February 2022 cover, showing 9 Black models, are seen as part of a Instagram post celebrating the initiative
Projects such as this Vogue cover, though appearing to counter racist practices in fashion through celebrating the dark beauty of Black, African women, are nonetheless deeply imbricated in racist histories of imaging minoritised communities, writes Jayawardane and Walcott.

During the past few weeks, Edward Enninful, the British-Ghanaian editor-in-chief of British Vogue, has been celebrating the new cover of his magazine, where he introduced nine “dark-skinned” models of African descent.

The February issue, which has been available on newsstands since January 18, includes an accompanying story by contributing editor Funmi Fetto, exploring “the rise of the African model” and “spotlight[ing] the new generation”.

In the story, Fetto invites readers to celebrate what she deems a “seismic shift” in the fashion industry. Spring/summer 2022 runways, she explains, have been “awash with dark-skinned models”. “For an industry long criticised for its lack of diversity, as well as for perpetuating beauty standards seen through a Eurocentric lens, this change is momentous,” she writes. The photographs accompanying her story, however, open up questions about what exactly we are being asked to celebrate.

Although Enninful and Fetto claim a revolution, “a major shift, a major, powerful moment,” the photographs seem to give us – unwittingly, perhaps – the same old-same old.

The cover – and all the other images used to illustrate the cover story – reproduce European colonial, fetishistic obsessions with depicting African people as inanimate statues: objects without life, mobility, movement. Skin tone, especially, is made dark and shiny – giving the appearance of polished wood. Colour photographs are manipulated, post-production, making skin glossy and ultra-dark. In these ways, photographs that claim to celebrate Blackness call to mind Anish Kapoor’s super-saturated blackest black pigment. The statuesque nature of the models are exaggerated in post-production, in a way that renders their movements mute. As a result, we are greeted with a flat-blackness that lacks in distinction, even as some other shades of black manage to emerge.

The cover image that shows all nine models together, in particular, has an interesting and troubling structure to it that is worth noting. The “lighter” skinned models are sandwiched between the “darker” skinned models making bursts of “lighter” skin tones apparent as the tiered structure of the photograph has the “darkest” skinned models morphing into one black feild, with any individuality quickly disappearing. Additionally, not one afro or any kind of natural hairstyle is apparent in this so-called “revolutionary” image. One is left to ask who is imagined as the viewer who would see this as radical?

The images call to mind pictures of primitive bodies in civilised places, to riff off of Sally Price (Primitive Art in Civilized Places). Black skin, or rather Black flesh, is a blank canvas on which a creative director and photographer grafted the culture’s racist unconscious. Both danger and sexuality are suspended in favour of a docility that is startling, alongside the claim of revolution that Eninnful and Fetto – and indeed, the high-fashion world as a whole – make. The sad truth is that nine models on the cover of British Vogue – or on the season’s runways – do not amount to a revolution in an industry where whiteness remains the standard default of beauty.

Projects such as this Vogue cover, though appearing to counter racist practices in fashion through celebrating the dark beauty of Black, African women, are nonetheless deeply imbricated in racist histories of imaging minoritised communities.

The photographer for this cover, Brazilian-born Rafael Pavarotti, in his biography explicitly states 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 troubling aesthetics that are deeply imbricated in racist iconography. His work for the cover of British Vogue – which he described as “a celebration of women, of matriarchy & of the beauty of black women” – also relies on visual tropes long used to create a correlation between Black, African people and primitivism.

Europe has long fetishised Black skin in a number of different ways – exploiting it either for its apparent associations with sexuality, or for the allure of the danger it poses. These ideas collectively fall under primitivism.

Eninnful, Fetto, and indeed, photographer Pavarotti, are likely all too aware of this. But they seem blind to the fact that the images in the February issue of British Vogue do not offer us a new narrative of what beauty is; rather, in its much-anticipated cover, Black women are posed, once again, in stark opposition to whiteness. At best, they are a supplementary or appendage to “real beauty,” which safely remains white.

How we see, that is our gaze, has a history to it. More specifically, how we see Black skin has a very specific history. None of us are outside that history. Black skin, especially the darkest of Black skin, has long been seen by many non-Black and Black people as flat, unattractive, and exuding danger. The “Black is Beautiful” slogan did not arise for nothing; it was a counter statement to the long-maligned history of Black skin and other bodily features as demarcations of ugliness. The transition from a narrative of unattractive, dangerous Black skin to one that is now celebrated on Europe’s high fashion catwalks does not reverse that history, nor render it mute, but rather, offers it up as an exotic and pacified version of late modern primitivism.

Contemporary photographers often reproduce the aesthetics and politics of colonial images that removed Black persons from their individuality, autonomy and subjectivity. In Defiant Images: Photography in Apartheid South Africa, the scholar Darren Newbury – writing about Constance Stuart Larrabee’s photography in South Africa during the 1930s – notes that her images obsessively reference “the photogenic quality of black skin [which] stands as a metaphor for an interest in the surface aesthetic quality of the lives’ being photographed”.

Today, a slew of photographers, both white and Black, in fashion, and in art photography, continue to work in this tradition. They continue to employ visual tropes that exoticise their Black subjects, including the use of amped-up colour that flattens and darkens skin tone, and bright colours, animal prints, “jungle” or “savannah” motifs to situate Black subjects in “natural habitats” that emphasise narratives about their “uncivilised” or “savage” character. The decorative quality of these technicolour images is often incorrectly interpreted as a pleasant alternative – an antidote – to racist caricatures. They are seen as a beautiful corrective for all the bad colour photographs taken in earlier decades, when poor film technology meant photographs of Black people sometimes made them look like Blackface caricatures.

Audiences, too, readily recognise images that work within this aesthetic tradition, and respond to them as “beautiful” and “striking” photographs. Such responses are embedded 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 furnished to it, where any animation is removed. At stake is what counts as a Black aesthetic, worthy of Black personhood – practices that allow for aesthetic autonomy, and by necessity must be able to stand in opposition to blackface. To be clear, blackface is a subordinating practice, not a practice of bodily autonomy. When Black artists and fashion photographers produce a new and improved blackface aesthetic unproblematically, they upgrade the tradition, not upend it.

Understanding this history allows us to see why Enninful’s celebrated cover shows shiny, fetishised Black objects, not persons. The British Vogue cover cannot be read outside of the complicated and dreadful history of the dislike of and repulsion that many have for people with dark black skin. Couple that dislike and repulsion with the violence of blackface and we begin to see how our gaze requires education and re-direction. It is also worth emphasising that the images in this Vogue cover story narrate a racist history – one that makes such images necessary in the first instance. One thing we can be sure about is that you do not need black polish to blacken up in our technologically advanced society. Indeed, blackface circulates in all manner of ways these days; like its discredited history, some Black people continue to blacken up and/or participate in its repeated practices, too. Once we identify them as working within the discredited practice of blackface, it’s easy to see the harmful history to which they contribute and maintain in the present.

There is a long history of claiming that Black models do not sell high fashion magazines, but in the now niche marketing moment of late capitalism, this cover and its images will likely have many Black people, especially women, picking up this issue of British Vogue. They surely did with the September issue with Beyoncé on the cover on the other side of the Atlantic in 2018.

Fashion continues to trade in the white lie that it is inherently a non-racial practice and a business. As Black men and women head up some of the largest institutions in the high fashion business at this moment, we cannot be surprised that racist images persist. It’s because modern fashion has failed to take seriously how its very modes of practice are wedded to and founded on the denigration of Black bodies and personhood.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.