New Vivienne Westwood ads feature black model, but with what message?

by guest contributor Brigitte, originally published at Make Fetch Happen

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 (whom 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