A photo shoot Beyonce did for French fashion magazine L'Officiel has sparked controversy. In the shoot for the mag's 90th anniversary, Bey appears in different traditional African garments in an homage to Nigerian activist and musician Fela Kuti, who has inspired music for her new album. However, it is a shot of the singer's face, visibly darkened with makeup, that has gotten folks calling foul. According to a statement released by the magazine:
"Far from the glamorous Sasha Fierce, the beauty posed for the magazine with amazing fashion designers clothes, but also in a dress created by her mother. [It is] 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."
It's fun to play with fashion and makeup, and fashion has a history of provocation and pushing boundaries. But when you paint your face darker in order to look more "African," aren't you reducing an entire continent, full of different nations, tribes, cultures and histories, into one brown color? What makes someone black — or African, for that matter — is not her skin tone. The African diaspora reaches from Brazil to Haiti to the United Kingdom and Pakistan.
It's one thing to feel moved by Fela Kuti, and quite another to treat blackness as a fashion accessory, like a pair of glittery heels you put on because it looks cool. What if Beyoncé were an Asian singer painted to look like a geisha, or given exaggeratedly almond eyes? Perhaps even more important: By painting Beyoncé's face darker, aren't the French fashion editors basically treating her like they would a white model, i.e. a blank-palette object on which to place concepts? And not an actual, authentic black person with African heritage?
First of all, I don't think Beyonce is posing in blackface. There are no big white lips and "darkie" expressions. But I must say I do agree with Ms. Stewart on a few points. Why would she only darken her face? Why not darken her whole body? And if she truly wanted to go back to her roots, why not take out her weave/lace front and rock her own natural hair? Morever, black folks do come in all shades and color, so if Beyonce wanted to pay tribute to her African roots, all she really had to do was show up as her beautiful, African American self (sans the blond hair) and highlight her natural features.
I disagree with her insistence that the paint is simply kitsche, as Kuti did seem to don facepaint occasionally from images I've seen of him. Maybe part of confusion is in what way this was meant to be an homage. If Bey's aim was to pay tribute to Kuti by actually taking on his physical characteristics, then the skin darkening makes sense (but of course she'd have to bind her chest, wear men's clothing, etc.) But in this incarnation it shows the magazine's (and to a degree Bey's) one-dimesional ideas of what "African" is.
But on the upside, more people will now who Fela Kuti is ( I know I didn't before today), which was her main goal with the photoshoot. The way she went about it is problematic, but not irredeemably offensive.
On a side note: Mama Tina did her thing with the dresses!
On another side note. I'm soooooo glad Madonna decide not to do a "Black Madonna" shoot for her last album. I would've hated to had to read Queen Madge! Watch Beyonce's photo below and let your opinions rip in the comments section.