I came across this story only yesterday, through the interesting blog Africa Media. From there, I followed a few links through which I realised just how much debate this issue has sparked around the blogosphere and beyond. As the Norwegian journalist Lena Lindgren put it, it is, indeed, a ‘Ethical Minefield’: “Ill-judged and patronising, an offensive, disgusting exploitation of African women", says Black Looks, “This is disgusting”, adds the Zimbabwean Pundit, “A travesty of beauty?”, asks the Guardian, to conclude: “brave and liberating or appallingly misjudged? Surely the question remains open”… So, what is it?
It all revolves around a project conceived and executed by Norwegian artist Morten Traavik and funded by the Arts Council of Norway to the tune of USD 80.000. So, it’s essentially an arts project involving a beauty pageant for the election of a “Miss Landmine Angola” out a selected group of 10 candidates, maimed by landmines, from different provinces of the country. According to the Guardian, citing the organisers, “the project currently exists as a website, but the plan is to create a fashion magazine in the style of Elle, Vogue and Cosmopolitan to showcase the contest." The organisers further say that "Angola was chosen over other potential countries, such as Afghanistan or Cambodia, because it has a relaxed and open attitude to physicality and sensuality, pretty much like Brazil and, unlike the highly politicised environments surrounding beauty pageants in the West, in Angola this is a natural kind of event, without any politics or controversy involved.”
In a way it is a good thing that I’ve run into this discussion just over a month after it seems to have reached its pick, because, hopefully, we can reignite it here, still ahead of the official launch of the project due to take place on May 26 in Norway, during the Bergen International Festival, sombrely enough at the Norwegian Leprosy Museum. I must confess that it wasn’t easy for me to align my own thoughts on this “ethical minefield”, but they can be summarised more or less like this:
I have never assigned much value to beauty contests of any kind and to me this is no exception. The basic reason being that such contests inevitably imply a pre-existing standard or concept of beauty, which cannot avoid being culture-specific and rarely escapes politics. Note in this respect that, contrary to what the promoters of this project argue, the conventional national beauty pageants in Angola are always all but free of controversy and certainly not exempt from politics – suffice to say that they are organised by the First Lady of the country… it doesn’t come more political than that, anywhere in the world!
Note also how the pictures exhibited on the project's official website show exactly what it is all about: western women applying make-up and nail polish to African women, almost all, if not all, villagers, at least half of whom having suffered their mine accidents while tending fields and are now, with just a couple or so of exceptions, unemployed. Certainly, these women won’t become “more beautiful” or "more empowered" in the eyes of their husbands, boyfriends, children, families and communities simply because they are photographed wearing make-up and nail polish, which after all will definitely not survive the tending of fields or street-vending activities through which those among them who have a job earn a living! Wouldn’t this suggest that USD 80.000 would go a long way towards funding job-creating activities for these women, their families and communities?!
It is also my contention that there is a fundamental misperception in the organisers view, according to which “beauty pageants in Angola are as ‘natural’ as in Brazil”… It may well be the case that the conventional provincial and national beauty contests organised in the capital cities of the country convey that idea of “a relaxed and open attitude to physicality and sensuality”, which to me reads like "an idea of licentiousness" more than anything else... However, in that conventional format, with or without influences from Brazil, they are precisely an import from Portugal, therefore the West, which instituted them in the colonial period. To my knowledge, they do not exist as such within the cultural and social fabric of the various Angolan ethnic groups from which these women emanate!
And I believe that, by selecting a minute group, not even representative of all provinces of the country, from which one will be elected as “the miss”, this project conflicts head-on with the fundamental sense and concept of “community” prevalent in the villages to which they belong, where, by norm, problems such as physical disability, specially if accidentally provoked as it is the case in point, are a matter for the families involved and the communities as a whole to resolve or minimise, with the assistance of the local and/or national authorities. Consequently, in my opinion, for this project to have the positive impact their organisers claim to promote, it should precisely address the issue of landmines' victims in an inclusive and holistic way and not, as it purports, by excluding the rest of the communities and the landmine-affected through the selection of a few and the election of one as “primus inter pares”…
Finally, the organisers adopted the motto “everybody has the right to be beautiful.” It seems to me that this phrase in itself encapsulates the central prejudice underlying the entire project : it sounds like, to them, this women are no longer “beautiful” after being maimed by landmines, so it will take a beauty pageant, some make-up, fancy clothes and accessories to “restore” or “devolve” them some kind of “beauty”… Isn’t this more than enough evidence that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” (the beholder being, of course, Morten Traavik and the prospective viewer of his upcoming exhibition)?
What do you think?
P.S.: AOS MEUS QUERIDOS AMIGOS LEITORES EM PORTUGUES:
Inicialmente, era minha intencao escrever este post em Ingles e em Portugues, mas infelizmente, restricoes de tempo neste momento impedem-me de o fazer. Mas poderao consultar a versao em Portugues da website dos organisadores (aqui). Em resumo, ficaria grata pelas vossas opinioes sobre este projecto.
Obrigada pela vossa compreensao!