The Truth About Using a White Girl in the 'African Queen' Fashion Shoot


Numéro magazine has issued an apology of sorts for the African Queen editorial in the March 2013 issue, in which Ondria Hardin, a 16-year-old, blond-haired, blue-eyed model, was shot with her skin darkened. But the magazine’s message — and a message from the photographer himself — only further complicate the issue.

The Huffington Post received the following email from the publication:

Some people have declared that they have been offended by the publication in Numéro magazine n°141 of March 2013, of an editorial realized by the photographer Sebastian Kim called “African Queen”, featuring the American model Ondria Hardin posing as an “African queen”, her skin painted in black.
The artistic statement of the photographer Sebastian Kim, author of this editorial, is in line with his previous photographic creations, which insist on the melting pot and the mix of cultures, the exact opposite of any skin color based discrimination. Numéro has always supported the artistic freedom of the talented photographers who work with the magazine to illustrate its pages, and has not took part in the creation process of this editorial.
For its part, Numéro Magazine, which has the utmost respect for this photographer’s creative work, firmly excludes that the latest may have had, at any moment, the intention to hurt readers’ sensitivity, whatever their origin.
Numéro Magazine considers that it has regularly demonstrated its deep attachment to the promotion of different skin-colored models. For instance, the next issue of Numéro for Man on sale on 15th march has the black model Fernando Cabral on the cover page, and the current Russian edition’s cover of our magazine features the black model Naomi Campbell on its cover. This demonstrates the completely inappropriate nature of the accusations made against our magazine, deeply committed to the respect for differences, tolerance and more generally to non-discrimination.
Considering the turmoil caused by this publication, the Management of Numéro Magazine would like to apologize to anyone who may have been offended by this editorial.

HuffPo’s Julee Wilson points out: “While Numéro does apologize it doesn’t seem to regret the offense.” Nope! Let’s not forget, Numéro also printed photographs of a white model in an afro wig taking care of a black baby. In addition, Fashionista points out that when it comes to diversity, Numéro‘s track record sucks:

Number of non-white model covers: 3 of 141 (2.1%)
Number of non-white model editorial spots in the last three years: 15 of 270 (5.6%)

And basically, the magazine’s apology throws photographer Sebastian Kim to the wolves. Which is where things get slightly more complex:

Born in Vietnam, and raised in Iran, Paris and Southern California, Sebastian Kim’s work often has as multi-culti or cross-cultural look. A recent shoot for German Vogue features non-Asian Berlin-born model Franzi Mueller wearing Asian-inspired ensembles. The editorial is titled “Fernbeziehung,” which translates as “long-distance relationship; the dek on the story reads, in part, “Faszination Japan: Der Geisha-Look” and the rest is loosely translated as “European designers interpret its extravagant seductive side.” It’s about European brands — Céline, McQueen, Gareth Pugh — being inspired by Asian fabrics and silhouettes — kimono sleeves, obi belts, etc. Is this cultural appropriation or cultural appreciation? Either way, the fashion shoot teeters of the verge of stereotype. Kim has worked with black models and Asian models; it’s not as though he only shoots white women. But in the fashion world, white is the norm; everyone else is “other.” So white models work no matter the type of shoot — Asian-inspired? African-inspired? no problem! — and models of color get sidelined.

Complicating matters further, Kim has made his own statement, separate from Numéro‘s:

I would like to apologize for any misunderstanding around my recent photos for Numero France. It was never my intention (nor Numero’s) to portray a black woman in this story. Our idea and concept for this fashion shoot was based on 60’s characters of Talitha Getty, Verushka and Marissa Berenson with middle eastern and Moroccan fashion inspiration. We at no point attempted to portray an African women by painting her skin black. We wanted a tanned and golden skin to be showcased as part of the beauty aesthetic of this shoot.
It saddens me that people would interpret this as a mockery of race. I believe that the very unfortunate title “African Queen” (which I was not aware of prior to publication) did a lot to further people’s misconceptions about these images. It was certainly never my intention to mock or offend anyone and I wholeheartedly apologize to anyone who was offended.
Sebastian Kim

He puts the blame right back on Numéro. And to some extent, he’s right: Had this shoot not been titled “African Queen,” it just might have gone unnoticed. But “African Queen” — in addition being the name of a not-very-PC Katherine Hepburn movie — conjures up images of proud black women. Since Africa is a continent whose history involves being plundered and colonized by Europeans, since African people were literally stolen from their homes and forced into slavery, then yes, having the words “African Queen” accompanying a 16-year-old white girl wearing headdresses and patterns is offensive.

Now, as far as the skin color goes, Sebastian Kim says he was inspired by photos of Talitha Getty in Marrakech (as seen at right) and by Marisa Berenson. And, importantly, Veruschka, who posed in Africa and was very much into body paint. Context is everything, and in the ’60s and ’70s, North African and African-inspired fashions — caftans, harem pants, dashikis and vibrant prints — were popular, along with a global/hippie/traveler aesthetic. The vintage photoshoots mentioned take place in a white-centric narrative; the hip factor gets its power from a (moneyed, privileged) white person going somewhere “exotic” and therefore cool. And, you know, that was the Sixties. A lot of things happened in the ’60s that we shouldn’t be copying today. The problem with the photos in Numéro is that the fair-skinned model — supposedly “slightly bronzed” — looks pretty damn dark. And the narrative you read into the photos is not that a white person went on safari or to a Moroccan hashish spa. The photos look like a white girl was painted to look black. And considering how tough it is for black models to get work — and considering the fact that blackness is not an accessory you can take on and off — yes, that’s offensive.

This is not the first time Sebastian Kim has darkened a model’s skin; the image at left is Jacquelyn Jablonski, who is not brown-skinned, shot by Kim for the July 2010 issue of Vogue Germany. Again: Very problematic to turn a white model into some kind of non-specific dark-skinned “native.” Sebastian Kim is a good photographer, and he’s obviously interested in cultural mashups. But seriously: If you want your model to be dark, why not hire a darker model? The “African Queen” layout was ill-conceived, a bad idea, from headline to body paint. The shoot — along with the magazine’s dismal diversity numbers — just proves, once again — actually, again and again and again — that in the fashion world, it’s bad to actually have dark skin, but somehow totally chic to pretend you have it.

Numéro Magazine Blackface Apology For ‘African Queen’ Editorial Responds To Backlash (UPDATE) [HuffPo]
Apology Over Blackface [Richard Prince’s Journal-isms™]
Sebastian Kim [Official Site]
Why Numéro‘s Apology for Its Controversial ‘African Queen’ Spread Rings Hollow [fashionista]

Earlier: 16-Year-Old White Girl Poses in ‘African Queen’ Editorial

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