Tyra Banks is preparing an art exhibition called Tyra Banks Presents: 15, in which she transforms into “iconic images of her colleagues, competitors, and friends.” Recently she posted 3 images from the project up in twitter, the subjects happened to be 3 white, female models Cara Delevigne, Kate Moss, and Cindy Crawford. it got some people up in arms claiming that this is “white face” (the reverse of Black Face) and calling it “racist”.
Now I have to say, this is kinda cool, and I am not a super Tyra fan, but it’s on point. But let’s get to the ideas of the racist allegations that people are trying to attach to this project. First lets just define what Blackface is and then we can take it from there:
Blackface is a form of theatrical makeup used in minstrel shows, and later vaudeville, in which performers create a stereotyped caricature of a black person. The practice gained popularity during the 19th century and contributed to the proliferation of stereotypes such as the “happy-go-lucky darky on the plantation” or the “dandified coon“. In 1848, blackface minstrel shows were an American national art of the time, translating formal art such as opera into popular terms for a general audience. Early in the 20th century, blackface branched off from the minstrel show and became a form in its own right, until it ended in the United States with the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. …
Stereotypes embodied in the stock characters of blackface minstrels not only played a significant role in cementing and proliferating racist images, attitudes and perceptions worldwide, but also in popularizing black culture. In some quarters, the caricatures that were the legacy of blackface persist to the present day and are a cause of ongoing controversy. Another view is that “blackface is a form of cross-dressing in which one puts on the insignias of a sex, class, or race that stands in binary opposition to one’s own.”
Blackface historically emanates historically from the world Minstrelsy which at is core is derogatory and racist:
Minstrel shows lampooned black people as dim-witted, lazy, buffoonish, superstitious, happy-go-lucky, and musical. The minstrel show began with brief burlesques and comic entr’actes in the early 1830s and emerged as a full-fledged form in the next decade. In 1848, Blackface minstrel shows were the national art of the time, translating formal art such as opera into popular terms for a general audience.
So where I know what we are racially sensitive and acutely aware (as we should be) but Banks’ project does not in my mind, nor in definition fall under the spectrum of Racism. I understand the sensitivity that surrounds the body, image, race, religion and gender, but we have to assess things with a level head and really look at the facts, not solely at the feelings they stir in us. I do believe that we (all- and artist specifically) have a responsibility to respect a people’s history, and even in the name of “art” somethings are better left undone.
That having been said I think that historically there has a been a lack of respect, care and sensitivity towards the African American experience relative to the racial history, bigotry and social and systematic social and political prejudice and injustice that existed and exists presently in this country. There are liberties that are taken with the African American history- culture etc. that would NEVER be taken with other groups of people. For instance, when it comes to black face, several fashion publications have done editorial spreads using white models painted black, donning afro textured hair and the whole nine yards. When it was called into question, it was qualified as being solely artistic and aesthetic-
I have to admit the images are incredible, they do make me feel a certain way though. Mainly it makes me think about how they would rather paint a white women them book a black model–I KNOW I KNOW that is not the point but you get my point. If this was some Jewish vaguely Nazi themed editorial people would really be up in arms… that’s how I feel. Some might say that the whole Nazi thing is an unfair comparison, but if you know your history it’s not so far off…as a friend of mine says “know your history know yourself” I feel like there are certain people’s histories are honored, and respected and therefore not exploited and there are others (browner) people’s histories that are up for grabs…. you know where I’m coming from right? I have no answers just opinions.