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Tue, Jan. 9th, 2007 12:00 am
Yes, Kate Moss is not black.

Below, on the left, you can see an image of Kate Moss as a black woman. Nick Knight took the picture, Val Garland did the make-up, and it was commissioned by Giorgio Armani, who was guest-editing a section of the Independent newspaper dedicated to the fight against AIDS in Africa. The supplement ran on September 21st, and half of the profits went to African AIDS charities.



The reaction was swift, and almost entirely negative. "Racist" Kate Moss was "in blackface", said Visual Editors. Some commenters threatened to boycott Armani, others contented themselves with noting that real black women tend to be fatter than Kate Moss, who could, incidentally, "go back to her crack house". Most people agreed with an article that ran in the Independent's main rival, The Guardian, which asked why the model couldn't have been black.

"What exactly is this picture of Moss-as-African-woman supposed to portray?" asked Hannah Pool, the Guardian journalist. "I suppose it is meant to be subversive, but what does it say about race today when a quality newspaper decides that its readers will only relate to Africa through a blacked-up white model rather than a real-life black woman? What does it say about the fight against HIV/Aids if that is the only way to make us care? And, as a black woman (born that way), what does this trick say about me?"

"Next time a photograph of an African woman is needed," Pool concludes, "they should call on Iman. Or me."

Since the reaction to this image was so overwhelmingly negative, I thought I'd try to put a rather different point of view, because this touches on a lot of subjects I feel quite strongly about. I actually think the condemnation of this image is quite misguided and wrongheaded, resting as it does on a series of assumptions which I'd call rockist, simplistic, incredibly literal-minded, and unsophisticated in their understanding of the nature of representation -- and especially metonymy (the kind of imagery where one thing stands for, or represents, many).

First of all, the "why didn't they go the whole hog and employ a black person instead?" argument is like saying an impressionist shouldn't play the prime minister if the prime minister is available to do it himself, or that all drag queens should be replaced by real women.

The thing is, having someone play someone else raises a whole series of interesting juxtapositions, new meanings, involves fascinating skills and telling shortfalls. It lands us in the "uncanny valley", the place where categories fail and ostranenie takes over. When categories get mixed up, we have to question our reflexive assumptions -- and that's a good thing.

I think immediately of other representations of black people by whites. Sure, the Black and White Minstrel Show is the one all the complainants mentioned, but it isn't the only possible option. There's also Tibor Kalman's classic and brilliant image of Queen Elizabeth II as a black woman, which ran on the fourth edition of Colors magazine, back in 1993, the "What If..." issue. Or I think of the brilliant production The Wooster Group made of "The Emperor Jones", in which white actors play black people -- and yet everything is estranged and confused by brilliant kabuki songs and strange poetic alienation. Or I think of Black Like Me, in which white Texan John Howard Griffin describes six weeks disguised as a black man in the then-segregated Southern states of the US. Or the project in which Pier Fichefeux made portraits of Fabrica students of all races as if they were black.



Would Pool call Kalman, the Wooster Group, Griffin and Fichefeux casual, insensitive racists who should have used real black people? Or artistic provocateurs interested in making us see an old problem (essentially the "problem" of difference itself, or rather, "the difference that makes a difference") from a new angle?

Pool quotes academic Paul Gilroy: "The threat of being labelled politically correct creates an environment where we are scared to voice our objections." Given the context, the Kate Moss picture is "empty nihilism," he says. "Blacking up has become acceptable in the same way that pole dancing is now sold to women as an empowering thing to do," says Pool. "Both assume that the thing they are poking fun at no longer exists - ie discrimination, racism and sexism. But of course they are wrong."

This is simply not the case with the Armani image. The very last thing you do, if you want to make-believe that racism no longer exists, is black up. Blacking up is precisely what you do if you want to have a discussion about race. But identity politics does play a part in the misunderstanding of Nick Knight's image.

Basically, one of the problems of the identity politics movement of the 1970s is that it came out of the Me Generation. That's the "identity" part. You identify with others like yourself (gays, blacks, women) and militate for your own minority rights. Which is fine. But the politics that result are Me Politics. The idea emerges that it's only reasonable to represent your own wishes and needs, not those of people different from yourself. Not only do you not represent the needs of others (as traditional politics had done, sometimes patronizingly and pompously, but sometimes with genuine concern), you claim to be the only one able to represent yourself authentically. And here, of course, we encounter the spectre of rockism. If the image of a black person in the media is not represented by a real black person, say the rockists, it's not authentic, and therefore not acceptable.

But why would Iman be a better representative of Africa than Kate Moss? Aren't they both supermodel celebrities, their daily lives equally far removed from the experience of poor Africans with AIDS? What if, just experimentally, we said that anyone could represent Africa? Wouldn't it, in fact, be more useful, if the intention is to provoke concern for people unlike yourself, to show someone non-African declaring a solidarity with Africa?

We need to get beyond the lazy thinking which is the most negative legacy of identity politics. To represent the other, not just yourself, is a virtue, not a vice. Especially, obviously, when it's done with sympathy and compassion. The suppression of all imagery of black people played by other races is not the answer -- perhaps it even represents a wish to make black people invisible, or eternal victims, or segregated from the glitzy, celebrity-obsessed consumer culture we spoilt Northerners live in (which contributes, of course, to climate change that will impact Africa much more harshly than it does our own cold countries).

A white person playing a black person might actually represent respect for the other, a wish to become the other. Why then is a negative motive always assumed? Why must we boycott Armani? Would we boycott a straight actor who chose to play a gay man in a film? Is all travesty automatically "a travesty"?

And what if the metonymy involved in the Kate Moss image were not "Here is one (faux) black woman who stands for Africa" (as most commentators seem to assume) but something more like "Here is an image of the relationship between the North and the South"? In other words, what if the thing being portrayed here is our own bizarre position in relation to Africa's problems -- the fact that we consume and worship success and money while others fail and die?

What if the disturbing thing about the Kate Moss image were also the good thing about it -- that it collides tragedy and farce in a way that shows the full obscenity of a juxtaposition that exists in the real world? What if the shocking absurdity of this image were actually the most realistic thing you could show?

An image of a black person is an image of a clear, categorical identity. It's reassuring for that reason. We know what it is. An image of a half-black, half-white person is much more impure, confusing, alarming. It raises the spectre of deception, miscegenation, bastardy, and that disturbs us.

But above all, rather than an identity, what we see in a travesty image is a relationship -- the relationship between ourselves and the Other, the different. By refusing such images, we refuse to look at relationship -- in other words, our part in the problem. By insisting on the purity of identity and authenticity, we block out the more complex and complicit realities of race -- a difference that still makes a difference.

132CommentReplyFlag

ex_mimic736
THE MMCSIS
Mon, Jan. 8th, 2007 10:21 pm (UTC)
SHOWJUMPING KATE MOSS

FIRST!


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j03
j03
sold as a novelty only
Mon, Jan. 8th, 2007 10:33 pm (UTC)

The paragraph on "identity politics" immediately reminded me of the problems my friend is having as a transgendered person in the gay community.

She is not seen as an "authentic" lesbian or gay person because she used to be a man.

Wondeful post!


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Jan. 8th, 2007 10:40 pm (UTC)

Well, it's an interesting paradox: the idea of rockism is really an extension of identity politics, and yet it destroys identity politics, because while identity politics is intent on creating and working with essences, rockism as a concept questions and undermines them.

But it's more complex than that, because identity politics both reinforces essences like race by seeing them as "authentic" -- and also attempts to put them beyond discussion, by making them taboo. And what's beyond discussion is clearly beyond deconstruction.


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beketaten
beketaten
Juliet
Mon, Jan. 8th, 2007 10:35 pm (UTC)

I am absolutely with you on this.
It catches our minds in the kind of non-complacent confusion we secretly hold dreadful beneath the surface; our own weakness, to all sorts of diseases, to all sorts of HUMAN problems.
I think the cover was a beautiful idea. And it carried out beautifully, what's more. I think the fact that people reacted so strongly was in a funny way, sort of a proof of its power, though the claims of "racism" are fucking ridiculous and should not be as big a part of the reaction as it is; it's a tragic commentary on a time in which people are more worried about political correctness (ie. how to dance around the issue) than the issue itself.


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peripherus_max
peripherus_max
peripherus_max
Mon, Jan. 8th, 2007 10:47 pm (UTC)

Kara Walker vs. Bettye Saar? Kara Walker wins. Next question.


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olamina
olamina
blackgirlgenius
Mon, Jan. 8th, 2007 10:49 pm (UTC)
this is true but this is a LIE

An image of a black person is an image of a clear, categorical identity.

This is not true. Everyone knows race is a social construct and the margins are not clear nor should they ever be.

I don't think the objection to the Kate Moss thing was purely about identity politics. I am vehemently against identity politics and while I wouldn't stop the Guardian or anyone else from printing the image, I don't understand what the image was supposed to mean. This is not Kate Moss as a black woman. This is Kate Moss PAINTED BLACK, which is something else. I refuse to believe that this is what white people see when they look at someone and decide that they are looking at a black person and I am certain no one white would see Kate Moss walking down the street dipped in black paint and mistake her for a black woman.

The thing is, having someone play someone else raises a whole series of interesting juxtapositions, new meanings, involves fascinating skills and telling shortfalls.

If we accept the fact that she was not supposed to look like a black woman, I ask you WHO is this "someone else" she was supposed to be. At best, Moss was a caricature of a caricature; blackface of blackface. And waht is the point of that? I just don't see the point.

I am continually disgusted by the fact that we need anyone or anything to "represent Afric"a in order to drum up funding for AIDS research. It's AIDS, people. We should all want to eradicate for any myriad of reasons, not just because David Bowie or Heidi Klum declare themselves to be African.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Jan. 8th, 2007 11:06 pm (UTC)
Re: this is true but this is a LIE

I ask you WHO is this "someone else" she was supposed to be.

I say it clearly in the piece: Kate Moss is made up here to represent OUR CONSUMER SOCIETY'S RELATIONSHIP WITH AFRICA... in all its absurdity and obscenity. In that sense, this is the most realistic image you could possibly see.

Also -- and I cannot say this enough -- the fact that something is a social construct does not mean that it's not real. Race as a social construct is a difference that makes a difference. It must be treated as real for this reason.


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electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Mon, Jan. 8th, 2007 10:52 pm (UTC)

Christ, couldn't they think of someone else to blackface than KATE MOSS?? Like someone who actually means something?

Way to suck all the meaning out of your image, mr photographer.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Jan. 8th, 2007 11:08 pm (UTC)

Who better than Kate Moss -- who more iconic, more charged with meaning -- to represent our glitzy consumer culture? She stares out of every ad telling you to buy buy buy, so why not, for a shock, see her staring out of an ad telling you how the other half die, die, die?


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olamina
olamina
blackgirlgenius
Mon, Jan. 8th, 2007 10:57 pm (UTC)
focus on the other in YOU

To represent the other, not just yourself, is a virtue, not a vice.

Virtuous in whose eyes?
Virtue to the benefit of whom?

Especially, obviously, when it's done with sympathy and compassion.

Sympathy and compassion? Why make an impassioned plea on behalf of the creatures of this image and then hide behind sympathy and compassion? How patronizing! Who asked for your white bourgeois sympathy and compassion, Bono? What ever happened to ethical imperative?

Must the appeal always be an emotional one? why can't we make reasonable appeals to the public? Reasonable appeals that would serve ultimately to educate and fulfill the imperative to better educate those who are ill informed on the diseases.

Or are we accepting the fact that we are more and more becoming a society of people who make decisions based on our "gut feelings" (a la George Bush) and things we only claim to understand.

I--for one--am afraid.


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Jan. 8th, 2007 11:06 pm (UTC)
Re: focus on the other in YOU

Perhaps the 'meaning' of this image is being over-interpreted, a blacked out Kate Moss sells newspapers too.
Thomas Scott.


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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
cerulicante
cerulicante
cerulicante
Tue, Jan. 9th, 2007 02:08 am (UTC)

Because Japanese, in their narcissim, think (nay, KNOW) that no non-Japanese, however skilled, can ever truly master Japanese things.


I am a sumi-e painter and a calligrapher. I am half-Japanese. So I will never be good enough.






That's how Japan works. Don't take it personally.


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butterflyrobert
RND
Mon, Jan. 8th, 2007 11:07 pm (UTC)

A white person playing a black person might actually represent respect for the other, a wish to become the other.

This is the entire idea behind the ad. I am a little startled (though not entirely surprised, really) that so-called experts are unable to see something so obvious and make themselves look like complete idiots in their condemnation of it.

As far as authenticity goes, I'm going to take a post-modern stance and say that, in today's world, nothing is completely "authentic".


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Jan. 8th, 2007 11:10 pm (UTC)

Yay, Sir Robert!


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akabe
akabe
alin huma
Mon, Jan. 8th, 2007 11:39 pm (UTC)

but it's sooooo mid 90s post-benneton, dazedandconfusedish //???!!!


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Jan. 8th, 2007 11:47 pm (UTC)

Well, I think that's the best criticism to be made of the image. But it's only old hat for those hipsters amongst us who saw Tibor Kalman's innovative black queen back in 1993. That's not very many. Some are still not ready for "provocative travesty" imagery even now. And Pier Fichefeux (Kahimi Karie's ex, by the way) worked at Fabrica, worked on Colors, and was essentially continuing Kalman's imagery ten years later... and was at least as hip to this kind of imagery as you or I. So even for people who knew this imagery in the 90s, visual professionals, insiders, it still has some kind of power.


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justbringit
justbringit
Brit
Tue, Jan. 9th, 2007 12:05 am (UTC)
One example of an greater issue.

I feel, especially living in an American society that almost endorses political correctness that most of the western world is currently facing an issue greater than most want to talk about.

Since the 1960's, many have tried to melt societal differences between different 'races'* so that everyone will feel better about each other. We try to box beliefs, ideas, and stereotypes into a crate and hope that if we randomly pick out things that it won't hurt, or morbidly offend, others.

Kate Moss and her effort to promote AIDS in Africa is one of these examples. Why didn't the Independent and those involved with this spread use a picture of an African? Because, as you said, they wanted to bring a broader brush to the issue. Yet, we are so afraid of showing the true identity to anything these days that mimicry is easier than reality.

And this is speaking as an young black female, who has seen the scars that even her parents bear after so many years and whom is sadden by the way this world has become.

*'Race' is slowing becoming an nonexistent object/word in the western world, especially the 'African Americans' race. We are inherently so many races that to classify one word onto the group is now just an bandage for a bigger wound. I hate the word "race", is such an trite, over used phrase that the meaning is now more ironic then it has ever been before.

We want to use this word to separate who we are from each other, and yet we slowing do things which makes us more and more alike. Although I take pride on myself for being an African American, I wish that one day in the future that my skin color or the culture I have grown in was not a huge 'identity' marker of who I really am.


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ex_newironsh15
chris
Tue, Jan. 9th, 2007 12:25 am (UTC)

Because of Hitler we ran screaming into the behaviouralist camp and now we're just starting to peek our eyes out of the bunker.


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introspectre
Introspectre
Tue, Jan. 9th, 2007 01:32 am (UTC)

Kate Moss is made up here to represent OUR CONSUMER SOCIETY'S RELATIONSHIP WITH AFRICA... in all its absurdity and obscenity. In that sense, this is the most realistic image you could possibly see.

You're right. This image is absurd. It's meta-comedy. It's beyond parody. I'm trying to square this particular circle, which presents us with an image of an obscenely rich young woman on the front cover of a newspaper, itself guest edited by an obscenely rich old man, in support of a charitable scheme backed by multinational corporations like Amex and GAP, who themselves are part of the problem, not the solution.

What a joke. It used to be "what can I do to make the world a better place?" but now it's "what can I buy to make the world a better place?"

For a start, getting the pharmaceutical companies and the religious zealots preaching abstinance might help in the battle against AIDS. Buying a £150 mobile phone from Bono's Product (Red) almost certainly won't.


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cerulicante
cerulicante
cerulicante
Tue, Jan. 9th, 2007 02:06 am (UTC)

For a start, getting the pharmaceutical companies and the religious zealots preaching abstinance might help in the battle against AIDS. Buying a £150 mobile phone from Bono's Product (Red) almost certainly won't.


I vehemently disagree. If Bono isn't a billionaire, then he won't have the moral superiority to fly around on a HUGE private jet and tell others that make 1/1000th of what he does how to spend their money! Just imagine if poor Bono had to live in an apartment and work a real job...now do you see how your pruchase of RED products is actually charity for celebrities? For just $100,000 a day, you, too, can support a celebrity!


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cerulicante
cerulicante
cerulicante
Tue, Jan. 9th, 2007 02:03 am (UTC)

Wow, paint a white woman like a darkie and the Limeys go nuts.




Advocate the killing of all non-Muslims in the world, send money to Al-Qaeda, preach the killing of all jews...and Tony Blair says your mosque is welcome in Britain.






You Brits have some work to do on race relations.


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beketaten
beketaten
Juliet
Tue, Jan. 9th, 2007 02:22 am (UTC)

And you have some work to do on exaggerations.


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33mhz
33mhz
The Queen of Overdub Kisses
Tue, Jan. 9th, 2007 05:25 am (UTC)

If they wanted to make Kate Moss a poster girl for AIDS, they should've given her some instead of painting her black.


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