Is British Vogue’s February Cover the Best Way to Celebrate Black Beauty?

Stephanie Busari is Senior Editor for Africa at CNN and lives in Lagos, Nigeria. All opinions expressed in the following article are those of the author.

“Sister did you see this beautiful cover…it’s amazing,” a friend wrote to me on Instagram. It was the February 2022 cover of British Vogue, starring an all-star team of African supermodels.

It’s one of two covers released this month (a second cover shows one of the group, supermodel Adut Akech, posing alone) and according to British Vogue’s British-Ghanaian editor-in-chief Edward Enninful, the images are meant to draw the spotlight the rise of African models shape the industry.

However, my heart sank when I saw the image of the models. I wanted to love it but the image confused me and raised questions about the execution of this important cover.

Why are the models presented in a dark and ominous tableau, the lighting so dim they are almost indistinguishable on a cover designed to celebrate their individuality? Why were they dressed all in black, giving a funeral atmosphere and an almost creepy, otherworldly look?

Why were they wearing oddly coiffed wigs? Many of these women wear their natural hair as normal, and it would have been great to see that reflected on a cover that celebrates African beauty. Additionally, the skin tone of the models on the cover appeared to be several shades darker than their normal skin tone.

The photographs were taken by Afro-Brazilian photographer Rafael Pavarotti and the images, which have appeared in numerous glossy magazines over the years, are consistent with his visual style of presenting black skin in an ultra-dark manner.

“This is a celebration of women, matriarchy and the beauty of black women,” Pavarotti said of his debut cover shoot for British Vogue in an article that accompanied the images online.

“They are the past, the present and the future,” he added.

But the lighting, styling and makeup, which deliberately exaggerated the models’ already dark skin tones, reduced their distinguishing features and presented a homogenized look. Was this the best way to celebrate the black beauty? Wouldn’t it have been better to let her natural, unique beauty shine through?

Pavarotti did not respond to requests for comment and Enninful declined CNN’s request for an interview, while British Vogue did not publicly respond to the criticism. A Behind-the-scenes video of the shoot was published together with the cover pictures. The short clip, shot with more natural light before the women are fully styled, shows more individuality and a variety of darker skin tones in dramatic contrast to the end result.

In an article published on the Vogue website, Enninful describes the models (Adut Akech, Anok Yai, Majesty Amare, Amar Akway, Janet Jumbo, Maty Fall, Nyagua Ruea, Abény Nhial and Akon Changkou) as “a powerful cohort of ruling and aspiring Superstars who not only rule the runways and dominate campaigns, but have also changed the lens through which fashion is seen around the world.”

He added: “No longer just one or two black girls mingled behind the scenes, but a multitude of top models took a significant, significant and equal place among the most successful women working in fashion today. It means so much to me to see that.”

Adut Akech on the cover of British Vogue

Adut Akech on the cover of British Vogue Credit: By Rafael Pavarotti/British Vogue

“We want us like us”

A cover is the highest distinction a magazine can bestow on a subject, and historically, black women have rarely been given that honor.

Former British Vogue Editor-in-Chief Alexandra Shulman famously noted this in a 2017 Interview in the Guardian that unknown black women on the cover sold fewer copies.
So when black women appear on the covers of high-profile magazines like Vogue, those images circulate widely; we feel seen, celebrated and recognized. That’s why this Vogue cover feels personal to a lot of black women, especially black ones like me.
When the February issue was first unveiled last week, I saw many people, like my friend, commenting on how stunning and beautiful it was. So I took to Twitter to see if others were as contradictory as I was. Hundreds of people have replied to mine tweet sayThey felt the images portrayed black women poorly.

What I’ve found is that many of us want to love these images, but can’t shake a sense of uneasiness rooted in deeper issues with beauty standards that have shut us out for so long.

British Vogue under fire for February cover

Many online critics felt the images were fetishized and pandering to a white gaze, ironically given that the editorial team behind them was made up almost entirely of people of African descent.

Ghanaian writer Natasha Akua wrote in a private message on Instagram: “When I saw it I was immediately shocked… I feel like I know what statement he was trying to make visually, but turning these black models into this weird tableau, straight out of a horror movie just felt instinctively wrong.”

“Why darken their skin beyond recognition?” She asked. “Making a statement about feeling unapologetically black? Unapologetically black means being who you are and doesn’t require that kind of hyperbole.”

“I think the lighting and the sounds are beautiful”, wrote Daniel Emuna. “But my personal complaint is that publications and brands constantly communicate that the deepest darkest shade of complexion represents the truest essence of blackness or even Africanness. This is clearly a sign of the white gaze.”

While South Sudanese stand-up comic and social commentator Akau Jambo wrote, “This is not art, this is black skin porn. black fetish reverse whitening.”

“This image is pure manipulation,” he told me over the phone. “They do that with South Sudanese models to tell a story about Africa, and people say we don’t understand the artist’s perspective, but you can tell a story and project a false narrative.”

“We don’t want you to make us the black guy you want.

It’s undeniable that Enninful and his team have made tremendous strides in promoting diversity since he replaced Shulman as editor-in-chief of British Vogue. His first cover was multiracial model Adwoa Aboah and he has also featured Dame Judi Dench, who at 85 was the magazine’s oldest cover star.

He dedicated the September 2020 cover to 20 activists, including Manchester United footballer and free school meal advocate Marcus Rashford, photographed by Misan Harriman – the first black man to photograph a cover of British Vogue.

Many of the people who have contacted me didn’t want to criticize the February cover because of the work Enninful has been doing at Vogue, but we can’t be afraid to hold even our African brothers and sisters accountable if the need arises .

Change doesn’t happen overnight and open conversations and debates are essential as we make progress towards achieving the representation we all want to see. Is British Vogue’s February Cover the Best Way to Celebrate Black Beauty?

Charles Jones

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