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Paying homage to our sheroes

Alanna

March: a month set aside for the study and celebration of the role and involvement of women in history. March 8th has rolled on by but in commemoration of this month, I decided to embark on a project which I felt was lacking greatly in the beauty community and in general. My main inspiration for doing these photographs was the realization that women of colour were largely missing from the world of makeup and fashion history.  

As a history and makeup enthusiast, I spend a great deal of my time in this niche community. I find the content empowering, informative and thoroughly enjoyable but lacking in one aspect. There is almost nothing that specifically relates to women of colour (WOC) therefore it doesn’t tell the story of my ancestors.

‘Fashion is not an island but it is a response to political and economic events’

I’ve tried filtering through social media in every way possible for videos and articles which provide accurate and detailed historical information of the beauty practices and trends of women of colour and it has been nothing short of disappointing. This may not seem like a pressing issue as fashion and makeup are often seen as frivolous. Conversely, fashion is not an island but it is a response to political and economic events. It plays a key role in telling the female perspective of history as it is usually almost erased from conventional political narratives.

I won’t go into the nitty-gritty of this but it is within this context, I hope you can understand the reason for this initiative. I chose these five women through a subjective process. I connect with the stories, ambitions and struggles of these women on a deep personal basis. 

They are: Billie Holiday, Rihanna, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Hazel Scott and WinnieMadikizela Mandela.  These photographs were largely taken by myself in my tiny studio apartment with my personal wardrobe and a tiny camera. I was literally indulging in recreations of Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor and I felt that telltale urge to try again to look for some WOC videos or articles. It was then that the idea dawned on me to try to achieve them myself.

The Project

My search revealed that the only women that had been recreated were Rihanna with her ‘Wild Thoughts’ makeup look and Winnie Mandela with the hashtag #blackwithadoek and #shedidn’tdieshemultiplied in 2018. Undaunted by the prospect of having to “start from scratch”, I immersed myself in every scrap of information I could find on these women. The process itself was refreshing, I didn’t know it when I began, but my respect and admiration for these women grew even more and I threw myself even harder into it.  I also did research on the general makeup and fashion trends of the era to decide the appropriate clothing and how to alter my makeup. Trends are subject to personal interpretation so I still had to spend a lot of time studying hundreds of photographs and hours of footage to analyse the distinctive personal style of each woman.

These women are all famous and rich and powerful and I will admit it challenged my creativity to new heights. An exhilarating but equally scary experience as there was a part of me which felt like this was a laughable attempt. The intention was never to share this with such a large audience, I just wanted to shed some light on the contributions and achievement of some unconventional women in my own friend circle. After some thought, I decided it would be encouraging to WOC living in China as we live in a society with very little positive representation. With time, this can corrode at self-confidence. This lack of engagement can also sharpen colour consciousness and ignite desire to assert our beauty and excellence. This portrait series serves both audiences.   It’s just as important to black women and the wider society to cherish our women outside of the context of mere bearers of suffering.

Billie Holiday (1915-1959)

Billie’s life and career towards the end was shrouded in scandal. It is even said that she didn’t even feel special in her final days. 

But she was. She was talented, vivacious, infectious, pioneering and innovative. 

In 2000, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame and her autobiography was made into a film in 1972 with Dianna Ross playing the part of Holiday. 

She’s perhaps best known for her song “Strange Fruit” which became one of the most controversial songs in the Civil rights era of the1960’s. Nina Simone’s rendition is featured in the beginning of Kanye West’s”Blood on the Leaves” but this song was popularised by Holiday.

Rest in Power Lady Day

Rihanna

Throwback to the summer of 2017 when we all rocked to the infectious beat of DJ Khaled  Rihanna and Byron Tiller’s’ “Wild Thoughts”. 

Rihanna’s makeup; a turquoise smokey eye paired with a red lip was stage centre. This look created by her makeup artist Mylah Morales was quickly recreated by YouTubers and makeup artists worldwide.

 Rihanna’s glossy, illuminated skin and red lip were just a tease for her makeup line which launched on Sept 8 of that year. Fenty Beauty rocked the beauty world launching with an awe dropping number of 40 foundation shades. The line has since then expanded to a whopping 50 shades. It signified that the large cross-section of women which were previously considered”hard to match” (especially women of colour) now had an option designed for them specifically. 

In the style of Riri
Photos by: Alanna Benjamin

Rihanna has topped the charts musically throughout my lifetime but this, to me, was her greatest achievement and gift to women of colour.  Furthermore, she created this iconic look while showcasing Haitian culture. The video was filmed in Little Haiti, Miami. It features creole fashion and traditional Haitian dress with the backdrop of a Caribbean night market. Symbolism at it’s finest!

Haiti is an island that has been ostracised and misunderstood globally through years of colonialism and trade embargos. 

This is why I respect and love this Caribbean Bad Gyal.  Big up your whole self Rihanna.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 

This portrait was very difficult to do for the same reason why I admire this phenomenal woman. She wears afros, tuck and fold updos, headwraps, soft glam and full glam makeup. Kinda sort of like me.  I thought if I tried to mimic her, I’ll just look like regular ‘plain Jane’ me.

But I did it anyway, seemed the like the reckless creativity Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie would approve of. I could rattle on and on about the achievements of this acclaimed writer.  She has many accolades to her name; Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, Orange Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award and the recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. 

I could talk about how her stories massage my soul and wrap around my heart. How he words jump out of the pages in technicolour. Or how her storylines are engaging and relatable.

What stands out to me most in all this brilliance, however, is how she embraces and even flaunts her femininity and culture. Women who want to be celebrated for their intellect often take a muted, conservative, minimalist approach to their appearance. 

The 43-year-old writes and speaks often about how disregarding makeup and fashion is part of a culture of sexism.  Her outfits are bold in colour ranging from royal blues to African print.  Yet they are modest and age-appropriate and worn with admirable poise and grace.

In sum, she’s a stunner.  Proudly Black.   Feminine. Intelligent. Beautiful.  An agitator. A feminist.  A writer.  Phenomenal.

See Also

Hazel Scott (1920-1981)

Hazel Scott was a Trinidadian born Jazz Musician in the 1930’s who has somehow been forgotten by history despite her widespread popularity in her prime. 

She headlined at Cafe Society, soloed at Carnegie Hall, starred in 5 Hollywood movies and was the first African American woman to host her own TV show. She fell from the peak of stardom when she was listed in a magazine “Red Channels”, a Cold War-era tool used to list “commies” and people with communist leanings.

She was outspoken about racial segregation and refused to play in front of segregated audiences. Her incandescent personality lit up Hollywood scenes where she demanded that she would not play stereotypical demeaning and subservient roles. She had it written in her contract that she would only perform as herself and would have final say on costuming. 

Despite the roadblocks in her career, she always found a way to rise above and shine.  When she was blacklisted in Hollywood due to a strike against demeaning costuming for fellow actresses in the 1943 ColombiaPictures musical film ” The Heat’s On'”,  she was able to get her own television show.  When the show was cancelled after her communist branding, she moved to Paris and became successful. 

Her talent, her elegance, stubbornness and her resilience makes her one of the women I greatly admire. 

Rest in Power ️

Nomzamo Winnie Mandikizela-Mandela (1936-2018)

As we observe history, it is easiest to condense historical figures into two main categories; villains and heroes.  Sadly life and human nature is far more complex.  The burden of heroism on the living is the perpetual standard imposed on them and sometimes they stagger beneath it. 

The life of Nomzamo Winnie Mandikizela-Mandela (1936-2018) has been scrutinized and worshipped by millions around the world. Her story of struggle has been muffled and put in the shadow of her ex-husband Nelson Mandela for decades.  After her death and official vindication from all allegations in 2018, she has become even more widely known and recognised.  Yet, many are still unaware of the brilliant life of this exceptional woman. 

Having read the conventional political narratives of the struggle against the system of apartheid in history, I was once led to believe that she was just the fiesty wife of Nelson Mandela.  A woman who was an extension of his narrative who openly and dutifully supported him. After digging deeper, I was blown away by the lack of focus and sometimes even omission of large chunks of her involvement in the movement.

Banishment, torture, repeated and prolonged incarceration, harassment, betrayal, isolation and scandal plagued Winnie’s entire life. She crawled out with all of her dignity, spark and humour.  In her pictures, interviews, speeches and appearances she is regally attired and well kept.  Articulate, cheeky, full of vigour and passion she continued to serve her community and people till her dying breath. 

I am inspired by her tenacity, persistence, compassion and struggle.  When I feel overwhelmed or on the brink of despair about racism and other challenges people of colour face, I remember her words, “I shall never lose hope and my people shall never lose hope”

Rest in Power

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