Stephanie Busari is CNN’s Africa Editor-in-Chief based in Lagos, Nigeria. All opinions expressed in the article below are those of the author.
“Sis, have you seen this wonderful cover… it’s amazing,” a friend wrote to me in an Instagram message. This was the February 2022 cover of British Vogue, featuring an all-star team of African supermodels.
However, my heart sank when I saw the photos 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 depicted in a dark and ominous painting, the lighting so dim that it is almost impossible to distinguish them on the cover designed to emphasize their individuality? Why were they dressed all in black, giving a funeral look and an almost ghoulish, otherworldly look?
Why did they sport wigs with a strange hairstyle? Many of these women usually wear their natural hair, and it would be great to see how this reflects on the cover of African beauty. In addition, on the cover, the models’ skin color appeared to be several shades darker than their normal skin tone.
The photographs were taken by Afro-Brazilian photographer Rafael Pavarotti, and the images published in numerous glossy magazines over the years are consistent with his visual style of presenting black leather in an ultra-dark manner.
“It’s a celebration of women, matriarchy and the beauty of black women,” Pavarotti said of his first British Vogue cover shoot in an article accompanying the photos online.
“This is past, present and future,” he added.
But lighting, styling and makeup that deliberately exaggerated the already dark skin tones of the models diminished their distinctive features and created a uniform look. Was it the best way to celebrate black beauty? Wouldn’t it be better to show their natural, unique beauty?
In an article published on the Vogue website, Enninful describes the models (Adut Akech, Anok Yai, Majesty Amaré, Amar Akway, Janet Jumbo, Mati Fall, Nyagua Ruea, Ebeni Nyal and Akon Chankou) as “a powerful cohort of ruling and emerging superstars, who have not only risen to power on the catwalks and dominate advertising campaigns, but have also changed the lens through which fashion is viewed around the world.”
He added: “No longer one or two black girls mingled behind the scenes, but a host of top models have taken a meaningful, substantial and equal place among the most successful women working in the fashion world today. It means so much to me to see this.” . “
Adut Akech on the cover of British Vogue Credit: From Raphael Pavarotti / British Vogue
“We want to be who we are”
The cover is the highest honor a magazine can give a subject, and historically black women have rarely been honored with this honor.
So, when black women appear on the covers of world famous magazines like Vogue, those images are widely shared; we feel noticed, celebrated and recognized. That’s why for many black women, especially black women like me, this Vogue cover feels so personal.
I have found that many of us want to love these images but can’t shake the feelings of unease that are rooted in the deeper issues of beauty standards that have ruled us out for so long.
British Vogue criticized for February cover
Many online critics felt that the images were fetishized and pandered to the White Look, which is ironic given that the editorial team behind them is made up almost entirely of people of African descent.
Ghanaian writer Natasha Akua wrote in a private message on Instagram: “When I saw this, I was immediately shocked… I think I know what statement he was trying to make visually, but turned these black models into this strange picture straight from the movie. a horror movie just instinctively felt wrong.”
“Why darken their skin beyond recognition?” she asked. “To make some kind of statement about being shamelessly black? Unabashedly black means being who you are and doesn’t require that kind of exaggeration.”
While South Sudanese stand-up comedian and social commentator Akau Jumbo wrote: “This is not art, this is black skin porn. Black fetish. Reverse bleaching.
“This image is pure manipulation,” he told me during a phone call. “This is what they do with models from South Sudan to tell a story about Africa and people say we don’t understand the artist’s point of view, but you can tell a story and create a false narrative.”
“We don’t want you to make us the blacks you want. We want us to be who you are.”
There’s no denying that Enninful and his team have made great strides in defending diversity since he took over from Shulman as British Vogue editor-in-chief. His first cover was with mixed-race model Adwoa Aboah, and he also starred with Dame Judi Dench, who at 85 was the magazine’s oldest cover star.
He dedicated the cover of the September 2020 issue to 20 activists, including Manchester United footballer and free school meals advocate Marcus Rashford, who was photographed by Misan Harriman, the first black man to cover British Vogue.
Many of those who contacted me were reluctant to criticize the February cover because of the work Enninful did for Vogue, but we shouldn’t be afraid to hold even our African brothers and sisters accountable when necessary.
Change doesn’t happen overnight and open conversation and debate is needed as we take steps towards achieving the representation we all want to see.