Friday, May 17, 2013

Is Aamna Aqeel's "Be My Slave" shoot as bad as it looks?

Fashion designer Aamna Aqeel, who is Pakistani, is currently drawing fire for a fashion shoot titled "Be My Slave," in which an imperious and clearly rich white woman is seen being attended by a dark-skinned young boy.

Here are some reactions:
Sadly, this incident will join the list of racially insensitive situations found throughout the fashion industry--from slave-inspired designs, the unapologetic use of Blackface, the whitewashing of runways and the total disregard of diversity. When will these gross attention-seeking antics and blatant displays of racism end?
- Huffpo Canada Black Voices 
In an editorial spread titled “Be My Slave” (literally, we are rage-shaking as we type this), DIVA Magazine showcases Aqeel’s luxuriant garb on a model being served by a dark-skinned child. He holds an umbrella over her. He sleeps on the floor in rags as she idly flips through an issue of Bazaar. He bows his head as she presumably orders him around. How could the designer possibly justify this stinking pile of racist excrement? 
- Stylite

Ms. Aqueel defended her decision to do the shoot as a message about child labour, but Pakistani journalist Salima Feerasta wasn't buying it:
Aqeel’s argument is that she wanted to spark a debate on child labour. She says she is involved with a children’s charity and wanted to highlight how ‘society madams’ employ child labour in their homes. She is educating and supporting the child used in the shoot — it seems the least she can do after exploiting him in this fashion 
It’s facetious of the designer to claim that she was trying to stimulate a debate on child labour. The model wearing her clothes is clearly comfortable with her dominant position. She is not made up in a way that shows her to be the villain of the piece. The use of a dark skinned child in a shoot entitled “Be My Slave” certainly reeks of racism, however much the designer may deny it. And if anything, the shoot seems to condone child labour.

Here's something, however. I kind of do buy it.

Perhaps I'm attributing far too much goodwill to the fashion industry, but when I look at these pictures I really do think of how wealthy westerners enjoy fashionable lifestyles by exploiting the sweat and blood of south Asian workers. The symbolism actually works for me.

The overwhelmingly negative American interpretation of this is guided more by that country's history. To have a dark-skinned person waiting on a light-skinned person, and the word "slave" involved, immediately raises the spectre of hundreds of years of African enslavement and racism in the United States (and elsewhere in the new world).

But in Pakistan has a different history. It was colonized by the British, and endured years of racist social policy that put the indigenous people at the beck and call of powerful Europeans. In that context, the rich woman looks like a symbol of continuing Western economic and social power — now expressed as part of global trade. 

But then you have to ask yourself,  if Salima Feerasta, who lives in the Pakistani context, finds it racist, isn't it universally so?

I still have to wonder if this whole concept have been well-intentioned, but fatally flawed in a global communications environment. It was shot for a Pakistani magazine and shared on Aamna Aqeel's Facebook Page (both sets have been removed online). When you actually look at the little boy, and the way he is dressed, it is clear that he is being represented as a pre-independence Indian servant, with no reference whatsoever to the African-American experience.

The shoot may be tasteless and dehumanizing, depending how you look at it. And it certainly doesn't portray Aamna Aqeel's fashion in a positive light. But it is not the same racism as European designers fetishizing Africans or using blackface. Not by a long shot.

The message to me is clear. I just think it makes better art than advertising.

All photos via Yahoo!

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