British Vogue’s Feb cover: African beauty, skin porn or black fetish? Do not make us the Black that you want; we want us as us, critics charge

"This image is pure manipulation," he told me during phone conversation. "This is what they do to South Sudanese models to tell a story about Africa and people are saying we don't understand the artist's perspective but you can tell a story and be projecting a false narrative." Why darken their skin beyond recognition?" a critic asked. "To make some statement about being unapologetically black? Unapologetically black means being who you are and does not require this manner of hyperbole."

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The British Vogue February 2022 cover, which features an all-star team of African supermodels raised some concerns regarding the definition of African beauty

The British Vogue February 2022 cover, which features an all-star team of African supermodels raised some concerns regarding the definition of African beauty.

It is one of two cover photos released this month (a second cover image features one of the group, supermodel Adut Akech, posing alone). British Vogue’s British Ghanaian editor-in-chief Edward Enninful, says the images aim to spotlight the rise of the African models shaping the industry. 

Industry critics wonder why the models were depicted in a dark and ominous tableau, the lighting so obscure to the point they are almost indistinguishable on a cover meant to celebrate their individuality. Also, why were they dressed all in black, giving a funereal air, and an almost ghoulish, otherworldly appearance, and spotting strangely-coiffed wigs?

Stripped of their natural hair, there obviously wasn’t much of African beauty to celebrate. Additionally, 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 skin in an ultra-dark manner. 

“This is a celebration of women, of matriarchy, and of the beauty of Black women,” Pavarotti said of his first British Vogue cover shoot in an article accompanying the pictures online. “They are the past, the present, and the future,” he added.

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

In an article published on the Vogue website, Enninful posts the narrative of 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 reigning and emerging superstars who have not only come to rule catwalks and dominate campaigns but have shifted the lens through which fashion is seen the world over.” 

A cover is the highest accolade a magazine can give to a subject, and, historically, Black women have rarely been bestowed this honor.

Former British Vogue editor-in-chief Alexandra Shulman famously noted in a 2017 interview in the Guardian that unknown Black women on the cover sold fewer copies. So, when Black women appear on the cover of global high-profile magazines like Vogue, these images circulate widely; we feel seen, celebrated, and acknowledged. That is why for many Black women, particularly dark-skinned ones like me, this Vogue cover feels personal.

But, many online critics felt this Vogue cover images were fetishized and pandering to a White gaze, ironic, considering the editorial team behind them consisted almost entirely of people of African descent. 

“Why darken their skin beyond recognition?” a critic asked. “To make some statement about being unapologetically black? Unapologetically black means being who you are and does not require this manner of hyperbole.”

While South Sudanese stand-up comic and social commentator Akau Jambo wrote: “This is not art, this is Black Skin Porn. Black Fetish. Reverse Bleaching.”

“This image is pure manipulation,” he told me during phone conversation. “This is what they do to South Sudanese models to tell a story about Africa and people are saying we don’t understand the artist’s perspective but you can tell a story and be projecting a false narrative.”

“We don’t want you to make us the Black you want. We want us as us.”

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