The power of colour: Pirelli 2018 for natural beauty
The fantasy fairytale tableau is more than familiar: oversized flowers, monstrous playing cards, brilliant mushrooms, a rabbit with a pocket watch, and a tea party for some of the most outlandish characters in literature. This is Alice in Wonderland — not a return to the 2010 Tim Burton film, but a revisiting nonetheless of the 1865 Lewis Carroll novel. The setting, in fact, is of the 2018 edition of the Pirelli calendar (‘The Cal’), shot by British fashion photographer Tim Walker. The Pirelli calendar is well-established as a global trendsetter, associated with models such as Cindy Crawford, Kate Moss and Heidi Klum, as well as the photography legends Annie Leibovitz, Norman Parkinson, and Richard Avedon, among others. On Walker’s Wonderland-inspired sets, however, there is one major, inescapable difference — the children’s tale is played out entirely by an all-black cast.
Not a white Wonderland
In many ways, the concept for the 2018 Pirelli calendar is remindful of African-American versions of Leonardo Da Vinci’s 15th-century mural, The Last Supper. It also brings to mind the 1978 Sidney Lumet musical, The Wiz, an all-African-American reimagining of the classic, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The underlying message of the calendar is all about empowerment. “I wanted it to be a definite comment on black beauty,” says Tim. “It’s a celebration of beauty, simple as that.” Also, he was intent on retelling the story of Alice in a way that makes it more accessible than ever before. “Alice can be anyone,” he urges. “It’s an essence... Focus on what it represents. It’s important for cultural development.” The 2018 Pirelli calendar thus transforms into an ensemble cast, with South Sudanese-Australian model Duckie Thot playing a leggy, frizzy haired Alice in punk platform heels. She’s joined by drag queen RuPaul as The Queen of Hearts, Instagirl modelling phenomenon Slick Woods as The Mad Hatter in a Dickensian makeover, Kenyan-Mexican Academy award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o as The Dormouse, actress Sasha Lane as The Mad March Hare, and Beninese heartthrob Djimon Hounsou as The King of Hearts. The surprise appearances include music mogul Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs and supermodel Naomi Campbell lugging axes to play The Royal Beheaders, while veteran comedienne Whoopi Goldberg shows up as The Royal Duchess, joined by South African model and lawyer Thando Hopa as The Princess of Hearts. The calendar also features London-based vanguard stylist, designer and singer Zoe Bedeaux as The Caterpillar, Gambian women’s right activist Jaha Dukureh as Wonderland Princess, South Sudanese-Australian model Adut Akech as The Queen of Diamonds, and American rapper Lil Yacthy as The Queen’s Guard, apart from the models Adwoa Aboah, Alpha Dia, King Owusu and Wilson Oryema. The images are startling, and incomparable, to say the least. But the results are of far greater significance, as the calendar has already sparked off a great deal of talk over matters of skin colour, and racial inclusivity.
A serious, deep-rooted problem
The impact of those rumblings in the West is slightly different closer home, revealing a divide between concerns of racial identity, and the seemingly superficial aspect of skin colour. When asked for his take, Atul Kasbekar, the ace photographer and longstanding lensman of the Kingfisher calendar shoots remarks, “This is a malaise that has set in our society, which has great psychological ramifications.” Atul affirms, “I have made it a point through my entire career to never accept an assignment for fairness creams. This is especially for the kind (of product) that sends out communications insisting that a girl that’s fairer has a better chance to succeed.” The need of the moment, Atul adds, is to encourage meaningful discussion. “Racial discrimination, often as a result of caste issues, is a serious and deep-rooted problem. In my view, it is one of our greatest social evils,” he says. “I strongly recommend that there is a lot of media attention towards this subject, and all of it is necessary.” Even as the 2018 Pirelli calendar picks up both accolades and criticism, the all-important question it raises is about perceptions of beauty, and the need for a simpler, more instinctive way of appreciating natural charm, desirability, and feminine grace. “To me, there is no colour to beauty,” offers the photographer Jatin Kampani from Mumbai. “Pirelli calendars are known to create waves every year for their beautiful imagery,” he notes. This year’s edition, he adds, is as much a celebration of ‘black beauty’ as it is about great visuals, and Tim’s artistic impressions about the fairytale. “A beautiful person is beautiful irrespective of the colour of his or her skin,” says Jatin. “This is how I think of beauty, but it need not necessarily be the way the world sees beauty. After all, beauty does lie in the eyes of the beholder.”
A truly gilded complexion
Noted fashion designer Wendell Rodricks, who lives and works in Goa, echoes the other’s sentiments. “Skin colour is of no importance to me at all,” he says. “I care more about the soul and heart within a person. I find beauty in individuals and personal features. Some people have beautiful eyes, others have lovely hands.” Indian perceptions have long been influenced by the West, he points out. “Indians love fair skin, which is fine, as Caucasians love our skin. It’s like hair. People who have straight hair feel they need to curl it. And vice versa. Human beings in general are not content with how they are.” In the end, Wendell asserts, “We cannot put a trend on skin colour. It is non-negotiable.” As for the debates on racial identity and inclusion, the larger picture to focus on is diversity in India, says Wendell. “We are Indian, and we are proud of our skin tone, no matter fair, dusky or dark.” He goes on to extend a personal anecdote, by way of an inspirational message. “Love yourself and your skin colour,” he exhorts. “I recall model Anjolie Mendes, a fiercely proud Goan and proud of her colour in Paris. She told me how when she went for her identity card in Paris, the officer told her that she should put black in her skin tone. She pointed at people in the line and told him, ‘You see that man? He is black. You see that lady? She is white. Me... I am golden. Write golden (dorée in French)’. She got her way. And touché to that!”
Sugar coating fairytales
Working on the Alice concept, his intention was to balance out certain aspects of fantasy and reality, explains Tim. “I think culturally, we’ve sugar-coated fairytales in the last 50 years,” he says. “Children can really see and feel the darkness in things just as much as the lightness. And that’s something that Lewis Carroll completely got, and maybe that’s why it (the story) resonates so much.” The political climate, on the other hand, made the timing of the calendar’s release more challenging, what with numerous online movements gaining favour, including #BlackLivesMatter, #Blackis Beautiful, #BlackGirlMagic, #Blackexcellence and #Black Thought. Although, Tim states, “I don’t see myself as a spokesperson for black beauty — I find it beautiful, and I do think it’s a conversation we should have.” The all-black theme meant that many elements had to be turned inside-out, explains set designer Shona Heath, who primarily worked with the illustrations of Sir John Tenniel (1820 – 1914), an English illustrator and political cartoonist for the satire magazine Punch. So, the crew brought in a black rabbit instead of a white one, and where the original story features the “card people” sporting bright red roses, here they have roses paint black. Incidentally, Pirelli last produced an all-black calendar in 1987, shot by Terence Donovan, styled in tribal fashion and dedicated to African women, which included Naomi Campbell, aged all of 16. Whoopi too gets a word in on the theme. “Alice in Wonderland represents everything we’re living right now. This is the human story. We’re all down the rabbit hole at some point in our lives,” she says. “I’ve always known how people see women of colour, and how they think of women of colour. To be with all colours of brown was extraordinary.”
Beautiful, every way you look
For celebrity lensman Karthik Srinivasan in Chennai, the issue compels him to look back at his own experiences. “I started my career as a model, and the colour and orientation debate has always been there,” he says. “But the world over, the standards and models are changing,” he adds. “Brown girls are making heads turn, and brands are not shying away from using them. They are now comfortable putting dark girls on hoardings, because things are changing, and they want originality.” The problem is at a fundamental stage, Srinivasan explains. “People start by saying, ‘You’re really photogenic,’ which translates to, ‘You’re fair.’ That is the kind of mindset that we’re stuck in. Many people take selfies nowadays, and the first thing they do is apply a soft filter, to make them look fairer. They don’t identify with their own complexion anymore, and hence, do everything to look like someone else.” He adds a note of encouragement: “Always be proud of your original skin colour and flaunt it. Brown or black — they’re all beautiful.”
Making a definite change
Sunil Menon, a zoologist, anthropologist, fashion designer and co-founder of the sexual health group Sahodaran, informs us that he’s playing his part for inclusion too. Speaking on the sidelines of the launch of their new fundraiser calendar, themed ‘Flora 2018’, shot in Kerala by photographer Kabilan, Menon says the issue boils down to social conditioning. “I’ve always had an affinity for dark skin, but it’s always the fair-skinned girl who gets the job, unfortunately,” says Menon. “I’m still pushing for dark-skinned girls for shows and ramp walks. But thanks to the pressure, a lot of girls are undergoing a process to get five shades lighter — just to get better assignments. They have to understand that jewellery and saris look great on dark-skinned women.” Films are a major influencer too, especially South Indian cinema, he says. “The obsession with ‘fair is beautiful’ has to stop. We have lovely girls, but because of a regressive mindset, we aren’t able to make a change.” A definite change will take a while, he agrees, particularly in commercial ventures. Ultimately, yet, “As South Indians, we have to accept the fact that we are predominantly dark-skinned,” he says, adding, “I am hoping that skin colour sets some trends for 2018, and I am hopeful of it.” For her part, Naomi Campbell offers the boundless power of aspiration: ‘I hope people feel inspired, to be themselves, believe in their dream, and get to where they want to be in their life.”