Beauty and Blackness: Justin Dingwall and Thando Hopa at M.I.A. Gallery
Examining culture and fashion photography norms at downtown Seattle's M.I.A. Gallery.
Rarely in art or fashion photography do you see a model credited along with the photographer. Though the effort is almost always a group effort—a collaboration—it just doesn't happen.
The images in Albus, the new show at M.I.A. Gallery, are so striking and absorbing that their dual attribution will most likely not be the first thing you notice, but when the two names do catch your attention, you'll have a certain insight on this shared project.
South African photographer Justin Dingwall and Thando Hopa, a Johannesburg-based legal advisor with albinism, came together to challenge their country's ideas about Hopa's affliction, and, on a larger scale, to communicate with the art and fashion worlds about our long-held ideas of beauty.
The images on M.I.A.'s walls (officially on view as of Thursday, January 30) represent the first time Dingwall has been exhibited in a solo show, and they show Hopa bathed in angelic vulnerability. What Seattleites may not know, says gallerist Mariane Ibrahim-Lenhardt, is that in many African cultures those with albinism are sometimes violently outcast and perceived as anything but pure and radiant.
The global fashion community, on the other hand, is growing fond of the look. Bronx-born model Shaun Ross was a sort of indie darling for a time, and it's Ibrahim-Lenhardt's position that the "awkward beauty" thing presents just the right moment for models like Hopa and ideas like this one.
And while the emphasis on race, blackness, and dangerous cultural beliefs is obviously a deep and worthy one, you (that is, if you are not a black South African who is affected by the prejudice to those with albinism) might also look at the show as a fashion magazine reader.
Hopa's pigmentless skin appears to be largely untouched by Dingwall's post-production. You see white-powdered texture on her face, you see the pores around her nose and under her eyes. Ibrahim-Lenhardt believes that Dingwall selected photo paper that would play up this raw, roughness; he wanted his collaborator's realness to read through.
Fans of Vogue, et al are taught a strictly air-brushed version of beauty—regardless of skin color, race, ethnicity. But it's clear that Dingwall wanted us to see the human side of beauty.
It's clear Hopa did, too. "I'm a black girl who lives in the skin of a white person and that alone should embody what a human being as a whole should represent," she told the BBC (as per M.I.A.'s press materials).
Albus runs through February 28; it was Ibrahim-Lenhardt's intention that the images would be on view through Black History Month.