A while ago the bomb dropped on us internet folk that Shudu, a stunning ebony-skinned model with a following of over 30k on Instagram and a recent shout-out from Fenty Beauty’s account wearing one of their lipstick shades, was in fact the 3D art project of London-based photographer Cameron-James Wilson. What’s that, you ask? Looks like another case of everybody but black women profiting off the image and trendiness of black women. Sigh.
He has received some praise for his artistic excellence and some heat, particularly on Twitter with people expressing disappointment over the fact that working with and paying black women still seems like pulling teeth to some.
Personally I find it tough to completely fault Wilson, as he really has made beautiful images and a stunning project/experiment, which is what he says he set out to do. There are, however, the questionable remarks made to Harper’s Bazaar about noticing the “movement out there” around dark-skinned models when he explained his aim was to add to that and empower people. It seems homeboy really doesn’t get it. Dark-skinned models are human beings trying to chase their dreams and do a job against huge odds in a rough industry – not a passing trend.
Add to that the fact that he did not add the “world’s first digital supermodel” label to Shudu’s Instagram bio or the #3dart tag to the pictures until after some of these interviews and articles came out questioning whether she was human or not. But is this just a necessary social commentary on how warped our eyes and psyche have become that people didn’t immediately question whether Shudu was human or not? (Seriously, check the abs out on some of these photos!). How empowering is this hyper-perfect image of a dark-skinned woman really? Which is just the thing. Everything around us seems to suggest that a dark black woman needs to be “perfect” in every way to somehow compensate for being of her complexion. Shudu will never be ill or physically handicapped, will not age, and does not even grow body hair where it’s traditionally deemed ‘undesirable”. She will definitely never put on any weight. So dark-skinned women who inspired her image or who happen to look like her are the ideal woman so long as they stay in the physical form they are (or were) in at the time they inspired Wilson.
With the most love to my fellow Nilotes from South Sudan, many of them dominate the black model quotas in the fashion industry. A lot, if not all of them are naturally very tall and lean, features that are quite unique to them amongst African women and fit the Euro-centric standards of the Western modelling industry. Take Lupita Nyong’o as an example too. Suppose she wasn’t the Yale-educated Oscar winner with impeccable style, toned body and perfect skin. Would she have the same mesmerizing effect in the media she has had so far? Maybe not. So non-white faces or not, fashion and entertainment does not seem to have stepped up the inclusivity as much as we had hoped it would by now. Dark women are still treated like colonial-era forbidden fruit and a passing fad. A fetish, even.
In today’s age of the social media millionaire as well, should Shudu have the opportunity to cash in on her huge following, it will ultimately be Wilson who profits from it rather than a number of human models whom he says inspired her image. For starters, he already bagged an entire story on Harper’s Bazaar’s website and a number of other publications to tell his story. And here so many of us are, talking about him. The difference is, neither Wilson, an established white male photographer, or Shudu, a creation and possession of said established photographer will have gone through the same obstacles that a real black model will to gain some momentum in the industry.
So I don’t buy it. If representation and empowerment really was the aim here, he easily could have had a call-out for unknown darker-skinned models to shoot and help grow their social media following and experience, or practiced his CGI skills in the image of the real women he says so inspire him. Not perpetuated the harmful pursuit of perfection so many ordinary people continue to struggle with daily.
Inclusivity does not equal the same old ideals covered in a different-coloured skin.
Written by Julie O.