Saturday, 21 October 2017

Hocum Pokem


Last Saturday I went back in time to a place where witches are reborn, cats can talk and spell books have eyes! No, I wasn't watching 90's Disney classic Hocus Pocus, but sitting in the audience of the drag parody Hocum Pokem starring US drag royalty Peaches Christ and Jinkx Monsoon and UK female drag queen Holestar as that tricksy trio of witches The Manderson Sisters!

This wasn't my first time seeing a Peaches Christ Production, last year I watched her fantastic version of Return to Grey Gardens and way back in 2010 I was lucky enough to perform as a backing 'monster' in the UK premiere of Peaches film All About Evil at Manchester's Midnight Mass. With this is mind I was looking forward to something wickedly fabulous, and Hocum Pokem at the Contact Theatre Manchester, did not disappoint!

Sitting as part of a dressed up glamorous and ghoulish audience the show began with the capture and hanging of the Manderson's 300 years ago before we were quickly whisked to modern day 1993 where virgin Max, played expertly by comedian Kate McCabe, unwittingly lights the Black Flame Candle and brings the sisters sauntering back to life for one night only. The girls looked amazing with Peaches suiting the huge red curls and sparkling green gown of Bette Midler to a tee, while Jinkx looked every bit as sexy in the role made famous by Sarah Jessica Parker in the original film.

When Max and his little Cousin Wonderlette (I've never seen the like!) steal the spell book that could keep Peaches and her sisters alive forever they kicked off a series of events that bore close resemblance to the film yet took on a drag life of their own on stage. Handsome Billy Bitcherson was raised from the dead to give chase, and we were treated to the vocal talents of Holestar singing her own version of Proud Mary (she really can belt it out!). We also got treated to the local talents of dancing aces The Ultra Violets, and the storytelling/hosting skills of Manchester's Anna Phylactic.

With lots of improvisation and jokes, not to mention audience interaction, the show flew by and before I knew it the sun was rising and the sisters were forced to return to the dead, but not before another big showstopper!

Not wanting the make up and glitter to end and having been put in the mood for a serious dance we then attended the after show party 'Witch I'm Madonna' at Cruz101 where Peaches and Jinkx, in fabulous new attire, hosted a night of Madonna themed drag acts performed by local talent.

I have to say watching Jinkx Monsoon in any guise is a thrill! She just has something that captivates and yes, as my friend stated, gives major confused feelings. An impromptu dance to Vogue only made me love her more.

Nothing phased these US Qweens as they affectionately ribbed off each other. You can tell there is a lot of love and respect on and off stage and their adopted Manchester family certainly felt it too. If the audience reaction was anything to go by when we were asked what show we'd like to see next year, we may be treated to a drag version of Death Becomes Her! and as I can vouch, drag dreams do come true, bring on next October!

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

The Hidden Pin Up # 8 - Burlesque fan experiment with hemp

I've spent a couple of weeks industriously fraying sackcloth to resemble ostrich feathers for my experiment making burlesque fans from hemp, and I now have my first complete fan.

I'm really pleased with how beautiful it looks and quite surprised too. It's very textural and immediately recognisable as a burlesque object, yet the different material makes you want to look closer.


Due to the hemp it is heavier than a usual feather fan but not too heavy to manipulate and wave and I'm interested to see how it handles and looks when being danced with. 

I created the feathers by using a real feather as a template to cut out the shape. I then stitched a thin piece of craft wire along the feather stem so that the feather would have some stability and bend into the shape I wanted once finished. 

Next I began to pull the edges apart, removing whole strands in places and creating fronds that mimicked the real feather. I found that this only worked if I cut the sacking on the cross in order for the frayed edges to create the right shape. Each feather is different and I like how that adds to the overall effect. I spent some time figuring out how to lay out each feather to make the most visual impact.

The fan worked best when I placed the feathers to reflect their natural bend. For instance I sorted feathers that bent to the right to lie on the left hand side of the fan so they would lean inwards. Straighter feathers I placed in the middle and left bending feathers I placed on the right. You can see how much better this looks than just laying the feathers out any old way.

 Feathers laid to bend inwards

Feathers laid in no order

I then used more craft wire to fix the feathers to the spokes of a 16" burlesque fan. I used two layers to get a fuller look.

My next thought is to experiment stitching into some of the feathers. I'm thinking of embroidering words that represent the stereotypes black Pin Up's of the past and black women today still have to face in mainstream culture. 

I'm making the fans to highlight the marginalised and primitive characterisation that have hidden the black Pin Up from view, so this will take a bit more research into what messages will work best, and I'd like to do some one on one chats to get first person experiences from women who have to deal with this regularly.

If you have any stories or info to share about your own experiences please get in touch. In the meantime I will be interviewing friends and seeing how the hemp takes to embroidery.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

The Hidden Pin Up #7 - The Black Bunny

Today I learned that Hugh Hefner the founder of Playboy Magazine and head of the Playboy empire, has died aged 91.

Hefner has always been a controversial figure in women's history; he claimed to empower women by printing the first publication to accept that women had their own sexuality and sexual desires. This was at a time when women were very much boxed in and expected to follow the wife and mother role, staying demure and wholesome. His ethos worked alongside the growing women's movement by broadening women's outlooks and helped to kick-start the change in society's ideas about the choices a woman could make.

However it can't be overlooked that Hefner has been partly blamed for the ever growing sexualisation of women by viewing them only as sexual objects for the entertainment and pleasure of men. By promoting women's worth through their looks and sexual promise it is argued he has marginalised women's importance in society by perpetuating the idea of youth and beauty as their most important commodity.

Either way Hefner has left an undeniable mark on popular culture worldwide. He has always fascinated me and I have flipped from admiration to repulsion to somewhere in between the more I have learned about him. 

Say whatever you like about Hefner and his legacy, he was liberal enough to embrace all races in his magazine, opening up the pages to many black activists and entertainers long before other mainstream platforms followed suit. Martin Luther King, Ella Fitzgerald, Muhammed Ali, Sammy Davis Jr and Malcom X all frequented the publication at a time of civil unrest and racial divide.

In March 1965 Playboy published the first black model as it's centerfold. Jennifer Jackson was chosen as the first black Playmate of the month, a revolutionary move for a mainstream platform that catered for a white American male audience. As I have previously mentioned in other posts, when a black woman was celebrated in this manner for her beauty and not fetished for her race, it was a huge step towards narrowing the racial divide, regardless of the female objectification the era provided.

Interestingly, Jackson has since stated that she never thought that she was pretty, saying, 'there were so many other girls who were so much prettier than me. it's just white mans beauty is different to black mans beauty - I was tall and leggy, white men like that. Black men on the other hand like the girls who were short and had what they called "a brick house body". I didn't get any attention from the brothers. They liked the women who were short and shapely. So there was a different standard of beauty'.

Jackson was the first of a series of black Pin Ups to grace the magazine and work the Playboy clubs. She was followed by Jean Bell in 1969 as the second black Playmate of the month who also became the first black Playmate on the cover (all be it accompanied by four other models).

Then 1971 saw an iconic cover featuring African American model Darine Stern posing on the famous bunny head chair. She was the first black woman to take centre stage on the front of Playboy. With her huge Afro, and not much else she made a powerful statement about black culture moving into the mainstream after the height of the American Civil rights movement. 

This was a time where black culture was embracing its heritage and taking back control of the stereotypes white culture had used against it for centuries. Hence the Afro and a curvaceous figure were identified with power and pride by the black community.

Moving on 40 years or so, it's not that unusual to see a black bunny or Playmate these days, though still quite rare. Last year did see Eugenia Washington from America's next Top Model become Playboy's Playmate of the year but she was only the 3rd black woman to be named since the magazine's launch over 60 years ago!

With Hef now shuffling off this mortal coil, I do wonder what direction Playboy will take. He was always the compass for the magazine, steering it towards topical subjects, advocating freedom of speech and championing civil rights as well as pushing the seedier sexual element and churning out playmate after playmate. It will be interesting to watch how things progress now that his tight hold is gone. In a time of increasing intolerance to race and gender equality (watch the news, read a newspaper, it's there), I can't help thinking that losing Hefner at this point could go either way in terms of progress (as backwards as that sounds when speaking of a man who made his fortune from the flesh of women). 

If Playboy loses it's edge (as hidden by tits and big hair as it might have been), it would be a sad outcome for a magazine that since its birth, has consistently caused controversy by giving the world a broader idea of what the mainstream could look like. Lets hope whoever steps into his velvet slippers and smoking jacket has the vision and, please, the courage to keep pushing the boundaries of conservatism, but give women a real voice too.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

The Hidden Pin Up #7 - The project art work: ideas

Throughout my research into the history of the black Pin Up the aim has always been twofold: to educate myself and share what I learn and also to create a piece of art based on my findings. This was all inspired by Manchester's House of Ghetto, the black all female Vogue house who I saw perform at the Vogue Ball back in March.

 See more @gemma_parker_artist

Speaking with Darren Pritchard, their award winning choreographer and House Mother made me want to work with them and the 'the black Pin Up' was his suggestion for the starting point. Writing these blog posts over the past few months has been an interesting and fascinating journey.

For the art work, I want to make something that the dancers can move and dance with but could also be displayed as a standalone piece, and my immediate idea comes from the title of this project, The Hidden Pin Up. When I began my research I realised that even though she existed, the black Pin Up was hard to find, she was difficult to pick out and see against the more popular mainstream white Pin Up and the historic context in which she was based mostly altered her or blanked her out.

I began thinking of ways that I could literally cover up and obscure the dancers so that they were hidden from view but stay in keeping with the Pin Up aesthetic. One of the subjects I learned about that really caught my attention was Jean Idelle, the popular and successful burlesque 1950's dancer whose trademark routine was dancing with huge white feather fans. This was a great starting point.

I like the idea of using a traditional burlesque accessory but giving it a new twist. At first I thought of making fans out of canvas that I could paint onto, but I'm not sure which direction to take this into yet. The question is what to decorate the fans with?

I want to send a message with the piece about the misconceptions projected onto the black Pin Ups (and black women now to some degree). The big factor that has stood out throughout the whole project is how black women have been represented and disregarded in mainstream culture. Time and again the black female image is painted as primitive, uneducated, hyper sexual and angry (see past posts for more elaboration on this). 

My next idea was then to use the material of the fans themselves as the messenger. Rather than luxurious pure white feathers, the fans should be made of something that reflect the stereotype used in popular culture. Something rough and inexpensive with no finesse, and I thought that sackcloth/burlap would be perfect!

I like the texture and how it can be pulled apart and the frayed edges could be manipulated to imitate feathers. There are also a lot of historic and cultural connotations with this material that make it suitable to the work and the fact it is something that we connect with in many everyday situations yet take little notice of gives it a further layer of meaning. 

I really like the idea of making something that looks crude and uncultured that can then be interacted with to create something beautiful and refined.
So not only would the fans be working to cover and hide the dancer/model (and also reveal her) they will also be challenging the ideas that have kept the black Pin Up hidden from mainstream culture.

As a utility material, sacking has a lot of potential to be worked with, and makes a perfect counterpoint to the glamour of the Pin Up. I love this photo shoot of Marilyn making an old sack look sexy!

I have been researching how to make my own burlesque feather fans so my next step is to gather materials and start experimenting. I want to try making feathers from sacking, and also stitching into the weave and embellishing it too as well as giving embroidery a try (you can see examples of my other embroidery work HERE)

I'm really excited to see how it goes!

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

The Hidden Pin Up #6 - The Black Fetish

Fetish - the pathological displacement of erotic interest and satisfaction to an object or bodily part whose real or fantasised presence is psychologically necessary for sexual gratification (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
Throughout my investigation into the history of the black Pin Up, it's been difficult not to notice a trend; The notion of claiming black females to be hyper-sexual and primitive because of their anatomy, and those ideas sticking as they have been represented through discourse and the media over the ages. From Sarah Baartman of the 19th Century, the earliest example I could find of a black woman being on display, through to the Afro Pin Up's of the 1970's, a similar narrative keeps being told and it relates to the white male audience...

 'They'll dazzle you... they'll stir your senses... luscious beauties of every shade'

It's the preconceived ideas and ideals based on centuries of racial bias and white privilege that set the black woman firmly apart from the white male making her a complete mystery and totally un-relatable to him. Through the white male gaze she becomes feisty, angry, primitive, uneducated and overtly erotic, she becomes a fetish.

These projected notions robbed the black sitter of her identity, her voice, and her agency in order to make her the acceptable version of the black ideal. There is an argument that all women are typecast to some degree in this fashion, but it is fair to say that when discussing issues of gender roles that mostly in this case, black Pin Up's have a different story to tell from their white counterparts.

While all Pin Ups, dancers, performers and models from the vintage era had to fit a prescriptive formula of safe Western feminine ideals in order to be admired for their beauty and talent (to a large extent this is still true), the black Pin Up also had the added hurdle of her skin colour, meaning that a further set of notions and margins were then (and to a large extent still can be) pasted onto her image setting the real women, and what she truly represented into an abstract that mostly never got considered.

In my last post I mentioned a 1940's actress by the name of Acquanetta who actively denied her black heritage in order to get film roles which wouldn't stereotype her despite her colour. She instead chose to take on the persona of a mysterious 'exotic', that while still typecast to some degree, didn't have the same negative stigma attached to it from a Western point of view.

Even though white women from the vintage era still had to compete with male dominance over their image they had somewhat more freedom to speak out about their thoughts and needs in the real world. The way the black Pin Up was characterised to a white audience meant she was subdued and marginalised by jokey and lazy stereotypes that took away her power. This lack of control on how she was represented was justified by making her more marketable to a mainstream audience. Take the example of 1930's performer Jeni LeGon from my first post. Despite her incredible talent for dancing, she was soon cast as the goony savage shimmying in feathers and a grass skirt before only ever getting roles as housemaids.

Black model with an angry expression teamed with leopard print and an African mask.

 This isn't to say ALL black Pin Up's were treated the same and mildly went about their business bowing to social pressure. As we have seen from past posts there are many examples of black women who succeeded in pin up careers despite racial prejudice or even using racial fetishes to their own ends by playing to stereotype and taking back control of their images.

Josephine Baker is the ultimate example of this as we have previously discussed in other posts. Her ability to give the audience what they wanted,becoming a symbol for black fetish,while being the architect of her own destiny makes her a massively important figure in the history of the black Pin Up and an icon to other black performer throughout the years. 

The boundaries of fetishisation of the black Pin Up began to blur in the 1970's when Blaxploitaion, a sub genre to exploitation films, exploded onto the scene. Blaxploitation films were made primarily for a black audience but its appeal soon spread to other races and ethnicity. In this case black culture took back control of the monikers that had been used to control it, much like Josephine Baker had previoulsy. Afro hair, large hoop earrings and voluptuous bodies became a form of self identity and reclamation of race.

Afro model. See more @gemma_parker_artist

However the movement began to suffer from the strong messages it was projecting alongside it's image. For some, the movement only perpetuated the black stereotypes held by white people and rather than giving empowerment, held the black community back. In an essay about Blaxploitation films Joanne Allen comments,

'Most of the women in blaxploitation films were reduced down to insignificant prostitutes or curvaceous women who flaunted all they had. Even while the movies main characters were women, they were still objectified and reduced down to loose, sexual and insatiable "hot mamas"'

The subject of black fetishism is a very complex one, in fact the positive and negative effects of Blaxploitation films are still being discussed to this day and the everyday fetishisation of colour continues in popular culture. Both Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus have been accused of fetishising black hip hop culture through their performances using cultural appropriation in costume and dance choices. Can anyone unsee Miley 'twerking' at the 2013 MTV awards or Katy doing this in her video for This Is How We Do?...

Interestingly, it does seem acceptable for white women to take on black cultural styles like cornrows and baby hair in the mainstream, but when black women do it, popular culture is divided, see my post about this HERE

In everyday life, racial fetishisation continues on a smaller stage and this is in most part, because of the stereotypes perpetuated throughout history and the lack of respect black culture is given on a wider platform which leads to ignorance and false presumptions. A quick search on the internet will bring up hundreds of sites discussing incidents where black women have been approached by or even dated men with a racial fetish. That isn't to say a 'preference' for black women, but men who have actively seeked and singled out a person because of her race and then unaware used micro-aggressions which demeaned, alienated or marginalised the women they were with. For example, 'You're [insert positiive adjective] for a black girl, or 'You're not like other black people'. One account I read said, 'He kept touching my hair without my consent, was legitimately disappointed that I could not twerk, and called me “sassy” whenever I voiced an opinion that was different from his'. Presuming she was feisty and overtly sexual, does this sound familiar? 

Out of all the posts I've done about the history of the black Pin Up, this one has by far been the hardest to write and the longest to put down into words. While I have always been aware of race and the issues it can bring up, writing as a white female I have had to really learn and think as I type, putting my findings down so that I would understand them and so that they hit the right note. It has also made me question cultural appropriation, and when does taking inspiration from a culture become a negative thing? Does it depend on the tone, sensitivity or context and is it always wrong to do it no matter what race you are? Maybe these are things to discuss in another post.

I know that the subject of racial fetishisation goes WAY deeper than the things I've discussed, covering different races and all genders, but for this project I have tried to keep it focused on the vintage Pin Up and the things I have discovered along the way. I hope that although basic, this post still manages to convey some of the difficulties that arose during the era and how they weave into the historic and ongoing prejudices that black women still face today.

Here are some of the websites I have used in my research (the ones I can remember), which give a much fuller picture on the subject:

Friday, 18 August 2017

The Hidden Pin Up #5 - lets get re-acquainted!

Yes, its been a while, and I am finally back with another installment to my blog series about the history of the black pin up!

A few weeks ago a work colleague who has been following my blog posts lent me a fantastic book titled 'Vintage Black Glamour' and I thought this would be a great way to ease back into the subject and refresh our minds a little about the whole world of hidden pin ups including, dancers, burlesque stars, actresses and performers who have been neglected or sidelined by the mainstream because of the colour of their skin. (If you haven't seen them already, take a look at my past posts to read more in depth about this subject).

Picking up this book for the first time I was immediately bowled over by the amount of beautiful photographs that fill it; page after page of stunning women with incredible stories. It confirmed my feelings that this rich history has been largely ignored and marginalised throughout the decades in favour of more widely acceptable and lucrative white mainstream glamour. However just one glance will affirm that there was a WHOLE lot of black talent out there making waves

Sara Lou Harris, one of the first black models to appear in national print advertisements, being photographed by twin brothers Morgan and Marvin Smith (late 1940's) 

The book is broken down into chapters covering black glamour in many different guises; Pin ups and Hollywood Starlets, Beauty and Fashion Entrepreneurs, Scandalous Glamour, Jazz Singers, Musicians, Writers, Movie Stars and Theatre and TV Pioneers to name but a few! Yet the thing that makes the book so much more than just a roll call of names and faces is that the author's aunt was a successful black performer who had inspired her to delve deeper into the lives of other black performers giving her a direct link to this little known or forgotten world.

Margaret Tynes was an international singer of jazz, opera and theatre who found professional acclaim for her portrayal of Salome in the early 60's and had a career spanning 50 years. Known to the author as the 'diva in the family' Tynes had a phenomenal success working with names like Duke Ellington and Harry Belafonte.

 Margaret Tynes (far left) with Duke Ellington and Joya Sherrill posing for TV special based on Ellington's suite, A Drum is a Woman

Taking Tynes lead, the rest of the book is 'a visual tribute to some of the glamorous, accomplished and often groundbreaking black women - both legendary and obscure- of the 20th Century'. Here is just a taster of the remarkable women and hidden pin ups filling these pages...

This stunning photo is of a woman named Selika Lazevski taken in 1891. It gives me all kinds of thrills; She is SO statuesque and poised, and the fact we are seeing an historic photo of a black woman in contemporary costume is unusual. The book had little to say about her, but upon doing a little research I found that Selika was a French horsewoman who performed high level dressage riding sidesaddle at circuses and hippodromes.

Known as 'Acquanetta' during her career and hailed as the 'Venezuelan Volcano' this actress's origins are full of mystery. Accounts differ with the white press stating that she was born as 'Burnu Acquanetta' meaning Burning Fire/Deep Water, of Native American descent from the Arapaho tribe, while the black press said that she actually born as 'Mildred Davenport' from Norristown Pennsylvania. It seems like a case of catering to different audiences with the most acceptable story and a shame that the actress couldn't embrace her true identity whichever that was. In possibly alluding to a more mysterious heritage Acquanetta was able to gain film roles that would have been denied to black actresses in the 1940's.

Barbara Ncnair was the first African Ameircan woman to host her own variety show on television from 1969 - 1971. She was a singer and actor who had starred on Broadway and had hit records, her career spanned 50 years. I found a great video of her singing a duet with Dean Martin on her show, both performed beautifully while Dean smoked a cigarette on stage, how times have changed.

'No one looked like her'. Donyale Luna was a model who was described as 'an extraordinary species' and was the first black model to appear on the cover of British Vogue in 1966. Luna also appeared in several Andy Warhol films during the 1960's and has remained as an icon of other worldly beauty within popular culture despite her early death at the age of 33


Finally just I love this photo of another of the authors aunts, this time Mildred Taylor pictured here on the left with her friend Queen Esther James during their modelling days in Newark New Jersey in the early 1950's. They both look gorgeous!

I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in vintage glamour, black history or old Hollywood and the entertainment industry. There are so many stories of famous and little known black women and I found every one of them fascinating, like filling in little pieces in the jigsaw of my knowledge.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Didsbury Arts Festival 2017

If things have seemed a bit quiet on here lately it's because I've been co-ordinating Didsbury Arts Festival which recently finished it's nine day run. 

After months of working behind the scenes to set it up, it was so great to see the festival blossom and come to life, and I got to see some brilliant stuff while I managed the events too! Here's a few of my favourite moments:

A Northern Life in Pictures

Photo by Bartosz-Kowalczyk
Didsbury Arts Festival 2017

Taking place in Didsbury's Shaare Hayim Synagogue, A Northern Life in Pictures featured a talk with photographer Sefton Samuels alongside some of his most iconic images of Manchester and it's surrounding areas. The stories that accompanied the photos really gave an insight into Samuels long and eventful career and his love for the North.

This event also featured a screening of the film A City Speaks which I highly reccommend to anyone with an interest in history and the city of Manchester. Made in 1947 the film told of a Northern power house, 'If you can think of it, Manchester can make it!'. Full of shots of hard working men and women in the factories and familiar landmarks this film transported me to one of my favourite eras whilst giving me a vision of the city I love in one glorious black and white time capsule. You can watch the whole film on the BFI website HERE

Toot Sweet

Photo by Neil Nevill

Mixing music with cake, I have to say this was one of my favourite music events during the festival! Taking her cue from a selection of musical classics by Bach, Gershwin and Schumann, saxophonist Gillian Blair then created a box of bespoke cakes to be eaten as each piece played. Great music, tick! Cake, tick, tick!

Hitler Alone

It's not often you find yourself in the bunker with Adolf Hitler during his last day on earth, but that was where myself and a collection of other audience members found ourselves as Paul Webster performed his one man show, Hitler Alone. Played out in a small dark intimate setting allowing only a handfull of onlookers, we were all taken aback when Hitler stormed furiously into the room outraged that it had all come to this. What followed as an hour of absolute genius; an insight into Hitler's life and the decisions he made. Paul Webster was superb acting out the last moments of a phsycopath who was surprisingly clear headed and determined until the end. 

Roots Stage

Although I technically didn't get to see all of this event (what with managing one half of it) I was really pleased at how successfully it went. This was probably the largest project we put on as part of the festival.

Set in Didsbury Park, Roots Stage was a mini festival within a festival. Consisting of a main stage with live music from bands and singers throughout the day, there was also a running order of performances and activites happening around the park. We had puppet shows, dances, comedy joggers and interactive experiences.

 Photo by Tom Bullock
 Photo by Tom Bullock 

When the sun decided to join us (and stayed!) the picture was complete and it was a very satisfying moment to look out at a sea of sunbathers and pic-nicers enjoying the mellow music and festival atmosphere. Kids were entertained and the odd pet dog could be seen racing about with a huge smile on its face. It was a great moment.


I'll be back soon to continue my investigation into the history of the black pin up. If you haven't read them already, take a look (HERE), I've written several posts exploring this fascinating slice of the past often overlooked or ignored. See you soon...