Sunday, 4 June 2017

House of Suarez Manchester Vogue Ball

So, for anyone who missed my post about going to the Vogue Ball in Manchester in March this year, here is a delicious taster of what I experienced. This video captures the energy and creative electricity that was in the air that night but really, you needed to go yourself to fully feel how stunning it was.


My Hidden Pin Up posts are inspired by the House of Ghetto who performed that night and who I will be working with on a project about the history of the black Pin Up. If you haven't done it yet take a scroll down my blog and find out more! 

Monday, 22 May 2017

The Hidden Pin Up #4 continued

I was flicking through a copy of The Guardian that had been left in work's staff room last week, when an article caught my eye, 'Is this the year advertisers wake up to perils of cultural appropriation?' (Monday 15th May 2017). It caught my attention as it so perfectly elaborated on ideas from my last post about why black Pin Up's were hardly used to sell products back in the Pin Up heyday in the early 20th Century. 

In this article, writer and broadcaster Afua Hirsch pointed out how black women were being sidelined in advertisments for typically black products in favour of using images of white women. This sounded way too familiar. I had questioned why black Pin Up's were seldom seen in vintage advertisments only a few days earlier, and my reasoning was that white women sold more products. Sadly it seems I was on to something and even more disheartening it seems that little has changed in 70 years or so!

The modern day article describes how Braid Bar and SheaMoisture have eschewed using black women in most of their advertising even though the brands owe their origins to black culture. Rather than embracing the full cultural heritage of their brands the advertisers decided to use white women appropriating black culture in order to cash in on wider audiences. 

African braids hairstyle. See more @gemma_parker_artist

Similarly international star and model Jourdan Dunn was told 'the reason black women didn't feature in a high end fashion publication was that "black models don't sell"'. 

When brands and publications are brought up about this they immediately make about-turns in order to rectify the their bad judgement but I can't help feeling that after decades of the same prejudices being sold to a consuming society, that their gestures are only for token value. As long as products sell, the finer points of race will be put on hold and general ideas about beauty and culture will remain stagnant.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

The Hidden Pin Up #4

Throughout the early 20th century the traditional Pin Up was big business in the world of commerce and entertainment. In the advertisements found in newspapers and on the covers of magazines the Pin Up was exquisitely drawn and painted by talented artists and then mass reproduced in the effort to sell the 'American Dream' to the public.

The illustrated Pin Up was everywhere yet her image was seldom seen with darker skin.

I really love the traditional Pin Up art work of the 40's through to the 60's, it is so well executed and has always inspired me, but I found it disappointing that I could find hardly any non white models painted by my favourite artists!


A model of indeterminate race by Gil Elvgren, confusingly tagged as a 'black' Pin Up by some sources

As we saw in my last few posts, the black Pin Up was definitely around, she existed in models and dancers, performers and actresses, so why was she not seen selling shiny products and lifestyles to the masses?

In this case I can only presume that when it comes to advertising, companies went with the image that would sell the most products. Even though a select few burlesque shows and girly magazines did cater to an African-American audience, in the larger scheme of things that audience was in the minority, and if everyone still needed to buy universal items like household cleaners and petrol, then the white Pin Up was the girl to put on the ad.

Saying that though, I did locate a few examples of non white Pin Up illustrations, but even these were difficult to find and had little or no information to give them any context.


There's this dark skinned beauty from a 1955 calendar. It's frustrating that I don't know who the artist was or the reason this calendar was made. This image has a back story we might never know. I like it though. The model is vivacious and sexy and her skin colour seems to me to have no influence on how she has been portrayed. This makes me think the calendar was aimed at an African-American audience because, as we have seen in past posts, the white mainstream audience of the era found it difficult to accept a black female as sexual/sensual without racially stereotyping her first and taking away her identity.


On a different note, this earlier lady from the 1940's who is finding it hard to keep her clothes on is ticking all kinds of dark skinned cliches. This makes her obviously 'A' exotic and 'B' slightly primitive. Surrounded by greenery she could be a jungle dweller or an island savage, either way she is provocative and passive. Despite these visual tropes I find this picture beautifully painted and a real treat to look at.

 I was losing all heart at finding any other relevant art work, when, out of the blue, I stumbled across a range of images by the quintessential Pin Up artist of the vintage era, Alberto Vargas. Best known for creating airbrushed images of the all-American girl next door for over 30 decades, Vargas produced a series of Afro Pin Up's for Playboy in the 1970's.




Taking a cue from the trend for Blaxploitation films that were enjoying huge success during the early 70's, you can see how the idea of a black Pin Up must have been both titillating and unusual for a mainstream audience. Similarly, like the Blaxploitation genre, these images can be seen to either empower their black subjects or perpetuate racial stereotypes.

I for one wasn't sure how to approach these images. Taken in context of their time, they show sexual beings who seem to have a claim over their identities, yet those identities are marginalised at best. When I look at them as artefacts from a rich history of black female representation, then they seem to take on a different sort of meaning. They show a development in how the black female was being represented. They acknowledge that white men were taking an active interest in the black Pin Up, not for token value or as a two dimensional cartoon but as actual women. Seen it that sense, they are a pretty big deal.

This notion of black females having allure went some way to narrowing the racial divide, even if it does throw up arguments about mainstream female representation in general. 
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Next time I'll be exploring further into the history of the black Pin Up and ideas of racial fetishisation and objectification, join me then, for more investigation into the hidden Pin Up.

Friday, 14 April 2017

The Hidden Pin Up #3

A model on the cover of a girly magazine circa 1965 (see more @gemma_parker_artist)

In this third post exploring the history of the black Pin Up I'm going to be looking at the classic Pin Up model. The girl commonly referred to as 'cheesecake'. 

She's flirty and sexy but never overtly so and her brand of sex is only just PG by today's standards, but in her time (the golden years falling between 1930's-1960's) the Pin Up was as sexy as you could get without going 'under the counter'.

Girly magazines were the place to find pin ups and as American culture then, as now, was predominantly white it follows that so was the Pin Up. However, publishers soon caught on that there was a huge untapped market for black bombshells. Yes, black models occasionally appeared in mainstream white publications, but it was rare, and they were often typecast into the well used (and previously discussed) widely acceptable ideas of the 'Savage woman'.


Alongside the issues of 'Flirt' 'Wink' and 'Beauty Parade' came magazines that catered to African-American readers like 'Jive' 'Sepia' and 'Ebony'. Before we even take a look at the pin ups in these publications it's interesting to note the titles. Unlike the publications targeted at the white American male which made sideways references to the girly pictures inside, the black counterparts use entirely black references, not only setting them apart but also claiming those descriptive words for themselves. 'Jet' Magazine may be one exception to this rule because although appearing to make use of the colour black in it's title, it's founder John J Johnson stated that it was called Jet because, "In the world today everything is moving along at a faster clip. There is more news and far less time to read it."





It's also evident that 'Jet' took on some weightier issues regarding race than the typical girly mag. During it's early years the magazine covered the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King and tackled ideas that affected the African-American population of the time. 

The Pin Ups in the magazines had a different portrayal too. Instead of play acting and goofing around with black stereotypes they posed as straight forward pin up models, women who were celebrated for their beauty, not the titillating idea associated with the colour of their skin.



After the revolution of Playboy magazine in 1953 there was a gap for a more up market and intellectual 'mens' magazine aimed at the African-American male. Along came 'Duke Magazine'. First published in 1957 Duke's centrefolds were called 'Duchess of the month' and elevated the model from girl next door to goddess.


Compare this image with the previous photo above of Evelyn Pitcher doing her 'Devil dance' and its clear that this Pin Up's sexual allure is being taken seriously. It is a sad yet interesting fact that the black Pin Up was mostly only seen as a real woman with real sensuality by her black audience

Moving forward to modern times, the Pin Up is here to stay. The vintage Pin Up aesthetic wavered during the 70's through to the 90's, then somewhere around the early 2000's she made a come back. With burlesque nights and vintage fairs now a regular occurrence, where is the black Pin Up now?

She's alive and well in contemporary music videos, and in a twist of post modernism you can find Beyonce morphing into Bettie Page in her video for 'Why Don't You Love Me'. It stands out to me that things seem to have gone full circle in this instance. In my first post in this series I talked about how the mainstream white pin up would sometimes appropriate the garb of another culture, yet the true pin ups from those cultures remained unseen. Here, Beyonce dons the garb of a popular white pin up as if she is just another trend to play with. 

Also unlike previous black performers and models, who took on a racial stereotype which hid their true identity, with Beyonce her donning of a white cultural stereotype only serves to enrich and empower her individuality.

Beyonce is in the lucky position to do all this thanks to her black Pin Up siblings from the past who paved the rocky and uneven path that helped lead to the modern image of a strong powerful black woman. Thanks to their struggles and hard work she can now claim to be 'Queen B' and have the freedom own her sexuality and project it in any way she chooses. 




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Before I end this post, I'd like to mention here some of the fabulous modern black Pin Ups who work in the industry and take inspiration from the past. These are all gorgeous women who claim their black heritage and the Pin Up aesthetic to create beautiful images and performances.

 
Coco Deville

Angelique Noire

Perle Noire

Jeez Loueez

Kristina Paulk

...and there are MANY more!

Join me next time when I take a look and the world of Pin Up illustrations and how the black Pin Up features...or does she?

Monday, 10 April 2017

Going to the Vogue Ball

Waiting in the long queue that weaved from under the railway arch and spilled out onto the street, my friend and I were relieved that other people had 'made an effort'. In fact, we were stood behind an Egyptian Goddess in all her golden glory which was a good giveaway, and as we got nearer to the door we watched as an 80's leather clad dream complete with a perfect teal bob, sashayed her way to the line. We were in the queue for Manchester's Vogue Ball and Manchester itself did not disappoint, turning up in all her grandeur to witness the event. 

We had been invited by choreographer, dancer and producer of the night, Darren Pritchard in order for me to to see for myself what he described as the 'inside of your head' and to specifically see Manchester's House of Ghetto who I will be doing some art work with (See my research posts about The Hidden Pin Up).

Rikki Beadle-Blair hosted looking superb in fishnets and denim hot-pants and whipped up the crowd; 'By the end of the night you will all have tapped into that little 15 year old black gay boy from Harlem. In a time before there was ever such a thing as a black president (now any tw*t can do it), when he could only find his true voice, his true family and true identity in the vogue ballroom'. We went wild and the show began...

To sum up the feel of  Voguing, it's about inclusivity, expression, creativity and attitude, it isn't a dance contest or a beauty pageant. Those little bitches from America's Next Top Model would get flattened, these dancers and performers were the real deal. There were a number of bouts themed with different titles, 'Solo' 'Icons' 'Sex Siren' 'Fantasy'... each house taking to the catwalk to own it using a combination of catwalk, costume, dance, burlesque and drag. 

 The House of Ghetto pay homage to Josephine Baker

The 'Sex Siren' bout included a Victoria's Secret model and Barbie and Ken and The House of Ghetto took it old school with an homage to Josephine Baker complete with a golden banana skirt and a pretty x-rated way of sharing the fruit. It was so exciting to see this icon being nodded to after looking into black pin up history and writing about her just a couple of weeks back.

It was also great to see my past muse and model, the ever gorgeous Grace Oni Smith, claiming the stage as she performed with her house The House of Decay in an iconic group dance. 

One of the stand out performances of the night was when the panel of judges couldn't choose between The House of Suarez or The House of Decay to win the 'Realness' bout and they ended up dancing it out against each other. It was full on fierce! The House of Decay deservedly won but both contestants were amazing and what really caught my eye was that despite the intense gestures and savage energy between the two, they began and ended the bout holding hands and hugging one another. That summed up the night for me.

Keeping it raw, The House of Ghetto danced to Missy Elliot

But to get to the real meat of the matter, the 'Choreography' bout at the end of the night was where House Of Ghetto reigned supreme, or they should have, narrowly missing out to Liverpool's House of Lipa. This was where the all black female group took control of the catwalk and blew the crowd away. Dancing to Missy Elliot they were stunning. Slick sexy confident and totally on point, I couldn't sit still watching them, the performance was amazing. Everyone else seemed to feel the same way because, as the judges tried to decide who should win that bout, a chant of Ghe-tto! Ghe-tto! Ghe-tto! took hold. They were robbed.

The sights and sounds and the energy in the room were incredible. I've been to burlesque and drag nights, but this was something else, it worked on a whole other level, it felt more raw and immediate. And as promised, while Madonna streamed over the speakers and the lights went up, at the end of the night each person was tuned into their inner 15 year old black gay boy and we felt fabulous!

Thursday, 23 March 2017

The Hidden Pin Up #2

In my second post exploring the history of the black Pin Up I want to look at the world of burlesque during it's hey day during the 1950's and early 60's. With Neo burlesque well and truly now a part of mainstream culture (nipple tassels from Ann Summer's anyone?) it would be easy to assume that today's burlesque superstars are direct examples of the original scene, but that wouldn't be strictly true. For every Dita Von Teese and Immodesty Blaize today, there was a black performer equally as talented and devoted to the art back then. It could be that the media (then as now) chose to ignore performers of colour in favour of the white all American version.

So with this in mind here are some black burlesque performers who should be as well known as the legendary Tempest Storm and Dixie Evans but have fallen from view. Let's take a look at their incredible careers...

Jean Idelle

Imagine, it's 1950 and you're a young black woman who has just told your mother you want to become a burlesque dancer. She, in trying to guide her daughter to opt for a less salacious career, sends you to speak with the local pastor. Thankfully, the pastor is a man with a liberal outlook on life and tells you, if it's what you really want to do, to follow your dreams.

With Gods blessing Jean Idelle went on to become one of the most sought after exotic dancers of her era. She was a naturally gifted dancer and having studied under Katherine Dunham, she was soon 'discovered' and began performing at Minsky's Burlesque show in Chicago where she worked her way up to become a headline act taking to the stage between 1950 and 1964.


Idelle's trademark performance was dancing with huge white ostrich feather fans and at the height of her career she was earning around $1000 a month. By today's standards that's around $8600, which for a black performer makes the sum even more impressive considering the racism and segregation of the time .



The amount of money Idelle was making was due to her impeccable performances. Professionalism was very important to her and she was never late never sick or sloppy. For such a woman to be so successful both professionally and financially it seems odd that her name is not better known.

Perhaps Idelle's true legacy should lie in her success at performing in both white and black clubs across the U.S and Canada. It can't have been easy staying true to your art in the face of adversity.

Lottie 'The Body' Graves

By the 1960's burlesque was beginning to loose it's appeal. In order to gain bigger audiences the focus became less about the art form and more about the strip, resorting to showing more skin, and mingling with the punters.


Having been classically trained as a dancer, Graves began her burlesque career at the early age of 17 and brought a dash more class to her performance. She stood out thanks to her elegant moves and outstanding figure.


Graves said that exotic dancing was 'top of the shelf, the champagne of dance' and her polished art form gave her the opportunity to lead an equally glamorous lifestyle rubbing shoulders with the likes of Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Aretha Franklin.

Motown legend Martha Reeves a friend and neighbour stated,

'She held her own. Lottie had skills that were superior to all of her competitors. She out-danced them all.

She had body movements that only she could pull off, and very elaborate costumes. And I know she can still dance, and does a high kick that shows a lot of young ladies [up]'


Like Jean Idelle, Graves can be credited with breaking through racial tensions at the height of open racism by performing at white clubs. Never classed as a stripper, Graves unique moves set her apart from other bump n grinders and she transcended both the burlesque and racial barriers. 

Toni Elling

At the age of 32 Toni Elling began stripping quite late in life. It was 1960, and after spending nine years struggling to get a promotion in her telephonist job, and being denied one because of her race, Elling had had enough. It was after taking some advice from her friend Rita Revere, herself a stripper, Elling decided to give the burlesque scene a try.


Taking her stage name from Duke Ellington, Elling started her new career in The Flame Show Bar in Detroit. (She and Ellington were good friends and it is rumoured he wrote the song 'Satin Doll' in her favour). 

Of her first gig Elling said, “I was surprised I knew what to do and that it went over so well. I wouldn’t get an agent, though. Didn’t know why I needed one. So many places I couldn’t work because of the colour thing. An agent who was a friend booked me in Lima, Ohio. Word got around and after that, I found it easy to get work outside Detroit. I finally got a bit of a reputation.”


She had many gimmicks to fill out her repertoire. A Spanish act in a flamenco dress, a wedding dress strip and even a street walker character. But Elling got frustrated by other performers stealing her routines. Because of this she decided to do something few others could mimic, an Afro act. "There weren’t that many black entertainers in Oregon at the time. Nobody could copy that". She also included singing into her routines which went down well with her audiences.





Elling's cool and elegant demeanour earned her much praise in the burlesque community and opened doors, taking her to places other black performers had been denied. She toured the U.S Canada and even took her act as far as Japan.

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There were many amazing performers to choose from while researching this post, it's worth mentioning a couple more who caught my eye; the statuesque Ethelyn Butler who used exotic dancing as a bridge to ballet...


 ..and the exquisite Sahji Jackon who appeared in a movie alongside Dizzy Gillespie. Both of these ladies must have fantastic back stories, yet I could find little about them!


It was good to learn how diverse burlesque was (and still is), but eye opening to see how little non white performers get to be in the lime light. I'm really glad that on the whole these women took control of their careers and images and made names for themselves. I think they deserve as much applause as possible.

Next time I'll delve into the girly magazines of the vintage era to see how the black Pin Up was represented in the age of Bettie Page and her colleagues.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

The Hidden Pin Up #1

Following on from my post about the Vogue Ball introducing work I will be doing with Manchester dance troupe The House Of Ghetto I've begun to look into the history of the black pin up which will be the project's starting point.

Obviously, I adore the Pin Up and when speaking of the Pin Up I refer to models, dancers and performers who have all appealed to popular culture through their work and mass produced image. I have even painted pin ups myself in the past. Yet pin ups are almost always shown as white women. It seems the Western world never quite managed to embrace the idea of other races having a sexual identity. The Pin Up's black sibling (and for that matter Hispanic or any other race) is majorly under represented in mainstream popular culture. 

That's not to say that the beloved Pin Up hasn't donned the apparel of other cultures, but she's hardly given those cultures any agency or freedom of expression. She was simply play acting and appropriating cliched ideas.




Despite the lack of portrayal in the Western world, the black female form has long had a power to fascinate the Western audience. Going back as far as the early 19th Century we can find the example of Sara Baartman

Born in the Cape Colony (present day South Africa)  Baartman was a Khoikhoi woman who was exhibited as a freak show attraction because of her unusually large buttocks. Her 'performance' drew huge crowds across England (where she was baptised in Manchester Cathedral) and France, where she eventually died at the young age of 29. After her death her skeleton and body cast were put on display at the Natural History Museum in Angers. 

I understand it is a far leap to put Baartman in the story of the black Pin Up yet she holds an important place in terms of non white women being seen as more 'exotic', animal-like and sexually primitive by white audiences. She wasn't accepted as a 'normal' woman because of her different physical qualities, she was an oddity and her threat was minimalised by making an example of her. This is something to bear in mind when thinking of how the black woman's image has been represented in popular Western culture through the ages.

Moving forward a century, most people will have heard of Josephine Baker and her 'Danse sauvage' where she thrilled the audiences of the Folies Bergere dancing in her famous banana skirt. Baker embraced the things that made her stand apart from the Western ideal, and unlike the upsetting and unsettling story of Baartman, she was able to freely exploit Western notions of the primitive woman to her own advantage. Often referred to as The Black Pearl,The Bronze Venus and The Creole Goddess, Baker created a colourful parody which gained her money, fame and lasting notoriety. Her legacy was to create a shift in how a black woman could hold the power to her sexuality whilst being objectified.




As technology evolved and took hold of the entertainment industry, performers from the burlesque scene became popular fixtures in Hollywood musicals. One such talent from the chorus line was Jeni LeGon. 

Jeni LeGon (see more @gemma_parker_artist)

Dancing from the age of 16 for the Count Basie Orchestra, LeGon had a distinctive gangly style both acrobatic and comedic. She was soon spotted and whisked to Hollywood to appear in her first film Hooray For Love in 1935. As she credits herself, 'I had moves that were typically men’s moves because they were so technically difficult - flips, splits, cartwheels - I could do it all'. No one else offered the particular package LeGon could and because of this she broke new ground as a black woman singing and dancing in mainstream Hollywood films pre the likes of Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge.



You can see her technical ability and sweet girlish style on the screen as she performs alongside Fats Waller and Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson. Yet despite the film's success leading to a contract with MGM, her dancing career on film was short lived. She was so skillful she outshone the white leading ladies and soon MGM couldn't find a project suitable for her. She was pigeonholed into typically black roles such as the grass skirt wearing dancer in Swing Is Here To Stay (1936) or increasing, during the 1940's, as a housemaid. It is sad to think of all that frenetic talent going to waste. 

It's interesting to note the difference in how LeGon was represented as the savage black woman to how Josephine Baker chose to do it. LeGon had no authority over her image in this scene. Unlike Baker her control has been taken away so she becomes a 2 dimensional cartoon, another minimalised black stereotype with no sexual identity and no threat.


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Jeni LeGon had varied success in her career and, as with most true greats, her talents weren't fully appreciated until much later in life. There is a brilliant article where you can read more about her highs and lows HERE

While researching the black Pin Up I hope that my brief notes give some context to the power of the images that these women left behind.
Join me next time where I'll be looking into the past at the little known stars of the black burlesque scene through the 1950's and 60's.