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...

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. 

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. 


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!