Thursday 28 September 2017

The Hidden Pin Up #8 - 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!