Media representations of albino people are rarely neutral and frequently negative. It’s a stigma that may be overlooked by many because of the condition’s rarity and because of the politics of skin color. In European-dominated, colonial and post-colonial cultures, light makes right—to put it in the bluntest of terms. It’s evident even in Asia, where skin-lightening is promised in creams and a variety of treatments. Much of the world is fascinated by lighter skin, perhaps for the imperial powers it once represented—a dubious honor if ever there was one.
Despite this, in what one may consider a cruel twist, the most fair skin of all is treated with suspicion for its rarity and the superstitions that have arisen around it. This is especially true in Africa, where albino individuals are persecuted, ostracized and, in some regions, even hunted for their organs.
Justin Dingwall and Thando Hopa have created a stunning series of portraits now on display at Gallery M.I.A. that are part of a larger life’s work to end the stigma and persecution of albino people. Hopa was born with albinism and became a legal prosecutor and human rights activist in South Africa. I use the term “albino” because it is the most familiar and currently accepted term for people with albinism, but Hopa would like to put this term to rest, as it a relatively recent Portuguese derivation of the Latin albus (“white”) and was coined to refer specifically to white-skinned or spotted Africans. Hopa would like to claim albus as a neutral (frankly lovely) replacement for “albino” as the standard term, hence the name of the series.
Albus was photographed by Justin Dingwall, a South Africa-based photographer with high fashion experience. Hopa herself has gained experience in the fashion world in editorial shoots and on runways, being hailed as a new face of beauty by some for her crossing of racial lines—her fair skin blended with African features. Such surface praise comes with a caveat: The fashion world is variously criticized for over-emphasizing rail-thin, Caucasian models as the standard, but in haute couture androgyny and exotic looks are often valued. That exoticism is not always flattering and may be treated as tokenism or flash-in-the-pan novelty. (See Rick Genest)
Hopa is fiercely determined in her activism above all, and she is wisely using the attention she has received to spread awareness about the plight of albino/albus people in Africa. As one who is intimately aware of cruel changes in fortune and endemic persecution, she is equipped to navigate whatever pop-cultural and fashion-related pitfalls she encounters, so that is less the issue here, but it is food for thought and refers to the underlying problem of race and individual aesthetics—how the value of someone is determined by their appearance and how this system of valuation continues to take a deadly toll on people around the world, particularly in post-colonial cultures.
One thing is clear: Hopa and Dingwall know how to make a beautiful image. Even if one is unaware of the politics behind the images or puts that aspect to the side to dwell only on the aesthetic value for a moment, the images are extraordinary. Hopa is extremely photo-sensitive, and in many portraits her eyes are closed in an apparent state of sublime peace. The texture of her skin is not airbrushed to oblivion, leaving her beauty on full display as an act of vulnerability, not vanity. Dingwall shows himself to be a master of lighting, as each portrait illuminates his subject differently, drawing out a different aspect of this complex figure, veiled and unadorned.
A trio of images puts Hopa in lush silks, evoking portraits of saints and the Virgin Mary in her poses and mien. The compositions are classical and rich and should be non-controversial. However, as fundamentalists frequently scream at any implication that the Holy Family was anything but lily white (and recently, St Nicholas got the same treatment), an African Mary might cause a stir…but then, Hopa is white-skinned. Such an image presents a conundrum to those with Euro-centric prejudices and reveals the arbitrary nature of racial classification, something Hopa is forced to confront in various ways.
It might occur to one that there is an added layer of meaning to these images—an especially gruesome one. As saints are often associated with persecution and martyrdom, the real-life fight of Hopa and other albus people is recalled, and even more gruesomely the trade of saint’s relics. In Europe, the remains of saints’ bodies were (and in some cases still are) venerated as having special powers and properties, and were thus stolen and sold in shady deals. These saintly images acquire become all the more heartbreaking when one considers how living albus people face a similar gruesome fate in parts of Africa.
Dingwall and Hopa’s images are beautiful as aesthetic objects alone, and hopefully in time the humanitarian crisis behind them will become history and they will be simply objects of human beauty. There is room for optimism, and in Albus it becomes undeniable that true beauty is far from skin deep.
Albus is on display at M.I.A. Gallery through February 28.