Afrofuturism and Janelle Monae

Recently, in two different classes I am enrolled in, the topic of Afrofuturism has come up. It has sparked an interest for me, and I have even started discussing Afrofuturism in everyday conversation.

I tried explaining it to my boyfriend, in an everyday, non-academic way. I said something like this, “Basically, African Americans were, like, kidnapped from Africa. They were stripped completely of their background and identity- no country, no language, no family, no traditions to uphold, no legacy, no last name. When you have no past, you have to look to the future for hope. But the thing is, Africa is never associated with the future, it’s backwards and stuck in the past. It’s always in the media as the disease-ridden, human rights-lacking, backwards continent. And so black people are associated with this “Africanism” because it’s part of their identity, even though they don’t know nor do we know their exact true identity. So black people embody this Africanness which is exactly the opposite of futuristic. Black people are not seen as technologically savvy or cutting edge so the response is to make blackness futuristic and cutting edge. Black media makers try to put out media that reflects blackness as futuristic- like science fiction narratives with blacks and cool futuristic sounds and aesthetic in black music. Science fiction narratives are always about people being abducted by aliens and brought to this new planet where they are made slaves, which is exactly what happened to Africans during the slave trade.”

My boyfriend’s response was, “You said you could describe it in 2 sentences. That was a lot more than 2 sentences, babe.”

And much to his chagrin, I did not stop there. I told him about the film Brother From Another Planet and discussed Janelle Monae and Kanye West, their futuristic aesthetics and even the lyrics.

As PopMatters phrased much better than the way I put it, “Afrofuturism wrestles with and reshapes the ways that power is produced and maintained. The exclusion of black people from the vast majority of science-fiction literature, television, and film in the twentieth-century may not have been intentional, but it was never purely accidental, and the resulting message was that unless you were white, you had no significant place or role in these visions of the future.”

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Janelle Monae’s Archandroid album has a lot of Afrofuturist sentiments. From the album cover to Monae’s cyborg alter ego, Cindi Mayweather, to even the lyrics of her song Q.U.E.E.N., Afrofuturism is prominent in her work.

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The final lyrics read, “I’mma keep leading like a young Harriet Tubman/ You can take my wings but I’m still goin’ fly/ And even when you edit me the booty don’t lie/ Yeah keep singing, I’mma keep writing songs/ I’m tired of Marvin asking me, “What’s Going On?”/ March to the streets ’cause I’m willing and I’m able/ Categorize me, I defy every label/ And while you’re selling dope, we’re gonna keep selling hope/ We risin’ up now, you gotta deal you gotta cope/ Will you be electric sheep? Electric ladies, will you sleep?/ Or will you preach?”

Not only is Janelle Monae directly linking herself back to black freedom fighters but she is asking the listener to join her and to stop categorizing and labeling her.

As was stated in The Guardian’s article on Afrofuturism, ”

Ytasha Womack sees Monáe’s art as being able to transcend racial boundaries, taking Afrofuturism away from being a purely black concept. “I think that’s why a lot of people enjoy Janelle Monáe, because she talks about this android, this ‘other’. The symbolism is understood,” she says. “A lot of people can associate with this concept of otherness for a whole host of reasons, many of which are not racial, so there’s a connection there.””

In Monae’s song “Tightrope” she features black artist, legendary Afrofuturist, Sun Ra’s “Space Is The Place” (1973). (Afrofuturism the term was invented in 1993, but the sentiments were alive long before).

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My hope is that with artists like Janelle Monae and many, many before and alongside her, blackness can be come distanced from the Africa that is constantly displayed by the media. My hope is that all of the attention on Ebola does not further perpetuate the “otherness” of black people, but that instead the work of black media makers can redefine blackness and begin creating the idea of the future of black people, their role in the future, and their importance.

In light of the recent events in Ferguson, the presence of Ebola ridden countries in Western Africa, and all other negative light that could be shed on black people and perpetuate racist sentiment, I hope that with these black creative minds the media can have more blacks in a positive spotlight.

Size Discrimination and Visual Culture in Argentina

When I was in Buenos Aires last semester, I had trouble shopping. Well, let’s be honest, I never have trouble shopping, I love shopping. But I had trouble finding clothes that fit me. I would go into stores and try many things on. I was obsessed with these patterned pants that all of the porteñas wore. Of course when I came back to the US, they were all the sudden all the rage here. But I wanted to bring a pair with me from Argentina. In fact, I was determined.

Bony mannequins in the capital resemble the Buenos Aires body ideal.

Bony mannequins in the capital resemble the Buenos Aires body ideal.

Yes, I thought that all of the women in Argentina were small, much smaller than they are in the US. Shorter, skinnier, smaller bodies in general. But not everyone. Definitely not all of the women were small enough to fit into the clothes that I was trying to squeeze into. Then a fellow NYU friend explained to me that Argentina has the second highest rank of eating disorders in the world. Eating disorders- anorexia and bulimia in particular, are extremely common in Argentina. This came as a surprise for a second, and then I had a realization. No wonder there are so many eating disorders, these clothes are made for sticks. If you can’t fit in to the fashionable clothes, you can’t be fashionable. And the standard of beauty was extremely high. I noticed much less obvious make up on women, but I also noticed my 13-year-old sister’s fascination with beauty products and western culture.

Wife of Michael Buble is Argentine supermodel Luisana Lopilato, busty, blonde, and thin. The pride of Argentina.

Wife of Michael Buble is Argentine supermodel Luisana Lopilato, busty, blonde, and thin. The pride of Argentina.

Bulemic-girl

 

Western culture has infiltrated the streets of Buenos Aires, and then, it has been turned up a notch. Billboards of scantily clad bony (but busty) blonde women are the norm. Argentines aren’t blonde. I know, because my blonde hair got me a ton of attention. My host sister was obsessed with it. (So much so that we were always playing with each other’s hair and then I realized she gave me lice! It wasn’t that bad, just funny.) She told me that she would love to be blonde and have blue eyes. And all I could think was, “But you have this long, straight, thick, gorgeous mane and these massive beautiful eyes and a stick thin body!” She, well and her whole family, were extremely naturally attractive in my opinion. But as a 13-year-old, likely extremely self-conscious and absorbing all visual media like a sponge, she wanted boobs and blonde hair. I had both of those things. Her brother later told me that I was like a Barbie to her.

The idea of Barbie is actually another interesting one. Barbie, as we know, would not be able to survive if she were a real human, due to her proportions. She is blonde and has big boobs, tiny feet, and well, no room for organs. The first Barbie store in the world was opened in Buenos Aires. I passed it many times when I was there, laughing at the idea of going in, completely unaware of the presence and consequences of praising such a doll.

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But as similar as I seemed to Barbie to my host sister, I am much too large to really be Barbie, or to even be close to the Argentine ideal of beauty. In doing some research, I found astonishing facts about size discrimination in Argentina. I found blog posts by English-speaking westerners who complained about finding clothes. Many were smaller than the average American woman (size 16). From what I gathered, women larger than a US size 6 suffered from size discrimination. Anyone size US 8 + reported they had trouble finding clothes. But, it also seems that these women did not want to admit this, as if admitting it would be like saying they aren’t a good enough woman. A stereotype of Argentines is that they are very proud, and if it is true, it shows in this example. It also shows how strong this beauty ideal is.

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Botox and plastic surgery is huge in Buenos Aires. While there, an American friend of mine got laser hair removal for a sixth of what he pays in the states. My grandmother, who lived in Argentina for about 10 years in the 80s and 90s, got a facelift while there. And let me tell you, this woman cares nothing about what anyone thinks of her. Health plans often cover plastic surgery, even for those below the poverty line. The president of Argentina, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, is mocked by her opposers as “The Queen of Botox”. She isn’t young but she wears leggings, lots of eye make up, is very thin, and clearly has had plastic surgery. And who is her female, political predecessor? Evita, the glamorous wife of president Juan Perón who not only made the public fall in love with her rags-to-riches story but did so with her image, which was passed out to poor people and rich people alike. She died her hair blonde and would wear glamorous gowns, showcasing her beauty and her western ideals. Possibly because Argentina is full of European immigrants, when asked, they tend to identify and idolize celebrities of western culture instead of Latin celebrities like the curvy Jennifer Lopez or even Shakira. But it seems as though Argentina’s visual culture doesn’t just mirror that of western culture, it exceeds it.

Argentine President Cristina Kirchner

Argentine President Cristina Kirchner

Finally, there is a call to action on size discrimination in the stores. A law was passed called “La Ley de Talles” or the Size Law. The law requires that retailer stock sizes US 8-16. The law was put into action December of 2005, and still there are no stores that are at 100% compliance. They complain that it would cost them so much more to make the extra sizes that they would be losing money. What? To me this idea is ridiculous. Having stock that would allow you to sell to a wider range of customers, that would result in losing money? The law also requires that the size must be clear, though in most stores there is either one size or a few sizes with made up numbers that correspond to nothing and don’t match from store to store. What’s more, Argentina does not have online shopping. There are a very small number of plus size stores that offer matronly, not-so-fashionable clothes. Due to strict import laws and lack of shipping infrastructure, online shopping just doesn’t exist. Which frustrates me, as a plus sized woman. I have many times been to stores that do not carry my size or the largest size doesn’t fit just right. But I have the option to find trendy, fashionable clothing online. Yes, this is a fairly new concept to Americans too. But at least there are fashionable plus size bloggers who are trying to show that curves can be sexy and fashionable, there is inspiration out there that exists online.

YaLeyDeTalles

After watching my host sister absorbing D.I.Y. nail tutorials, YouTube videos, and connecting with One Direction fans around the globe, I hope that there are some Argentine women who are watching the “plus size revolution” that is happening in Europe and the U.S. I hope that they are able to be inspired by other curvy, sexy, fashionable women.

 

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Plus Fashion Blogger Gabi Gregg of gabifresh.com

 

This video sums up the visual culture issues and size discrimination in Argentina much better than I can.

 

 

By Ashby Vose

 

Sources:

http://www.argentinaindependent.com/socialissues/urbanlife/size-discrimination-in-buenos-aires/

http://anybody.squarespace.com/anybody_vent/2010/7/6/battling-the-beauty-myth-in-argentina.html

http://anybody.squarespace.com/anybody_vent/tag/size-discrimination

http://quintaesenciamoda.blogspot.com/2013/10/la-eterna-lucha-de-los-talles.html

Audrey Munson: all of the nameless female statues.

It has recently been brought to my attention that I have no idea who the girl in that statue is, the one by my dorm, golden, atop city hall.

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That girl in the statue is Audrey Munson. And she’s not just in that statue, but in probably the other statues of women you have seen in NYC.

Audrey Munson is the model behind approximately 20 statues throughout the city. No one is really sure, many sources say a different number. But what we do know, is that we don’t know. These statues are of symbolic importance, not necessarily historic importance. They have no name attached, no date, and little information at all on the physical statue. She represents the figure of Colombia, she is the image of both duty and sacrifice on the Firemen’s Memorial, the spirit of industry at the Manhattan Bridge Plaza, the image of abundance at the southeast corner of Central Park, she represented both Brooklyn and Manhattan on either side of the Manhattan Bridge (now found outside the Brooklyn Museum), Alma Mater at Colombia University, America, Beauty, and so on and so forth. Her face is found on coins, her shape is found everywhere.

manhattan-bridgeThere she is, Spirit of Commerce on the Manhattan Bridge.

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Audrey as “Columbia Triumphant” on the USS Maine Monument, Columbus Circle

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Audrey again, at the Pullitzer Fountain at the southeast corner of Central Park, representing Pomona or abundance.

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That’s her again, the image of “night” (I believe she also represented “day”) in the original Penn Station before demolition.

So if she is such a gorgeous image, replicated countless times, and immortalized in statues all around the city, why don’t we know her name? Much less, her story?

Her story, by the way, is fascinating. She became the go-to model in the 1910s when she was a teen. Audrey Munson was chosen because of her beauty, and how her body resembled that of Greek statues. She rode that wave of fame to California to star in a motion picture. Her nude body was definitely coveted by artists, and she became the first non-pornographic nude body to be shown in a movie. She eventually moved back to New York into a boarding house with her mother. The owner of the boarding house became obsessed with Audrey, so much so that his wife kicked Audrey and her mother out of the house. Not too long later, the wife was found murdered, presumably by her husband. This news affected her getting work. She ended up attempting suicide and landing herself in a mental institution for the last 65 years of her life. And when she died? Her name wasn’t even written on the tomb and news didn’t make a ripple in New York City headlines. Even though her face and body are an inescapable part of living here.

http://www.andreageyer.info/projects/audrey_munson/munson_notebooks/munson_thisSiteofMemory.htm

Why is it that the male sculptures that cover our city boast names, years, and historical moments, but the female sculptures not only don’t have names, but they embody ideas like abundance or night? They can all be modeled after the same woman because her identity is clearly unimportant.

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All of these statues of men are named, often with the dates they were alive and sometimes with their historical significance. They carry swords, they wear uniforms, they are put on a literal pedestal, they are important, and mostly, they are individuals with a strong identity.

These statues of men and women in this city, and likely similar in cities around the world, make up our global visual landscape. But regardless of if they are or are not admired by those walking by, knowing the model behind the statue and their significance explains to us: this person was significant. This person was important. If there are not statues of women showing their significance, does that mean that women are not significant?

Of course women have always played a significant role throughout history, but the lack of recognition is disappointing. In this example, women can be the beautiful symbol of commerce, or the gorgeous face and figure of abundance, but women cannot be an image of individual strength or achievement. It is also interesting that Audrey Munson is so often featured completely or at least partially nude. Not only does she not have the significance to be given an identity, but she is purely being used for her body’s aesthetics, as something to look at, as a object of the male gaze.

The woman in the statue cannot fight back, cannot speak back, and isn’t even paired with an identity of someone who can. Not to mention she has been almost completely forgotten. When I was googling and searching for information on her, one source said that these statues were going up because it was a time of immigration- so many immigrants were arriving to NYC and those who already lived here wanted to establish what core ideals were important. It may have also established that women were objects to be looked at.

by Ashby Vose