The series of photographs by Justin Dingwall titled Albus (at the Rooke and Van Wyk Gallery in Johannesburg) has the subject in three contexts: the iconic, pure and vogue. His muse in the portraits is South African model and activist Thando Hopa, with whom fellow South African Dingwall has collaborated in an ongoing portrait project to explore the counter-aesthetics of Albinism via typically mediated images of idealised beauty. The result is a breath-taking series of portraits, in most of which Hopa has her eyes closed in a state of sublime peace. [Hopa, as with many others with Albinism, is very sensitive to light.]
Hopa who moonlights as a high profile figure in South Africa’s fashion world, is on weekdays a prosecutor and above all an activist on matters of Albinism. Her cause has her vocal about the plight faced by those with the condition. According to studies done by the South African Inherited Disorders Association, the South African black population has about 1 in 3,900 people who have Albinism while in the white population it is less common. Along with this staggering account are myths that have prevailed for years about people with an absence of pigment.
The stigma prevalent in South African townships is that Albinism is an anomaly that goes against the ever so perfect flow of nature, and that those who have inherited it have an unfortunate curse over their heads. Another lore that has run its course is that persons with Albinism, when weak or aged, go off to die in faraway lands unknown. The media doesn’t help, with its less than neutral and sometimes negative representations of people with Albinism.
Hopa recounts her first day at school as one of the most uncomfortable; the other children refused to sit next to her because of her Albinism. She however had the fortune of growing up in a supportive household and currently has the privileges of a high fashion model with appearances on magazine covers, privileges out of reach for others with the same condition who continue to be ostracised.
A beauty in difference
“Albino” might be the standard term for people with Albinism, but the word is often used as a pejorative. Hopa prefers the term “albus”, hence the title of the exhibition.
Justin Dingwall explains that his framing of Albus emanated from “an interest to capture what is normally not perceived as ‘average beauty’. I was intrigued to show what I perceived as a different type of beauty, a beauty in difference.” He further elaborates that the context in which Hopa’s body evokes innocence was “to stylise and use lighting that create an ‘iconic’ feel, not to oppose or attack any religious beliefs, but to embrace and portray the saintly and angelic quality that iconic imagery reflects.”
Parts of the current exhibition were shown earlier this year at M.I.A Gallery in Seattle, and catapulted Hopa’s body politic as well as her celebrity status into the global arena. Kin to Hopa in the campaign to curb attitudes about Albinism is Rifilwe Modiselle, herself an ambassador of a clothing brand and a regular on the television talk show Ekse Lets Talk, which largely focuses on societal issues. Like Hopa, Modiselle grew up in a protective and supportive environment, and she too knows what it’s like to be ostracised outside the safe environment of home.
Exoticism and celebrity culture
As is typical of the media, that which deserves to be broadcast does not usually get play. Hopa and Modiselle’s position as advocates for acceptance and as representations of the idyll of rising above the challenges of Albinism has been reduced to glitz and glamour fit for the whims of cosmopolitan consumption. The fashion shoots and vogue lifestyle have taken precedent over the cause. An observation of Hopa’s Twitter footprint reveals a barrage of photo ops and well wishes on her exploits as a ramp walker compared to earlier affirmations of self love. This overshadowing of substance by glitz is reminiscent of the coverage of Lupita Nyong’o leading up to and following her Oscar win for her role in 12 Years A Slave, whereby her exoticism by the media took centre stage rather than the gravitas of her character in a film that put the lens on black suffering in world history. It is commonplace for media gatekeepers to put a veneer over pertinent issues for the sake of riding a wave that results into a sellable brand. The tipped balance in favour of exoticism is an outright irresponsibility when considering the challenges that people with Albinism have to go through daily, especially in East Africa where individuals face severe persecution.
The subversion of standardised beauty by Justin Dingwall’s Albus is a contemporary necessity and his insider’s view as a long time fashion photographer gives him the merits to comment on it. Thando Hopa as subject is an extrapolation of the sentiment that Western patriarchal perceptions of anatomic perfection are flawed. But the bigger flaw lies in taking the sting out of the advocacy by reverting back to the mores of the industry. What becomes a farce is the exotic approach of wrapping a golden ribbon around the plight of Albinism so that it perfectly fits the palate of those with a taste for lifestyle rags. This warrants inauthenticity as well as takes away the focus from that little girl in Soweto or Dar es Salaam who does not have the fortune to grace the pages of a glossy. Activism first and lifestyle fodder later.
Albus runs until the 31st March at Rooke and van Wyk.