If you have been on the planet Earth in the last three years, you must have heard or read about the Face of Africa extravaganza annually organized by M-NET, the South African broadcasting giant. Okay, let me ignite your remembrance with a name: Oluchi. Yes, Oluchi Onweagba, the long-necked long-legged long everything ebony black model who struts her stuff to the admiration of the denizens of catwalks the world over. Yeah, winning the FOA event three years ago catapaulted her into the world of glamor and perpetual paparazzi.
The organizers scour accomodating African countries shortlisting potentials who are gathered in South Africa for the finale (the latest took them across 30 countries, including Nigeria). The panel judging the event has reportedly been modified to give Nigeria (courtesy Oluchi’s soaraway success) and South Africa a representative each, while America and France have two apiece. Yes, my friends, the West have the majority vote on the face that “represents” Africa. (They’ve always known us more than we do ourselves. Didn’t they rescue us from savagery and a history-less existence by putting us into slavery? Ah, I digress!).
Have you wondered like I have whose idea of beauty these girls are selected to reflect? The skinny, tall, legs-all-the-way-to-the-ears, false disc-slipping hip-swings are not ours. They are Western, so are they being selected for a market in America? Yeah, you and I are barking up the wrong Iroko tree. Jan Malan, producer of the show has half-heartedly tried to dissuade the media from seeing the FOA as a beauty pageant. He reportedly confessed at one of these sessions that they are scouting and recruiting models for the leading modelling agencies like Elite who all have precise specifications as to who can be a high-flying model. And what is that, you ask? You’ve got to be a 6-footer, have hips between 34-36 inches, “perfect” skin, sunny smile and posture. Oh, and you have to be skinny.
Many models and fashion designers in African cities have also adopted this alien concept of what is beautiful. To borrow that well-worn cliché, we live in a global Village now and there will be (there are!) cultural overlaps. In with the new! Out with the curves!
Question: what is the rationale behind naming the event Face of Africa, if it is just a process of identifying models for the runways of the world. Why not The African Model, situating it (from the hunt to the kill) within the enclave of modelling? A publicist will immediately tell you that one tag is catchier than the other. Still, that is easily the most misunderstood show name I have heard in recent memory. It is easy to naively assume they are looking for the face that best exemplifies all things African and the focus on figure and height and weight and skin could prove confounding. I mean, is there an equivalent Face of North America, ditto Asia, Europe and Australia, which we’re not aware of? E tu Antarctica?
I do admit it is amusing that they think we have faces. Oluchi is the latest exotic export from Africa, undeniably a babe, sheer magnetism in liquid motion! I wish her the stars. The splashy show also undeniably transforms the life of whoever wins and gives the other contestants a leg up in a world that is sliding deeper into the wormhole of economic depression.
By African standards, with all the personality Oluchi oozes, back home, she would be regarded as too tall and skinny for a girl. But she’s got a face and it is the Face of Africa! All shades of characters are probably perched on nearby windows, hoping to capitalize on her current 10minutes of fame, people who will be gone if the fame flounders tomorrow. It is reported that she is pretty level headed and is taking the glamor one day at a time. That would be attributable to the fact that she grew up in Nigeria – and some good mother someplace is still drumming it into her head via the telephone, “don’t forget the daughter of whom you are”.
I’m sure she knows these chaps are not grooming her for a life. They are preparing her like a cow to milk until she cannot produce anymore. I haven’t read anywhere that those who “discovered” her (yeah, roaming the streets of Ayilara hawking Agege bread!) have advised her to complete her education, so she can have a back up in case the current klieg lights suddenly dim – and they always do! Are they preparing her for a happy home and husband and children someday? Don’t be absurd. She’s an American model now. Marriage? Models don’t marry in America. They get into contractual arrangements!
Still, is it the innocent face unscarred by experience that best captures the African continent – or the experienced one etched with wisdom, filled with a deep-seated beauty borne of seasoned pain? Oh, I forget. These chaps are only glamorizing a face from Africa because it draws attention to their latest fashion. That is a debate for another day.
What is my gripe today? It’s the western habit of slapping any convenient mask on Africa whenever it suits their purposes. It is the selective focus, as we call it in the movies, that is worth a frown. It is the zeal to zoom in and magnify whatever takes their momentary fancy, turning it into the “Face of Africa”.
How many faces has Africa had over the years? Talk about magazines, calendars and TV documentaries and the “Face of Africa” is that of the dictator, soldiers ravaging communities, overpopulation, hunger and war. On the news and online, it is that of the scam artist. On the streets of America, it is the wearing of symbolic Kente materials, braided hair, and the infuriating reference to “Africa” as if it were a tiny country and not a continent about the size of the US raised to the power of three. When they need to raise funds for their foundations, money which only a miniscule percentage of it is expended on the reason they received it, the face of Africa is that of AIDS, children eating from garbage heaps hounded by mucus and flies, diseases and famine.
This “Face of Africa” event capitalizes on whispered promises, adventure, the conquest of wild undiscovered terrains, danger…the usual suspects hawked by tourism and travel catalogs the world over whenever they want to make a buck off the “Dark Continent” (Yeah, see The Lion King again!). Pause a moment to look at the other side of the coin and you just may see the Face of Exploitation. But this is business as usual, right? Everybody exploits everybody! That’s why they call it business! Let the face that can redeem Africa step forward!