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Icons Reimagined: Artists Who Break The Mould

Reimagining Iconic Representations of Beauty Through Art

issue ten : icons & iconoclasts

By Kat Nugent

Throughout history, our notions of what is considered to be ‘beautiful’ have always been determined by those in power. Reflected through art, magazines, TV and film, (and in fact, all forms of mass media), mainstream concepts of beauty are fed to us on a daily basis and are, too often, influenced by racist ideals of white superiority. Excitingly in recent years, we’ve seen some exhilarating push back against this status quo, with artists and creatives reimagining and challenging representations of beauty that white-wash their subjects or refuse to make space for beauty which is non-white, or non-white-passing. 

Dark is Divine

One campaign that particularly struck a chord with us at Untainted Magazine was photographer, Naresh Nil’s brilliant project titled ‘Dark is Divine’ in 2018. In the Hindu religion, physical depictions of the gods and goddesses are far from uncommon, (most followers of the faith display multiple statues or paintings of these deities in their homes, offices and even cars), but what is so unique about Nil’s work is that they are depicted in a way that is more relatable, more identifiable for the majority Hindus around the world – they are depicted with dark skin.

Like many countries around the world who have tumultuous histories of colonisation,  the culture in India upholds a common belief that fair skin is superior (sadly, skin whitening and lightening creams and treatments are very popular in the country). It’s a belief that breeds much disconnect in a society where the majority of the population is dark-skinned. With a vision to counter the dominating images of Hindu gods and goddesses being fair-skinned, for this project Nil collaborated with filmmaker Bharadwaj Sundar to cast dark-skinned models to portray these holy figures, and in doing so encourage Hindus who see these images to have a deeper connection and identification with the gods and goddesses that they worship.

Wide-spread WhiteWashing

White-washing in the religious space is far from limited to Hinduism. Jesus Christ himself is the most depicted figure in all of Western Art but in recent years, the common image of him as a fair-skinned man with a slim nose, blue eyes and long flowing locks have come under much scrutiny. A more historically accurate representation of Jesus, who we know to have been a Jewish Galilean man, presents us with an image less angelic, less ‘perfect’ and ultimately, less white. 

Of course, images of Jesus were never meant to be accurate – instead their purpose was to symbolise purity and goodness. But what message does that send when the symbol for a pure and good man, is one who is white?

Historical Recreations

More recently, scientists came under criticism for the ‘most accurate’ reconstruction of famed Ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertiti. Ancient Egypt has long been white-washed through films with white actors often cast to portray historical characters who would undoubtedly have been people of colour (Elizabeth Taylor famously played Cleopatra and most recently, the Hollywood film ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’ chose almost exclusively white actors to play all Egyptian roles). It’s a mistake which although not forgivable, is not surprising for Hollywood. But what about when this whitewashing takes place in supposedly unbiased science?

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra (1963) Image from The Independent

In 2018, paleoartist Elisabeth Daynès created a replica of Queen Nefertiti’s face based on the genetics found in the DNA remains and produced a light-skinned woman with hazel eyes. Online criticism came flooding in, with many claiming that the white-washed representation was far from reality, joking that this dedication looked more like Barbara Streisand than anything close to what the iconic North African ruler would have looked like.

Bust of Queen Nefertiti (2018). Image from NYPost

Breaking Free From Moulds

‘Venus, After Botticelli'(2008) by Yin Xin

In today’s world where we are finally starting to break free from the long-imposed monolithic concept of beauty, it’s exciting to see artists reclaim or reimagine iconic figures through a new lens of openness and authenticity. One image that always comes to mind when I think about this is Chinese artist, Yin Xin’s work ‘Venus, After Botticelli’. Taking arguably one of the most famous paintings in history, Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’ and reimagining its subject (who is one of the dominating symbols of ‘beauty’ in the western world) through a Chinese cultural context, Xin reframes beauty. Instead of long blonde flowing hair and light wide eyes, Xin depicts a beautiful Chinese woman with black long hair and dark Asian eyes. The effect is remarkable (especially for a mixed-race Chinese woman like myself who has always battled self-esteem due to white-dominated perceptions of beauty). 

We’d love to hear what works of art you’ve seen that challenge preconceived notions of beauty. Are there any reimaginations of iconic figures or works that you’ve seen and loved? Or are there any icons that you would love to see reimagined? Let us know in the comments below! 

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UNTAINTED is a directional beauty platform, pushing the boundaries of clean, sustainable beauty. We are inspired and motivated by the Japanese philosophy of Wabi-sabi.

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