Press Articles In English

Legless beauties
by Anita Haslie, Fett [“Fat”] quarterly, 16.05.07

Are you an Angolan woman who has stepped on a mine and lost a leg? Don’t be depressed. A Norwegian project makes sure you can still feel pretty.

“Miss Landmine puts the global landmine problem and its survivors in the spotlight in a new, celebratory and life-affirming way”.
Thus, Miss Landmine – a beauty pageant for landmine victims in Angola – presnts itself on the website . Pictures from the project are presented in a photo exhibition that opened in Bergen in end-May. Behind all this is the Norwegian artist and director Morten Traavik, who wishes to promote the situation of African disabled women. By questioning traditional concepts of beauty, he hopes that the project will be understood partly as a comment to beauty pageants as phenomenon.

– How does this project question the phenomenon of beauty pageants?

– By using models who deviate from traditional preconceptions of perfect beauty. I think this project shows that you can be beautiful and look good even if you’re disabled, says Traavik.

A first step
Traavik also thinks the project promotes the womens’ situation, at least on one level.

– These women are among the least privileged in an already underprivileged society. By promoting them as more beautiful than what they have so far been considered to be, and in a culture where beauty and pageants are an important feature, it is a first step of sorts on the road to positive reintegration in the local culture, says Traavik.

– Do you think they will get a higher social status?

- In any case, it is a possible catalyst for a shift in attitudes towards disabled people, not least regarding these girls’ self-worth and self-consciousness, he says.
Traavik says he’s been criticized for focusing on appearance and looks and that he’s been asked why he doesn’t focus on, for instance, the womens’ skills instead.
– But I feel that would be doing two things at once. On the contrary, this is a more efficient way to highlight the fact that these girls are persons with the same talents and resources as anybody else. To get that message across in a striking and efficient way it is natural to focues on the visual part. But these girls’ stories will also be presented in the project. One should get an impression of their potential and the lives they lead.

– But beauty is the main criteria?

- No, or that is...I’d say that the main criteria is a combination of many things. I guess that for instance, I wouldn’t admit a girl with substantial facial injuries. But that dilemma is really a hypothetical one, because I don’t think a girl with big facial injuries would feel like participating in the first place. However, the most important criteria so far is that the girls feel like taking part, and that they are comfortable enough with themselves and their looks to present themselves to a public. After all, this isn’t a recruitment scheme for a model agency, so for me, quite OK looks are sufficient, and that they enjoy being photographed.
Traavik envisions exporting the project on to other countries if it becomes a success in Angola.

– I guess we’ll wait and see what kind of responses the project will generate, but it would be really exciting to test the concept in other places as well. For example, how one would have to adapt the project to local conditions if one were to stage it in Afghanistan, Cambodia or Bosnia is in itself an interesting dimension. After all, Angola is a relatively easy-going country when it comes to body culture.

– How?

– There are few cultural or religious taboos concerning showing off yourself and your body. It’s a bit of a samba culture. Very few of these girls had any concerns about posing in bikinis, for instance. I don’t think I would have pushed that issue in Afghanistan. We didn’t push it in Angola either, just to stress that.

Public holiday
Traavik says that beauty pageants are perceived differently in Western and African settings. He says that beauty pageants are a huge event in many African countries, with a big following among ordinary people.

– I will maintain that in sub-Saharan Africa, beauty pageants are to a lesser degree entwined with the discrimination issues that automatically raise their heads in Western contexts. This may have something to do with the fact that African-formulated feminism still lags a little behind the West. But not less importantly, feminism can have many forms and expressions. Anybody with any experience of Africa knows that most of the continent is run by women. The boys have their titles and their ministries, but it’s the girls who run the shop, says Traavik.

He adds that he finds the culture-relative aspect of how the project will be perceived in different cultures, an interesting issue.

– You say that the project is perceived differently in a Western context than in an African one. That means that the pictures of the girls can be perceived differently by our audience from what they [e.g. the girls – ed.] are expecting. How do the girls themselves feel about that?

– They don’t relate that much to how a European audience would react to the pictures. In a way that issue lies beyond the boundaries of the horizon available to the girls so far. But I have thougt I well through, and I think that they’ll be relatively well shielded from negative reactions, no matter how the project will be perceived and received in a European setting. It will be me as the artist behind the whole project, that will be getting those punches. The most important thing for me has been to ensure that they are at all times aware that this is something that many people will see and have opinions about.

White scepticism
The project has received 500.000 kroner from Arts Council Norway, approved by the Council’s Comittee for Stage Arts.

– It has been an interesting experience to discover that the ones most sceptical to the project are “white”, Western aid organisations. These organisations often have old-school feminists of both genders in high places, people who freak out once they hear the word “beauty pageant”. No matter what I say after that word, they just shut off. The Norwegian Foreign Ministry and NORAD [Norway’s state sub-ministry for bilateral aid – ed. ] have so far declined to support us. The same goes for the Norwegian Embassy in Luanda, who has virtually worked against us, says Traavik.

He says that this attitude contrasts strongly to how Angolan authorities relate to the project.

- Compared to other bilateral aid projects taking place there, we have been met with an unsusually high degree of goodwill and support. Just the fact that Angolan authorities are funding the project with 15.000 USD out of their own pocket, is a sensation in a bilateral context. Nowall the foreign NGOs and aid missions in Angola are scrathing their heads, asking: ”How did you do that?”, he says proudly.

Back to Press