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Problematic Miss Landmine
by Beate Petersen, Billedkunst (”Visual arts”) quarterly, 08.05.2007, No.3

A beauty pageant for Angolan landmine survivors, initiated by director and visual artist Morten Traavik, has triggered heated discussions on internet blogs worldwide. So heated in fact, that the newly established artspace 0047, who were to host the exhibition of photographs from the project, pulled out only six weeks before the scheduled opening. The Museum of Leprosy in Bergen, however, stands firm, and will be showing the exhibition from end-May until end-August.

In addition to the photographs, the exhibition includes a catalogue in the shape of a fashion magazine, featuring the female landmine survivors as models.
- The models are presented with name, age, hometown, civil status and favourite colour, plus the date of the landmine accident, says Traavik.
- It also states what clothes they are wearing, and the price. Even the mines that injured them are defined as part of their attire. The price, function and manufacturing country is also included.

Landmines and beauty pageants
Arts Council Norway has granted half a million kroner [80.000 USD – ed.] to the project, which also includes a stage production. Traavik got the idea after visiting Angola in 2003. Two things especially made an impression on him: One was the landmine problem; after Africa’s longest civil war, big tracts of the countryside are uninhabitable. The other was beauty pageants.

– If you go to sub-Saharan Africa, you will find that beauty pageants are very popular. In Miss Landmine I have juxtaposed two entirely different phenomenons. On one hand, Miss Landmine is a real pageant, in the sense that people can vote for the different candidates via the project’s website. At the same time, the candidates are participating in something designed to serve a bigger purpose, they are turning the spotlight on the plight of landmine survivors.

Both criticism and support
The bloggers at Black Looks, a South Africa-based feminist network with links to its Norwegian counterpart Fett (”Fat”), are, however, not so convinced. “ A highly offensive, disgusting exploitation of African women”, writes one. “Who the hell is going to be buying these glossy magazines and wearing these fancy clothes?” asks another. “Certainly not the women survivors who are poor unemployed women?”

- I am certainly aware that it is possible to interpret the project like that, says Traavik. – I am white, I am male, and I come from one of the wealthiest countries in the world. I can’t really do much about that. However, the objections put forward by the Black Looks–bloggers also reveal a prejudice: that the relation between the West and Africa virtually per definition is one based on exploitation. I would like Miss Landmine to challenge that way of thinking. Departing from an Western, inherited collective guilt complex, I am posing questions about what is “permitted” and what’s not.

The South African blog was referred to in the English newspaper The Guardian. And the Norwegian gallery 0047 got cold feet. They sensed that the project could explode in the media, and that it might possibly backfire on them.
Certain Western aid organisations, too, have been skeptical to the idea. The Angolan authorities, however, view the project differently.
- Both the Angolan Ministry of Planning, the Ministry of Health and the National Commision for Demining support the idea one hundred per cent. If they hadn’t been so firmly behind it, I would have cancelled the whole thing.

- But what do the Angolans get out of it?

- They think it is a brave and exciting way to highlight the landmine problem. The Angolan National Demining Comission will even use the Miss Landmine magazine in its informational campaigns. Many Angolans do not have access to news media, and many are not aware that on a national basis, there are around 80 000 people who have been disabled by landmines. Miss Landmine is about challenging the general attitude towards people who look different, and saying that landmine survivors can be beautiful, too. In that sense, this is far from any exploitation of some poor victims, but rather a way of highlighting their dignity.

Opening ethical dilemmas
– Nevertheless, post-Edward Said it has become risky business to analyse whole cultures. By describing The Other as “sensual” and “physical” one ventures into exactly the same stereotypes that Said criticised the West for having constructed. In other words you are, literally speaking, stepping into a minefield.
– It is easy to claim that Miss Landmine is profiting from already established clichés about a society. But I think that, in practice, it works the other way around. This project is based on the local culture’s own terms. Projects involving cross-cultural cooperation most often have some kind of pedagogical foundation, where one either wants to promote peace&harmony across borders, and/or teach “the others” a thing or two about democracy and gender equality. In my project it’s rather a matter of taking two entirely contradictory phenomenons, and see if the can be put together.

–All the same, you are in touch with a global disparity – among other things, the fact that Western artists can build careers on highlighting other and less privileged people’s situation?

– Miss Landmine is open to that kind of criticism. I can see that. On some level, it’s probably about my own vanity, my desire to make myself significant by making an impact beyond the arts scene. However, the real question is whether socially conscious art should only convey opinions that the audience already sympathises with and gives cred to, or whether it should also try to challenge itself.

– I have always preferred art that is ambiguous, that says many things at once. I think Miss Landmine manages to do this. It is a seemingly very simple and clear idea which, through its formal realisation, opens up for many ethical questions and dilemmas, he concludes.

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