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Beauty in a defect?
by Jan H Landro, cultural editor / Bergens Tidende (“Bergen Times”) daily, 16.05.07

In an ideal world, a human’s worth is measured by inner qualities and that only.
Can a beauty pageant give dignity to marginalised women in a far from ideal world? Theatre director Morten Traavik has instigated the pageant ”Miss Landmine Angola”, which among other things has led to a photo exhibition opening at the Museum of Leprosy on May 26.

Traavik has visited rehabilitation centres in Angola, selecting female participants for the pageant. Angola was ravaged by civil war for 27 years, and the country has an estimated 80.000 landmine victims, so he has hardly been in loss for possible candidates.

Ten women between 19 and 33 years old are presented on the web with photo and a few biographical facts. Subsequently, anyone has been able to cast a vote.

Traavik himself defines the project as a hybrid of art and bilateral aid, the latter in particular. But how much art and how little aid was on the agenda in the application that the Arts Council rewarded with half a million kroner? [approx. 80 000 USD – ed.]

Good intentions notwithstanding; he is stepping into a real minefield as far as ethics are concerned.

A spinal reflex says that this is blatant exploitation of women already among the lowest of the low: Their sex is the underprivileged one, and as disableds they are close to the ranks of the unwanted. Perhaps they will have their fifteen minutes of fame, complete with an illusion of a better future. But what awaits them after? A ”Miss” title of this kind will hardly be something to build a future life on.

This initiative undeniably seems a bit odd viewed as a humanitarian effort. At the end of the day, who stand to profit from this? Morten Traavik as “artist”? The winner and the other finalists? And furthermore, couldn’t the resources have been used more efficiently, if aid in this case is supposedly more important than art?

However, the case has another side to it. It is a human right, and a deeply human need, to be seen. To be seen and accepted for who one is, with one’s physical or mental flaws. How often do we see disabled people on a Norwegian stage, or on TV – unless in a newsflash or where a person with some kind of defect is needed? Apparently, the situation in ruined Angola isn’t much better.
We all benefit from getting our images of physical perfection, and our tendency to sort people after their looks, confronted. And we know, or should know, that beauty doesn’t live on the surface.

BUT, AGAIN, a beauty pageant is hardly the answer, for it represents only a cattle market on a “lower” plane. And the pictures of the candidates show beautiful women with no visible defects. All those who have cast their votes on haven’t had anything else to go by. At the end of the day, perhaps the weirdness of the project is nescessary to get attention to the cause and force people to reflect upon an unpleasant theme. According to Morten Traavik, beauty pageants are popular in Angola, and therefore well suited to generate attention.

THE QUESTION remains : Who is it that gets the attention, and how to make sure that this doesn’t just turn into a jippo?

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