Illamasqua makeup brand defends its ‘blackface’ ad in the face of growing controversy

Illamasqua's controversial 'blackface' ad

Illamasqua's controversial 'blackface' ad. (Image: Facebook)

The Illamasqua makeup brand is coming under fire for presenting an ad as part of a holiday promotion that features a model painted black. The British company has defended what is being referred to as a ‘blackface’ image in the face of growing controversy, which began as soon as the firm posted the image to its Australian Facebook account.

After also posting the ad on Pinterest, the company received a backlash of complaints from users who immediately noted the resemblance of the ad’s styling to stereotyped portrayals of African-Americans from blackface minstrelsy.

In addition, the ad’s slogan — “Not Dreaming of a White Christmas” — underscored the racial undertone perceived in the company’s message by many. Most have been critical of the campaign.

“Blackface? Really. That’s disappointing Illamasqua,” wrote one user on Pinterest.

Yet, some defended the look as purely artistic.

“This isn’t blackface,” said a supporter. “Just an editorial interpretation of the opposite of white.”

Statements such as this led one black Pinterest user to educate others on the parallels between traditional blackface and the ad.

“Maybe you’re missing the exaggeration with the red lips, coupled with the top hat and bow tie, absolute visual allusions to Black Face Minstrel shows,” the irate user wrote. “Maybe a visitation to entertainment history might be in order? This isnt simply a woman painted black… this is a woman painted in Black Face. There *is* a difference.”

Illamasqua: controversial 'blackface' ad

Illamasqua’s controversial ‘blackface’ ad. (Image: Facebook)

According to feminist web site, Jezebel, Illasmasqua took the black-only ad down at first when racist accusations mounted, but then reposted it on Facebook along with a mirror image of the same model painted white. In addition, the firm offered the following explanation:

We thank and acknowledge your comments regarding the above image. Obviously it was never our intention to cause offence; Illamasqua has always celebrated the right to self-expression and we continually push creative and artistic boundaries, priding ourselves on working with models of many ethnic backgrounds to reinforce this point. Alex Box, Illamasqua’s Creative Director, has emphasised that this campaign is about colour ON the skin, not colour OF the skin, depicting polarity between the two images (both images are the same model) not race.

“The model painted black has been interpreted by some as ‘black face,’” Illasmasqua said in a separate statement. “This was certainly not our intention nor inspiration.”

Does a lack of intention let the company off the hook? Jezebel says no.

“The cosmetics company’s response hinges on the notion that racism, in order to exist, has to be intentional,” writes Jezebel editor Jenna Sauers. “This is not so. An act — or in this case, an image — can be racist or refer to a painful, racist past without those responsible for it specifically intending that meaning.”

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The fashion and beauty industries have an ongoing history of creating images that are perceived as racially insensitive. Instances of blackface use are well-documented, in addition to troubling references to slavery, and the use of the N-word to describe today’s black fashion icons.

Chanel lead designer Karl Lagerfeld recently painted a sketch of President Obama holding a tray meant to celebrate his re-election. According to Lagerfeld, it depicts the president as a chef. To critical observers, the resemblance of his drawing to the servile American icon Uncle Ben was far greater.

Illasmasqua’s embroilment in yet another race-related debate provides more fodder for the ongoing accusation that the fashion industry lacks awareness of racial issues and sufficient diversity throughout its ranks to prevent such apparent gaffes.

TheGrio reached out to Illasmasqua for comment, and did not receive a response in time for publication.

Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb.