1st Prize: A Norwegian leg prothesis
With the project Miss Landmine 2007, Norwegian artist Morten Traavik ventures into a controversial balance act that reaps equal parts outrage and applause. The Angolan contestants in the unusual beauty pageant are namely all landmine victims.
By Michael Reiter
The truth hides in the second glance. On first sight, one is seduced by images of a stylized African paradise – including sandy beaches, ocean and deep blue skies. In the foreground, dark-skinned beauties are posing – smiling and sensual, clad in brightly-couloured beach attire and elegant cocktail dresses. The dreamlike images could be taken from the pages of Elle or Vogue. But suddenly, the beholder’s gaze catch something that would hardly find its way into the glossy magazines – a detail almost like a thorn in the eye: All of the models are missing one leg. Some of them support themselves on cruthes and prosthetics.
The women amputees are the protagonists of Miss Landmine 2007 – a controversial project that turns established concepts of beauty upside-down, to put a different focus on the plight of landmine victims. The models all hail from Angola. The are among the country’s more than 80.000 mine victims who have lost arms and legs from having stepped on mines left over from a more than 20 year long civil war. Instead of depicting them as suffering victims, Norwegian artist Morten Traavik ,with photographer Gorm K. Gaare, has made them the stars in a beauty pageant. The finals take place in Angola in the autumn. Until then, the models can be viewed in a photo exhibition and on the project’s web pages miss-landmine.org – where one can also vote for one’s favourite candidate.
Morten Traavik had the original idea when visiting Angola for the first time in 2003. Seeing the many landmine victims made a profound impression on him.
– It is, of course, a tragedy to lose one or both legs, says Traavik.
- But even so, life doesn’t end. One is still a resourceful person with possibilities and potential. I saw dignified and completely normal people, who have had bad luck – but who are often treated like retards by the local community. And because Angola’s welfare system is practically nonexistent, they get by basically by various odds-and-ends, such as small-time street trading.
The Angolan passion for beauty pageants made quite another - positive – impression on Traavik:
– Some kids staged their own local beauty pageant in the backstreet behind our house, and I had the honour of being a jury member. So we sat there with all of the neighbourhood, while the kids paraded up and down. It was like a big street party! Their understanding of beauty pageants is very unlike ours, which almost per definition sees them as exploitation of women. In Angola, contestants and audience alike perceive the pageants as a party, celebrating beauty.
It was in the fusion of these two strong impressions that Morten Traavik saw the possibility to put the global landmine problem in the spotlight in a new way. However, it soon became clear that not everybody shared the Norwegian artist’s views on beauty and ways of staging African landmine victims. All of the foreign NGOs and aid organisations declined to support the project.
-They were afraid that it was going to be some kind of ’freak show’, explains Traavik, who instead got funding from the Norwegian Arts Council and the Angolan National Demining Comission. The reservations, however, were only a first taste of the heated debate generated when the news of Miss Landmine started spreading on the internet and in the media this spring.
Critics deemed the project an unethical exposition of physical disabilities for the benefit of a voyeuristic public. Traavik was accused of presenting stereotypes of Africa at the expense of naïve and disenfranchised contestants, who were payed to participate. On the other side, supporters of the project applauded it’s positive way of depicting landmine victims – because it shakes our preconceptions of beauty and of Africa.
- The participants were savouring the opportunity to be, and be seen as, beautiful, sensual and complete women, Morten Traavik counters the criticism.
– To imply that they themselves are incapable of weighing the advantages versus disadvantages from participating, is at best condescending. At worst, it is an expression of exactly the same racism that the critics themselves claim to be opposed to.