When you think of the pinnacle of African beauty, culture, and struggle, chances are you’re not imagining Gwyneth Paltrow, Liv Tyler, or David Bowie. But that’s the controversial angle taken by Keep a Child Alive, whose HIV/AIDS-in-Africa awareness campaign called “I Am African”—which features celebrities, both white and black, in vaguely traditional African garb and face paint above the words “I am African”—is swiftly spreading across city billboards and the internet. (Note: The campaign, started in 2006, has been recently resurrected.) So what’s Keep a Child Alive’s rationale? According to the organization’s website, “Each and every one of us contains DNA that can be traced back to our African ancestors. These amazing people traveled far and wide. Now they need our help.”
Needless to say, dolling up Elijah Wood with yellow paint and bead necklaces is drawing sharp, new criticism.
“For starters, why is it necessary to pose a formulaic African aesthetic in order to be compassionate?” wonders Geneva S. Thomas of Black Spin.
The campaign’s art direction is coherent, yet desperately forced—Sarah Jessica Parker just looks confused made up with the purple fertility line traditionally worn by women in eastern Africa.
“I Am African” ads have been sighted in urban spaces throughout the U.S., particularly in New York City, where thousands of African immigrants live and who, one can only imagine, may not be in the mood while waiting on the subway platform to take in an image of privileged celebrities who have the luxury of walking in and out of an African identity whenever’s clever.
The Root’s Jenée Desmond-Harris also takes issue:
The angle that the organization has chosen to bring attention to this important issue is nothing short of bizarre. The strongest critics will likely call it disrespectful of African culture. But our only issue is that it seems to require a lot of unnecessary mental gymnastics to connect “We all have African DNA. Even white people. Check out my facepaint!” to “So we have a good reason to care about AIDS in Africa” to “So, let’s help people there get the medication they need.”
How about skipping all that and giving people credit for caring about other human beings—no other genetic link required? “I am human” would have worked just fine.
“But guess what? The campaign is getting attention” Desmond-Harris concedes. “And if it takes blond Gwyneth Paltrow with a blue stripe down her cheek and a giant necklace to make us do a double take, pay attention and hopefully take action, then so be it.”
Images by Keep a Child Alive photographer Michael Thompson.