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 Root’s Jenée Desmond-Harris also takes issue:
“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.