Egypt 2017 by Cherine Fahd

Egypt  2017

Archival pigment print

40 x 20cm

National Types of Beauty.

In the early 1900s tobacco companies produced cigarette cards in order to strengthen cigarette packets and to advertise their brand. Major Drapkin and Co. was one such company based in London. Cigarette cards were miniature trading cards used to entice smokers to collect and exchange them. Judging by the subject of most cigarette cards, men were their number one consumers. Many of the cards were of soldiers, planes or sporting heroes, and smokers were encouraged to collect the whole set.

National Types of Beauty is one such set of trade cards. My reworking of this archive carries the same name, National Types of Beauty (2017). In this adaptation the portraits are altered and share one common feature – each of the ‘beauties’ wears my eyes almost imperceptibly. This act for me is simple. It undoes the colonial gaze and the attempt to categorise race and women. My eyes fit better on some women then others and in some they are closed. These portraits also recall my previous attempts in Plinth Piece (2014) and Shadowing Portraits (2015-2016) to take on the appearance of other things, a sculpture or another person. In these portraits I become fused and enmeshed in these historical women’s faces, looking out as a knowing eye, critiquing, questioning and quietly challenging.

The original set is unusual in its representation of women. National Types of Beauty was issued in 1928. It consisted of 36 portraits of women who according to the British colonial eye exemplify the beauty of the named country. On the front of each card a black and white photograph depicts the apparent national type of beauty of the said country. On the back, the women are described according to their facial appearance, their colouring, their class, their level of education, and whom they belong to (whose daughter they are). What struck me about the descriptions were not only the way the women merely existed as a classified specimen but also the way each race is described and depicted according to colonial desires of the era. For instance, the card for Egypt presents a woman who fulfils the Orientalist fantasy of wearing veils that are less fearsome burka and more Cleveland street belly dancer.

I had been collecting the National Types of Beauty set since 2010. This set while appealing to my interest in photography also troubled me in its colonial representation of race and of women. Little details were ironic when I studied the set closely. Incredibly, white women represented Australia and South Africa. In fact there is not one single woman who isn’t white in the entire set. The Australian woman is declared to be a British actress and ironically the name of the South African lady is Miss Dorothy Black. New Zealand has no connection to its Maori culture and former countries such as ‘Yugo-Slavia’ are represented whilst Iran is still called Persia.

 Cherine Fahd 2017.