Shaking up beauty standards is the aim of a diverse new art exhibit opening this week. And if that alone weren’t a virtuous enough goal, the show is also a fundraiser for an organization called Beauty for Freedom, and its Project India initiative, which helps young survivors of human trafficking find their voices through art, music, and photography workshops. So it all comes full circle.
“So many of us feel a little bit lost in our industry, promoting destructive images of how woman should look and feel,” Monica Watkins, Beauty for Freedom co-founder as well as a Ford model, tells Yahoo Beauty. “But I feel like there’s a movement of philanthropists in the beauty industry who are saying, ‘Enough is enough.’” To that end, Beauty for Freedom has been fierce in its mission to “engage the industries of Beauty and Fashion as powerful allies in the fight to end human trafficking,” through public campaigns, workshops, and fundraising events.
“Color of Freedom” (Photo: Rob Forbes & Sokphalla Ban)
Watkins, along with multi-media artist Magda Love, has curated the show, “Beauty Undefined,” showing for two nights only this week in New York City. It features the donated work of 20 international artists who are reshaping ideals of beauty through their photography, illustrations, video installations, graffiti, painting, and sculpture.
“There’s definitely a need…to represent the beauty of a lot of these women that we’ve only seen in a very limited capacity — in the history of art, actually,” painter Tim Okamura explains in a “Beauty Undefined” trailer. “When I think of ‘Beauty Undefined,’ I think about breaking down the media-driven definitions of beauty that we’ve kind of been force-fed, for the majority of our lives. Through my portraiture, at least, there’s room to delve deeper… It’s not just about physical appearance, it’s about so much more — about the essence that radiates.”
The exhibit poster, featuring a photograph of Melanie Gaydos. (Photo: Crystal Vinson)
Watkins says that illuminating the perspective of the artist became an important part of the show for her, particularly since many of them come from the oft-proscribed fashion world. “I had a different ideology of what I wanted to do in curating this — I wanted the artist’s voice to be present and not just their work,” she says, noting that the exhibit highlights “the part of themselves they’d like to more completely express about what they feel is beautiful.”
For photographer Crystal Vinson that was capturing ethereal images of Melanie Gaydos — a 27-year-old model who was born with a very rare collection of genetic birth defects, called ectodermal dysplasia. The condition causes the abnormal formation of skin, nails, and teeth (she has not a single adult tooth) as well as alopecia, preventing the growth of hair, and albinism. Her impact on the modeling world, and her images in the exhibit, Watkins says, has been “transformative.”
“The White Dress” (Archival giclée print: Tim Okamura)
For Toto Cullen, a fashion photographer whose arresting image of Sudanese model Grace Bol (top) is in the exhibit, redefining beauty is something that inspires his work all the time. “I think fashion is opening to the point where we realize that beauty is much more than just the typical stereotype, woman or man,” he says in another show trailer, “which is something that I find very intriguing and exciting when it comes down to photographing someone.”
“Confection” (Photo: Allison Brady)
And for photographer Allison Brady, it means creating images that can be provocative, and even disturbing. “I like to cover the faces,” Brady says in her trailer video. “I feel that when you abstract the model’s face, it becomes less about the actual subject of who the model is and more about the turmoil that’s going on inside.”
Ultimately, says Watkins, “This show really challenges us all to create our own definitions of the female form in regards to beauty. We need to expand our minds and embrace the fact that there is freedom in letting go of old cultural conceptions of women and beauty. ‘Beauty Undefined’ celebrates that freedom!”
(Top photo: Toto Cullen)