Be My Slave: Aamna Aqeel’s Fashionable Satire Against Slavery in the Modern World

The beautiful and talented and brilliant Pakistani designer Aamna Aqeel.

The beautiful and talented and brilliant Pakistani designer Aamna Aqeel.

Pakistani fashion designer Aamna Aqeel recently completed a photo shoot title ‘Be My Slave’.  Yahoo news is reporting that the work is being seen by many as racist, but in examining the photos it seems clear to me that the work, far from supporting racism or slavery, is a sharp satire on modern slavery.  The shoot is a profound work that challenges our preconceptions of slavery and forces us to look at our relationships with the people around us, and also consider the relationship we have with people who, though not part of our immediate daily lives, are exploited that we might be provided services that would otherwise be unavailable able.

 

A photo from the 'Be My Slave' shoot.

A photo from the ‘Be My Slave’ shoot.

I think, before starting the conversation it is important to note the context of these photos.  Recently in France, considered by many to be the home of fashion, there has been a disconcerting trend where ‘upper’ class Francophones have been bringing immigrants into France, taking away their passports and forcing them to work as slaves.  Sometimes they are brought in as domestic workers and then forced to work exceedingly long hours.   In one tragic incident a child was brought in under the pretense of being adopted and was forced into slavery as a domestic servant and was also repeatedly raped.  The tragedy is that slavery is still very much alive in many first world countries, and not simply in sweat but in the homes of some wealthy people.  Aqeel’s photo shoot demonstrates the brutal reality of this form of slavery, where a wealthy woman has a child working as a domestic slave.

 

This is an immediate form of slavery, but not the only form.  Aqeel is from Pakistan, a country where sweat shops are not uncommon, nor are they uncommon an many parts of the world.  The Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh is a recent example of this.  It was an unsafe building and workers should have never been allowed to enter it.  As a result over 800 people were killed, a number far exceeding the victims of the recent Boston Marathon bombings, and while the collapse did get significant press, it didn’t get nearly as much press as did the Boston Marathon bombings.  This is how capitalist society works though.  An ‘entrepreneur’ knowingly allows scores of people to enter an unsafe work environment, and there they die, but the press does not attack the men responsible for the deaths of almost a 1000 people, but spend relentless hours examining those responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings.  The owners of the factory have been arrested, but the government failed the victims.  More tragically, consumers failed the victims.  There are instances where consumers are aware of the human cost of affordable items.  Blood diamonds for example seem to be a rallying call for many, and so, when people go to buy their engagement rings, they ask for verification that the diamond did not come from a conflict zone and their conscience is clean.  But these same people do not go into department stores and ask for verification that the t-shirts and jeans they are buying weren’t made in a sweat shop akin to the Rana Plaza garment factory; nor do they ask if the toys they are buying for their children were made by children in a third world country.  When you are buying your most recent laptop or tablet, are you making sure the components didn’t come from conflict areas?  When you go to the convenient store and pick up your favorite chocolate bar, are you sure that the coco wasn’t harvested by children working over 14 hours a day?  Or the gasoline you buy?  What was the human cost?  This is what is going on.  Slavery does exist and we are all complicit in it.  Many of our purchases support and fund slavery, we just don’t ask questions about it.

 

A photo from the 'Be My Slave' shoot.

A photo from the ‘Be My Slave’ shoot.

Aqeel’s photoshoot does exactly that.  It brings the child we are exploiting into our reach.  In one photo we see a child sleeping on the floor, no blanket, or pillow, no mattress.  The woman in the photo has her back to the child and is reading a fashion magazine.  There is no connection between the two and no sympathy is present in the woman.  She is callous, just as we are.  When we are reading a fashion magazine, or a sports magazine, reading an article online, there is a child sleeping in condition not unlike the one featured in the image, and we are offering nothing to that child, despite the fact that the t-shirt we are wearing, or the computer we are using, or the chocolate bar we ate that afternoon were dependant on the exploitation of that child.

 

 

bemyslave2Another photo sees the same young boy holding an umbrella over the aristocratic woman.  She is protected from whatever is above, but the child remains in harm’s way.  He is underdressed, no shirt, and is exposed to the sun, or the rain.  Again, she cannot even be bothered to so much as look at him.  She, as we are, is consumed by whatever thought leads her eyes way from him.  She is callous and unsympathetic and he serves her regardless because he has little choice in the matter.  Another photo sees the child serving her with tea.  He appears emaciated as he serves another person tea.  There is nothing for him.  There is no food or drink.  The person he serves has plenty, but he is on the brink of starvation.  Ironically, the model in the photo is likely as emaciated as he, or no doubt at the very least has colleagues who are.  Both, in this image, can be seen as the exploited, the child by the aristocratic prototype, the model by the ‘fashion world’.  This image has a duality to it that suggests the extent of this exploitation goes further than one might imagine.  Another image sees the woman putting on make-up as the child totes a bag that seems as big as he is.  She again is not so much as looking at him and is focused instead on her lipstick, a shallow enterprise that inspires her to ignore the needs of the human she is exploiting.  It, like the tea and the fashion magazine, provides a biting satirical juxtaposition the demonstrates the things we often put ahead caring for our fellow human beings.  We are more concerned with what shade of lipstick we have than how our actions serve to exploit other human beings, children in many cases.

A photo from the 'Be My Slave' shoot.

A photo from the ‘Be My Slave’ shoot.

Of the series of photos there is only one where the woman is looking at the child, and even this one offers little hope.  She is looking down on him, and though she is not violent, rather the contrary, she seems nurturing, it is a false empathy.  The child’s head is hung low and he cannot even look at her.  He is ashamed for some reason, as if she has chastised him.  Her compassionate demeanour is compromised though by the photos that follow.  In those photos her lack of empathy is clear.  She shows no sign of following through on this compassion, and even this scene does not serve to bring joy to the child’s life, but merely reinforces his shame.

 

 

 

A photo form the 'Be My Slave' shoot.

A photo form the ‘Be My Slave’ shoot.

The world we live in is complicated.  There is exploitation that is removed from our daily lives that we cannot see.  We are ignorant of it.  To be illuminated we must ask questions, but most people adopt the adage that ignorance is bliss.  They simply do not want to know.  Aamna Aqeel is brave enough to ask these questions.  She has created a piece of art that pulls the exploitation from sweat shops and brings it into our homes that we might see it.  Some short-sighted people who have no idea what the word race means have called this work racist.  It is not. It is a satire with important social commentary.   This art has purpose and its purpose is clear.  Those who cannot see it are either willfully blind or ignorant, and one is just as bad as the other.

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Speak Your Mind

*

css.php