Vogue Brazil Fashion Director Quits Over Photos That Evoke Slavery Era
RIO DE JANEIRO — The fashion director of Vogue magazine’s Brazil edition has resigned following an outcry over photographs from her 50th birthday that critics saw as an allusion to race relations during the colonial era, when Brazil relied heavily on slave labor.
The executive, Donata Meirelles, who is white, posted the photographs on her Instagram account, where she appears smiling broadly sitting on an ornate chair flanked by two black women wearing elaborate white dresses.
Many Brazilians saw the images, taken in the predominantly black state of Bahia, as a throwback to Brazil’s colonial era, when light-skinned elites enslaved millions of black people of African descent. Now, just over half of Brazilians identify as black or of mixed racial background, but discrimination remains a powerful force in the country.
Vogue’s Brazil edition addressed the matter in a message: “Regarding the manifestations about Donata Meirelles’s 50th birthday party, Vogue Brasil regrets profoundly what happened and hopes the debate generated serves as a source of learning.”
Ms. Meirelles, who stepped down on Wednesday, appeared to refer to the event with regret in a statement posted on her Instagram account in which she said she wanted to be an agent of change for a “transformation that is necessary.”
Brazil abolished slavery in 1888, one of the last countries in the Americas to do so, and for decades it embraced the myth of being a racial democracy. It has one of the highest rates of mixed marriages.
But racism still pushes black Brazilians to the bottom of the economic ladder and keeps them largely invisible in Congress, the executive branch, corporate suites and news organizations.
Ana Lucia Araujo, a history professor at Howard University who studies slavery, said the controversy over Ms. Meirelles’s birthday has brought to the fore a topic many Brazilians are reluctant to acknowledge publicly.
“Racism and white supremacy are issues that have been ignored in Brazil,” she said. “This continues to be a central issue in Brazilian society and this event will lead us to pay much more attention to how black women are depicted and commodified in Brazilian culture.”
Ms. Araujo and many Brazilians said the mere presence of women dressed in the traditional baiana outfit of white blouse, skirt, headwrap and beads should not be construed as racist.
The character of the baiana, which translates as a woman from the state of Bahia, has become a symbol of the state and of black Brazil, said one person who reposted the photo and commented on it. For many of the women who wear the garb, it is an important part of their identity.
It is also a way to earn a living for many: Women in the starched white outfit are often hired to meet tourists disembarking from cruises in Bahia and can be seen selling traditional street food.
But the figure, cast uncritically, can evoke a racist past. Ms. Araujo said that the photo in which Ms. Meirelles is sitting, surrounded by baianas, was insensitive — or at least tone deaf.
Among those who expressed anger over the photos was the renowned singer Elza Soares, who is black. In a furious statement on Instagram, she wrote about “wounds that have not healed.”
“Black flesh used to be the cheapest on the market but not anymore,” she added. “We’ll yell that out to anyone who hasn’t understood it yet. Slavery is not a joke.”
At least six of the baianas who attended the party this week went to the police in the state capital, Salvador, to report that they had received threats online for their participation, according to the Folha newspaper.
One of the women in the photos, Rita Ventura dos Santos, told the newspaper that she and her colleagues did not consider themselves to have been pawns.
“Whoever wants to criticize the party is at liberty to do so,” she told Folha. “But I am no child to have been put myself in a degrading situation.”
Ms. Meirelles signaled that the uproar had taken an emotional toll. On Thursday night, she posted a photo montage on Instagram featuring two women sitting on a massive Prozac pill.
“Good night,” she wrote.
It’s far from the first time the fashion industry has been found itself embroiled in controversy for insensitive or outright racist depictions. In the past few months, both Gucci and Prada pulled merchandise over accusations that the items reflected racist tropes.
This month, Gucci advertised an $890 black turtleneck sweater for women that could be pulled up to cover the lower half of the wearer’s face and included a mouth opening ringed by bright red lips, which critics say mimicked blackface imagery. After public outcry, the item was removed and Gucci apologized for any offense.
Late last year, Prada came under fire for depictions likened to blackface on key chains and dolls. Grace Coddington, the former creative director of Vogue in the United States, recently drew ire after she was photographed posing with a collection of ceramic “mammy” jars — a racist caricature of a black woman.