Miss Africa Great Britain is a beauty pageant that takes place every year in a grand venue in east London. Founded in 2011, its mission is to “give young African girls born or living in the UK a platform to showcase not only their beauty but their culture, talent, and creativity.”
The pageant is typical in that there’s an evening-wear round, where the beauty queens parade down a catwalk in a beautiful dress and a crown; a cultural-wear round, where the queens model traditional dress from their native African countries; a talent round; and an interview round. The winner goes on to become a goodwill ambassador for Miss Africa GB, a role which revolves around implementing a charity program in their native country. Of 26 contestants from 14 African countries, last year’s crown went to Larissa Tcheukam from Cameroon, a student and health practitioner whose mission is to support the education of underprivileged children, which was the basis for her charity mission to Cameroon in March this year.
South African photographer Alice Mann, who moved to London in 2014, attended the 2017 pageant to shoot portraits of the contestants. Having grown up in Cape Town, Alice is deeply interested in the African diaspora and themes of race, identity and community run through her work. Earlier this year, Refinery29 featured her previous series Always Wear Your Best On A Sunday — a portrait of the community at Walworth Methodist Church in south London. This new series on Miss Africa GB addresses similar themes, while subsequently reframing beauty pageants and Miss World-type competitions as meaningful celebrations of women that can have multiple positive impacts.
Here, Alice talks us through the series, and what she’s working on next.
How did you find out about Miss Africa GB?
Alice: I found out about the pageant two years ago and it piqued my interest because of the scenes I’m examining and the images of empowerment, looking at African communities in the UK. When I initially tried to get hold of the pageant organizers two years ago, it didn’t work out, but last year I got an email from them to say auditions were starting, and that I could go along. I organized shoot portraits of most of the contestants. Miss Africa GB works with girls who have African heritage [entry requires at least one parent from an African country] and links to different African countries, and they work with girls in getting ready for the pageant, too, increasing their confidence and creating a positive image around their cultural identity. It was a positive story, and I liked that. All the girls chose their own clothes for the portraits and I worked with a makeup artist who has an amazing sense of color so it was a nice collaboration between lots of women, which was fun. In simple terms, I was looking at this positive sense of community, and I wanted to create images that people felt proud of.
What happens in Miss Africa? What’s the format — is it like Miss World?
Alice: I know that beauty pageants are seen as quite outdated and as these archaic standards of beauty that women have to conform to, but what I liked about Miss Africa GB was that it’s a self-defining idea of beauty, focusing on the individual rather than making people conform. Miss Africa GB is linked up with charities in Africa and the winner does charity work for the subsequent year in her native country, so it creates positive links between London and Africa.
Are the contestants judged on how they look or what they’re wearing or what they’re saying?
Alice: It’s a combination of things; they have several rounds, including a cultural-wear round. A number of them chose to wear their cultural outfits for the portraits, which I really liked. A lot of the contestants are second generation, born in the UK, so it’s that mix — it’s not necessarily African people or British people. The fact that they can be both is what I wanted to look at.
How old are they?
Alice: The age range was 18 to late 20s. And a lot of them were from outside of London — the pageant goes quite a bit wider than I first assumed.
How did they feel about you photographing them?
Alice: A number of the girls are models, or online personalities, and I created a portfolio for each girl I photographed and sent it back to them, which I hoped they might use somehow. The goal was to create images that they wanted.
Do you know how they hear about the pageant?
Alice: I think it’s quite mixed. A number of them were part of modeling agencies and found out about it through that.
Any other projects we should look out for?
Alice: I recently got published, which was quite cool; it was a series I worked on in Cape Town on drum majorettes. In an area that’s very badly affected by gang violence, there are these girls at a primary school who participate in a sport called "drummies," which is taken very seriously as a sport in South Africa. I know in a lot of places it’s viewed as quite obscure, but these young girls train for hours and hours during the week and over their weekends; they take it so seriously, and through it they have become very empowered. It was incredible to work with them, and they look amazing. They put on these uniforms of sequins and feathers and they just embody this confidence and power through being part of this team.
You’ve written about the fact that you are a white South African photographer who often photographs black subjects — and about wanting to dismantle white privilege. How aware of your skin color are you when you're working on a project like this?
Alice: Being a white photographer is something I’m very aware of. I have to be aware of my privilege when I’m working with people — white or black. Having a sense and an understanding of the position that I’m coming with as a photographer is important. My awareness of my own position makes me more critically consider how I’m engaging with people. You can’t just "lightly engage" on certain topics — you have to look deeper and that’s the way I tend to approach the subjects I’m working with. I am personally very interested in how migrant communities create a positive sense of community in a new place, and I wonder how I, as a photographer, can work to produce positive imagery, to counter the often negative imagery we see in the media of people who are seen as outsiders or "other."
This story was originally published on Refinery29 UK.