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WELL-10936 Raphael Albert, Miss Black & Beautiful
Miss Black & Beautiful Sybil McLean with fellow contestants, Raphael Albert, Hammersmith Palais, London, 1972 © RA Albert,Courtesy of Autograph, London and Welcome Collection

This exhibition explores evolving beauty ideals – and how we subvert them

The Cult of Beauty exhibition at the Wellcome Collection takes an in-depth look at the beauty industry and our ever-changing understanding of what it means to be beautiful

What does it mean to be beautiful? Throughout history, this difficult question has been constantly challenged. Across different cultures and times, ideas of beauty have differed and today with the prominence of social media in our culture the cycles of beauty trends have never been so fast. Opening this week at the Wellcome Collection in London, The Cult of Beauty is the ultimate investigation into this idea. Curated by Janice Li, the show investigates how morality, status, health, age, race and gender have profoundly shaped our evolving notions of beauty throughout history.

Spilt into three clear categories, ‘The Ideals of Beauty’, ‘The Industry of Beauty’ and ‘Subverting Beauty’, the exhibition invites attendees to question preconceived ideas about beauty and engage in a collection of work questioning our understanding of what is considered beautiful. With over 200 pieces, artworks and installations the show calls upon contemporary artists like Juno Calypso, J.D. Okhai Ojeikere and Angélica Dass, among others, as well as intriguing new commissions by artists like Narcissister, Xcessive Aesthetics and more.

The first section, ‘The Ideals of Beauty’ goes back in time to examine how the desire for unattainable ideas of beauty has existed through different times and cultures. A range of historical objects and figurines including corsets from the 18th century and old Egyptian mirrors from 800-100 BC help draw a parallel between the state of beauty today and centuries prior. A group display, entitled ‘Racialised Beauty’, highlights artefacts from the 17th century to more contemporary pop culture moments such as the release of Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty and gives a timeline of stories of disruption over the years. This section also features contributions from renowned hairstylist Cyndia Harvey, whose film Hair of Mine (2017) will be screened. 

As a key contributor to the curation of the show, writer and academic Emma Dabiri’s latest essay Disobedient Bodies is an accompanying text to the exhibition. “I think there’s a blurring of the lines between female empowerment and autonomy and just reproducing patriarchal norms under the illusion of choice. The choices on offer are not necessarily liberatory if they’re happening within a paradigm that is unhealthy,” she explained to Dazed earlier this month, while discussing the romanticisation of cosmetic procedures.

Elsewhere, ‘Subverting Beauty’ explores the role of beauty in modern society and its potential to disrupt social constructs. Through experiential installations, films, and sculptural works, it raises questions about our perceptions of beauty.

A film installation entitled Permissible Beauty (2022), created in collaboration with talented Black artists and creatives, such as singer-songwriter and art historian David McAlmont, photographer Robert Taylor and filmmaker Mark Thomas will make its museum debut. Confronting the historical absence of Black queer representation, the project delves into the complex dynamics of societal beauty standards. Through compelling portraits of six Black queer individuals, it unveils a fresh narrative in the realm of British beauty, shedding light on the differing perceptions of what is deemed permissible and valuable in today’s society. 

The final section on ‘The Industry of Beauty’ delves into the complex relationship between medicine and cosmetics, presenting works by artists like Juno Calypso and Makeupbrutalism. Beauty as currency is explored through beauty pageants and cosmetic surgery, as seen in Sarabande resident Artist Shirin Fathi’s project, ‘The Disobedient Nose.’

The exhibition will run until April 28 2024 and is free for all to attend.