Naomi Campbell, P Diddy, RuPaul and more weigh in
“As time changes, the story has to change,” reflected photographer Tim Walker today. He was addressing a room full of journalists who were gathered in New York City for the launch of the 2018 Pirelli calendar – a trippy, fantastical reimagining of Alice in Wonderland, with an incredible ensemble cast bringing the story to life. The major difference from all past adaptations of the tale? Everyone shot for the calendar was black. The hypnotisingly beautiful model Duckie Thot was chosen for the lead role, joined on her journey by famous faces including RuPaul (the Queen of Hearts, naturally) Naomi Campbell and Sean Diddy Combs (the Royal Beheaders), and Whoopi Goldberg (the Royal Duchess).
In costumes styled by British Vogue’s new editor-in-chief Edward Enninful, and with sets by Shona Heath, the resulting images take a beautiful trip down the rabbit hole. In one, Slick Woods (the Mad Hatter) puts on a tea party for Lupita N’yongo (the Dormouse), Sasha Lane (the Mad March Hare) and Duckie’s Alice, while models King Owusu, Alpha Dia and Wilson Oryema appear as playing cards, painting a rosebush that hangs from the ceiling. Not red, though, as in the original story – they’re busy painting it black. The white rabbit, too, gets a makeover.
The calendar was called a “celebration of black beauty” by Walker, who’s known for his elaborate and surreal photoshoots – where glass elevators may crash down in the middle of a field, or models take on characters from a deck of tarot cards. Recommended for the job by the late Franca Sozzani – who worked with Enninful on the all black models edition of Vogue Italia – the idea of a race-bent Alice in Wonderland was one he’d been playing with for a while. The opportunity presented itself, and the time was right.
“This has been a pretty iconic and phenomenal week,” Naomi Campbell, who has spent years campaigning for diversity in fashion, reflected. Are we currently in the midst of the most progressive time she’s experienced in the industry? “In the 31 years that I’ve been modelling, I have to say yes. There’s been other periods but with (the new) British Vogue (cover) at the beginning of the week and ending with Pirelli... yes definitely.” Her fellow Beheader P Diddy agreed that the time for this calendar was now, speaking about how the images captured both the future and the past of black culture. “We were born kings and queens. These images should have been shown to us a long time ago, but it’s beautiful you’re starting to see images like that of us... this is the future, black excellence.”
“We were born kings and queens. These images should have been shown to us a long time ago” – P Diddy
Djimon Hounsou, the Oscar-nominated actor who was chosen to play the King of Hearts, was also vocal about the importance of black people being represented in narratives as fantastical as Alice. He shared a moving story of his young son, who, having watched his fair share of superhero films, told him he wished he was white so he could climb walls like Spiderman. To Hounsou, the calendar is a strong step in the right direction, but he remained critical of the status quo. “You feel like you’re integrated for the first time in this wonderful fantasy... (but) we ought to be ashamed of ourselves. What world do we live in where black folks don’t exist in some of those stories?”
“Projects like this remarkable Pirelli Calendar demonstrate that there is still hope in what sometimes feels like an increasingly cynical reality,” Enninful commented in a statement, reflecting on the calendar’s status as a vehicle for cultural commentary. That was never more clear than with the 2016 edition, which made headlines after ditching nude models and instead calling upon Annie Leibovitz to shoot portraits of inspirational women including Tavi Gevinson, Serena Williams, Patti Smith and Yoko Ono. And although she deferred from calling it a watershed moment for female representation, the photographer did tip her hat to the tyre company for moving things forward. “I'm proud of Pirelli for taking that step. It shouldn't be such a big step, but it is a big step.”
So, too, is this latest calendar. “Another responsibility as a photographer (is that) you are very much in tune with what feels right for now instinctively. This feels (it’s) what should be happening, what (we) should be celebrating,” Walker said. And although his images immerse the viewer in a fantasy land, their social and cultural consequences are clearly not purely escapist – they make powerful a real-world statement. “Alice in Wonderland, kids, is about the line between fantasy, fairytale, and reality, (and how) that line doesn’t actually exist,” said RuPaul. “This is an important time… things are changing. When a butterfly transforms into its beautiful self from the caterpillar, that transformation is very violent, it’s very confusing. That’s what we’re witnessing now, in our planet. So this conversation, this transformation is a landmark. And this calendar really represents that.”