Pastel portrait by Roger Burnett

Thirty years ago I began a series of paintings and sculptures titled Daughters of the Caribbean Sun. The project is on-going and continues from my studio Antrim. By way of hundreds of paintings and scores of sculptures I pay homage to the natural beauty of the Afro-Caribbean woman.

I stress the word “natural” because increasingly Afro-Caribbean women are altering their appearance by bleaching their skin, straightening their hair and modifying their facial features to satisfy of foreign concept of beauty.

The modification of their God-given beauty was brought home to me recently when I searched social media for a young lady who had modelled for me some years ago. At that time she had all the hallmarks of true Afro-Caribbean beauty: ebony black skin, intricately plaited hair and facial features that would have put a Grecian Goddess to shame. I found her by name but I could not recognise her by appearance. In the photograph my once beautiful “Daughter Caribbean Sun” had, by one means or another, altered her natural features beyond recognition. Her skin is now the pallid colour of yellow clay, she has pink synthetic hair and, if I’m not mistaken, blue eyes!

But altering appearance is not a recent phenomenon, nor am I the first to bemoan this loss of identity. A hundred years ago Marcus Garvey implored West Indian women to: takes the kinks out of their minds, not out of their hair. He saw the colour black, natural hair styles and the hitherto disparaged “Negroid” features as constituting a new standard of beauty.

The main reasons women state for transforming their natural appearance are:

First, because Caribbean men find their new look more attractive.

Second, because the jobs they aspire to favour a European concept of beauty.

Third, because they are fed up with their natural appearance and want a change.

A deeper reason lies rooted in a history of slavery and colonialism. Historically lighter skinned West Indians were the product of black slaves and white slave owners. Their lighter skinned offspring become house slaves, whereas those with a darker skin remained field slaves. Even today, a lighter skin is still seen as a mark of privilege.

Afro-Caribbean women are not alone in their search for a lost identity; it is present in every walk of life. Many West Indians crave for a lifestyle that is not their own. An alien housing estate is deemed more desirable than the village environment and vehicles designed for freeways are favoured above those that could better cope with our roads and terrain.

Clothes follow the same pattern. What we wear is westernised in style and suited for keeping warm in temperate climates rather than keeping cool on a tropical island. Even our national dress harps back to slavery and the desire to mimic the finery of the plantocracy.

All of the foregoing is one more issue that begs the question, have we really thrown off the shackles of slavery and achieved true independence?

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