Beauty, rather than being in the eye of the beholder, has instead traditionally been the preserve of dominant groups, the standards set in accordance with ruling notions of morality, status, race, age, health and gender.
Now, this skewing of an organic concept goes under the lens at London’s Wellcome Collection’s major new exhibition, Cult of Beauty. Featuring over 200 objects and artworks, curated by Janice Li, it considers themes ‘The Ideals of Beauty,’ ‘The Industry of Beauty’, and ‘Subverting Beauty’ in a challenge of our accepted notions.
Artists including Juno Calypso, J.D. Okhai Ojeikere and Angélica Dass, display their work alongside new pieces from Narcissister, Xcessive Aesthetics, Renaissance Goo x Baum & Leahy, Makeupbrutalism (Eszter Magyar) and The Unseen, as well as the debut of new film, Permissible Beauty, in a cultural mish-mash.
Historical objects, such as corsets, are considered as part of the first section, ‘The Ideals of Beauty’, which are displayed alongside artist Cecilie Waagner Falkenstrøm’s commission An Algorithmic Gaze II, a work which considers the human body in a poetic morphing, as well as examples from Rihanna’s beauty brand Fenty, in an example of how the industry has been disrupted. The subject of hair is combed over by Cyndia Harvey in This Hair of Mine, and by J.D. Okhai Ojeikere, whose Hairstyles celebrate the uniqueness of Nigeria’s cultural traditions.
In ‘The Industry of Beauty’, Eszter Magyar asks why beauty has become synonymous with a capitalist currency in conceptual art project Makeupbrutalism, while Shirin Fathi considers the pressures Iranian women face to undergo cosmetic surgery in The Disobedient Nose. An immersive installation room, Beauty Sensorium, considers the role of the body in the context of Renaissance motifs.
Finally, ‘Subverting Beauty’ asks what beauty means today, and explores the potential it has for disturbance, considering both Xcessive Aesthetics’s look at nightclub bathrooms as micro-communities and Narcissister’s study into the negative impact of idealised beauty standards on mixed-race mother and daughter relationships. Film installation Permissible Beauty, created by artists including David McAlmont, Robert Taylor and Mark Thomas, redraws the parameters of British beauty with portraits of Black queer Britons.
The Cult of Beauty takes place 26 October 2023 to 28 April 2024 at Wellcome Collection, London
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Hannah Silver is the Art, Culture, Watches & Jewellery Editor of Wallpaper*. Since joining in 2019, she has overseen offbeat design trends and in-depth profiles, and written extensively across the worlds of culture and luxury. She enjoys meeting artists and designers, viewing exhibitions and conducting interviews on her frequent travels.
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