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The Cult of Beauty 

Wellcome Collection 

(26 October 2023 – 28 April 2024)


Review by Sana Nassari


Unlike the concept of beauty, the desire for it seems to remain constant throughout history. Curated by Janice Li with over 200 objects and artworks on display, The Cult of Beauty exhibition is divided into three sections which illustrate and challenge its relentless norms: The Ideals of Beauty, The Beauty Industry and Subverting Beauty. Visitors are treated to a wealth of art and artefacts, spanning epochs and cultures, which together offer a multifaceted exploration of humanity’s fascination with whatever constitutes beauty. Replicas of statues depicting Venus or the male adolescent ‘Idolino’ (little idol) invite viewers to contemplate the divine essence of beauty; a lithograph of Diane de Poitiers, whose consumption of ‘drinkable gold’ reportedly led to her demise, reveals the deadly consequences of the quest for eternal youth. What makes this exhibition so captivating is the diversity of objects, ranging from Neolithic eye shadow grinders to several millennia of horrific beauty tools, including fat rollers.

The exploration of beauty and its idealisations cannot be divorced from the topic of skin colour, especially as it concerns historical and contemporary methods of achieving lighter skin tones. Throughout history and into the period of European colonisation, various cultures have upheld white or lighter skin as a standard of beauty, often perpetuating harmful stereotypes and discriminatory practices. In this exhibition, writer and academic Emma Dabiri delves into historical documents and other evidence to challenge any notion that the prioritisation of fair skin is solely a colonial or post-colonial issue. By including an illustrated recipe for Chinese pearl powder lightener from 1591 – predating Western colonial notions of racial superiority – Dabiri demonstrates that this practice is more complex than often assumed. The Cult of Beauty explores the issue of skin colour through several artworks, including Humanae. Work in progress, an ongoing photographic project to register the individuality of skin colours across human populations by Angélica Dass, and the offering from the brand created by Rihanna, Fenty Beauty, of 59 shades of foundation.

Another striking exhibit is The Disobedient Nose (2022) by Shirin Fathi. Born and raised in Iran – the world’s leading country for nose jobs – she mingles art, her own body and investigations into medical drawings of facial modifications in her research process. In role-play photos of herself from this series, Fathi, who has resisted intense pressure in Iranian society to have a nose job, uses makeup and protheses to mimic the process of surgery. In one example, she poses as a male patient from a Renaissance medical illustration displaying the exposed flesh and tissue of their own nose, while impassively gazing at the viewer as if this were a very normal situation, paralleling the fact that having a nose job has been widely normalised. 

Among the fascinating objects, photographs, installations and sculptures, separated by delicate curtains, the last piece viewers come to is an eight-channel video installation by Xcessive Aesthetics, Mirror, mirror on the wall: beauty unravelled in the virtual scroll (2023). This installation recalls mirrors in a nightclub toilet, and is designed with a wall of continuously scrolling mirrored screens that do not allow viewers to memorise, digest, accept or deny the various beauty data that are rapidly shown, employing TikTok format videos, deepfakes, online texts and, inevitably, images of the viewers themselves being mirrored back in the screens. In a sense, echoing the speed and expansion of changes in the concept of beauty and its embodiments throughout the centuries and across cultures, the installation leaves the viewers with an overwhelming feeling that something must be wrong with the longing to achieve any fixed ideal of beauty. 

Human insecurity about the conflation of beauty with goodness, and of unsightliness with evil or immorality, has forced us to apply a range of sometimes horrifying beauty tools and methods to gain or retrieve beauty. A conflation reinforced by old religious beliefs or through more recent TV reality shows, it is not surprising that an industry that guarantees to change your physical appearance into the look of an angel has become fattened up to be worth over £500bn a year. The human cost of unnecessary, cosmetic surgery is on display in this exhibition, which clearly aims at overthrowing the cult of beauty and demonstrating the ugly side of beauty. Perhaps a note of remorse is present in The Cult of Beauty being housed at the Wellcome Collection. The museum of science and art is funded by the Wellcome Trust, founded with legacies from Henry Wellcome of the Boroughs, Wellcome & Co. pharmaceutical firm, famous in its time for a skin-whitening product called Hazeline Snow (also on display in the exhibition).