The AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT) has made some last-minute changes to its June 4 Fashion Cares gala, dubbed Bollywood Cowboy: East Meets Western, after taking some heat for its ad campaign.
The fundraiser has been promoted as a blend of spicy Indian films and dusty western flicks, but the cowboys-and-Indians theme has raised the ire of many in the city's ethnic community who feel ACT should have consulted them before "appropriating" their culture.
"The reaction I've been getting from everyone is complete shock," says Seema Opal, executive director of the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention (ASAP), one of two dozen ethno-cultural and community groups backing the Fashion Cares protest. Asian Community Services, Support Group for Queer Muslims, South Asian Legal Clinic, and the Chinese Canadian National Council are among the others.
At issue are posters, billboards and print ads showing fair-skinned models wrapped in traditional Indian textiles with henna designs on their skin. In one, a white model portrays the black goddess Kali with her four arms.
At the April 13 launch party for Fashion Cares, guests were stunned to see models portraying goddesses and go-go dancers painted in Krishna blue serving drinks.
Says Opal, "It was incredibly disturbing, because we had no opportunity to say, 'Stop!' This is incredibly bad to be perpetuating these types of stereotypes."
Toronto fashion designer Bina Duranni, a Pakistani Canadian, says she has re-evaluated her support for ACT since the campaign began. "I really wanted to go [to Fashion Cares], but I feel really left out," she says. "Bollywood is not a representation of the South Asian community. It's a commercial representation very far removed from reality."
Duranni says she sent an e-mail to ACT expressing her disappointment and anger but has not received a response. She says ACT should know better. "It's exploiting a whole culture."
Save for a formal statement issued last Thursday, May 26, ACT reps have offered little by way of explanation themselves. Executive director Lori Lucier did not respond to a request for an interview. The board member whom ACT's communications coordinator, Tyler Stiem, promised would speak to NOW on the issue also failed to make contact.
In its statement, ACT apologizes for not consulting with members of the South Asian community but stops short of issuing a formal apology to the offended communities or making the commitment to the anti-racism training for staff that the aggrieved parties are calling for.
"The Fashion Cares steering committee made a number of changes to the marketing materials and the show in response to the helpful input received [from] members of Toronto's South Asian communities," reads the statement. "ACT is also committed to developing a broader consultative process for the planning and development of similar fundraising activities in the future."
Opal says after meeting with representatives of the South Asian community, ACT agreed to remove some of the Fashion Cares imagery from its website and promised to make some changes to the content of the show.
"They have removed all references to gods and goddesses at the actual event," says Opal. "They've also taken out any references to cowboys and Indians fighting. They've removed turbans and such from various actors."
Opal and two directors on the ASAP board plan to attend Fashion Cares to see if ACT delivers on its pledge to tone down the stereotypes.
"We're going to be there to make sure they aren't objectifying South Asians." Opal says ASAP has received about $10,000 a year from ACT for the last seven or eight years.
This is not the first time ACT has courted controversy. In 2001, it launched a $400,000 safer sex campaign called Welcome To Condom Country that borrowed from the iconic Marlboro ads featuring handsome cowboys. Critics blasted ACT for modelling a campaign about making healthy choices after one that promoted smoking. (Both original Marlboro men, Wayne McLaren and David McLean, died of lung cancer.) The tobacco company that owns the Marlboro brand threatened legal action.