by Judith Williamson
This ad provides a fascinating illustration of the fact that images cannot be made to mean at will. The montaged photo of an African woman carrying a giant bracelet has been created with the intention of giving a positive meaning to the product, yet it functions in ways that are the very opposite of what the advertisers must have intended.
Adler is a Swiss jewellery company based in Geneva, with outposts in Gstaad, London, Hong Kong and Tokyo. This information is given in small print at the bottom of the ad: it suggests a global reach, an international brand. However, there is no Adler outpost in any African country – the market for luxury jewellery on that continent must be extremely limited. This is relevant, since it is hard to imagine the image here being used to advertise to an African audience: placed in Vogue, the ad uses Africa to evoke universality and timelessness to an audience for whom it is definitively ‘other’.
The image fills the entire space of the page, bleeding off the edges, which gives it the status of something bigger than the ad itself, whose lettering is simply superimposed, both above and below the figure of the woman. The meaning intended for the image is spelled out clearly by these captions, which, though apparently mere additions to it, in fact are its entire raison d’être. "Mémoires de Femmes. Mémoire du Monde": memories of women, memory of the world. These phrases are almost entirely empty of direct meaning, devoid of denotation: what women, what memories, what world? Are these women’s memories, or memories people have of women? Does the world itself have a memory? Yet the absence of specific signification is filled by a resonant set of connotations which echo very precisely between text and image.
The montage of photographic elements is specifically designed to illustrate the idea of a timeless, universal Woman and some kind of primal, timeless world. The small caption underneath the figure of the woman reads: "Masai Mara: Natural strength and elegance ready to conquer the horizon" and under that, as a parallel statement, "Adler, jewellers since 1886". Adler, this implies, shares in the Masai’s natural strength, elegance and readiness to conquer the horizon. The image consists of a backdrop showing the horizon, in what is presumably a photo taken in the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya: the skyline is placed low, and a single bare tree, and just a few faint low clouds, emphasise the sense of space and distance. The photo is sepia tinted, as if very old; the visual code reinforces the intended connotation of something ancient, beyond our own time. Superimposed on this backdrop is the image of a woman, presumably a Masai, shown back view walking towards the horizon. This figure has very dark skin and classical-style drapery for clothing, in an image itself so dark that its light source could not possibly be in the setting it is montaged onto. In this fictional setting the woman supposedly casts a shadow slightly in front of her, to the left – and yet her back is in total, deep shadow. Because of this, her bodily features are scarcely visible: she is lost in her own mysteriousness. Onto this figure, itself montaged onto the backdrop, a giant emerald bracelet is superimposed in yet another layer, arranged to look as if the woman is carrying it behind her with a rope slung over her left shoulder. The bracelet is in full colour and full light, and is foregrounded almost as if sticking out of the image. Jarring with its fictional carrier in her fictional setting, it stands out as an element familiar from countless glossy magazine ads showing brightly lit jewellery in close-up.
The final ingredient in this concoction is the lioness seen moving into view at the bottom right-hand corner: whether or not this is another montage, or part of the original photo, it plays a back-up role in the multi-layered but entirely one-track construction of meaning. The "Natural strength and elegance ready to conquer the horizon" of the bottom caption are represented initially by the woman, a connotation drawing on an ideological seam that stretches from the idea of the ‘noble savage’ to Leni Riefenstahl’s African portraits of the 1960s. In case the concept needs underlining, the lioness is there to reinforce it – woman and lioness are both portrayed as proud natural beings, with elegance and strength. But of course it is the bracelet that is the ultimate destination for these meanings.
Similarly, the connotations of something timeless and ancient in the upper caption – "Mémoires de Femmes. Mémoire du Monde" – are first of all embodied in the woman, whose stepping towards the horizon suggests the movement of ‘Lucy’, the nominal ancestor of humankind: the origins of our species are evoked. Again, these connotations are drawn through the layers of the image (Africa; woman; bracelet) onto the product. For what is the implied content of the memories of women, the memory of the world? Adornment. The message is that jewellery is ‘native’ to the human species, part of womanhood, part of our primal past.
All this is, it seems, the intended meaning of the ad. The connotations of African womanhood drawn on here are part of a very problematic ideology, as I have suggested; and yet the image itself poses a challenge to that ideology. For its most obvious meaning, which the various captions have failed to suppress, is that the bracelet is a giant burden. This bright symbol of Western wealth literally hangs on the back of the black woman, as if she must shoulder the weight of it, borne on a rope that looks crude and painful. Of course, the ad is not designed to be taken this way: its captions have attempted to ‘anchor’ (to use Barthes’ term) the visual elements to serve its own purpose. But this has backfired: everything the ad is trying to suggest positively, in its own terms (a universal, exotic, powerful ‘native’ woman, representing timeless adornment) is, quite literally, a drag on the figure who is its vehicle. In a way quite unintended by the advertisers, this image actually contains its own critique.