Emily Mulenga’s latest video ‘Orange Bikini’ uses the liminal space of online virtual realities to celebrate beauty, sexuality, and independence from her perspective as a woman of colour. Using an avatar version of the artist herself, Mulenga asserts her body into this animated, futuristic world, and on to our screens, reclaiming the power of the black female body, often ignored and objectified in our society.
‘Orange Bikini’ takes viewers on a sensory experience of an online metaverse (a collective virtual shared space) crafted by the artist, filled with imagery of drifting clouds and glittering starbursts. Navigating the pixilated landscape alone, the piece centers on Mulenga’s fantasy persona performing in different capacities – taking a selfie, singing, pole dancing, twerking, or riding a dolphin naked. Viewers enter the ethereal journey into indoor and outdoor spaces that transition through superimposed scenes with transparent overlays. The video’s dreamy quality is intensified by these transitions, for example, moving from an infinite field of flowers through an empty galactic space, into a layer of clouds, and then landing in an adolescent pink bedroom. A range of sounds and songs, including a high-pitched clip of Khia’s ‘My Neck, My Back’ as well as electronic funk, enable these transitions while facilitating the playfulness of the piece.
The artist’s past works have touched on the ideals of black beauty and the standards surrounding them, but her newest piece, Mulenga told me, is explicitly “based on ideas of self-care, self-preservation, and celebration of the self in the face of racist society.” Mulenga gives agency to her avatar’s individuality, sexuality, and ‘otherness’ by presenting various versions of herself wearing a variety outfits, and more noticeably changing hairstyles in every scene – from natural voluminous curls, to floor length aqua-blue locks. Hair is an emphasis in the artist’s work and the video begins with her character sitting in a salon with hair curlers in, immediately situating the piece in an exploration of identity. In a culture that privileges white experience, communities of colour have a complicated relationship to hair. The assimilation of the standards of white beauty is also accompanied by the constant coping with the ‘othering’ of natural hair – for example the problematic tendency of touching it without permission. Although ‘Orange Bikini’ does not focus on the politics of hair, the alternating hairstyles and customisability of her identity, rejects conventional norms and promotes empowerment through difference.
Mulenga’s unapologetic focus on sexuality responds to the fetishising of black female bodies. She highlights provocative activities that are stereotypically associated with bodies of colour, such as twerking and pole dancing, whose narratives are framed through a society and system based on patriarchy and white supremacy. The artist disrupts any preconceived dehumanising narratives by isolating each performance on screen and paying tribute to the black body with confidence and strength. For example, Mulenga’s character twerks in the middle of a boundless black background covered with sparkling stars while her body is duplicated and magnified. Later in the video, viewers find her avatar wearing a hooded onesie, lying in bed on her computer when all of a sudden it is sucked through a black vacuum. The scene is then superimposed with enlarged images of her lying down naked touching herself. Expanded notions of self-love are emphasised in these moments, which claim feminine aesthetics through a feminist lens, returning ownership to the representation of her body.
‘Orange Bikini’ visualises the psyche of a woman of colour, revealing her powerful and resilient spirit and subtlely acknowledging anxieties around beauty ideals. The video’s escapist nature and jovial tone adds to its true feminist perspective, which explores questions of identity absent of the male presence. With regard to this, Mulenga expressed that one of piece’s main points is “the pleasure experienced in her [avatar’s] own body in the absence of any kind of male gaze.” The artist thoughtfully provides an imaginative, yet critical position to this entangled narrative, honoring the nuances of identity and difference.