The Lipstick Portraits Debut – Artist & Celebrities Take on Modern Day Slavery

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New York Exhibit Supports the Somaly Mam Foundation – Runs May 8-23

From The Lipstick Portraits - Helen Rockefeller Armide as Snow White

I've used red lipstick as a wonderful decoration to accessorize and everyone says, 'I love it' and 'it makes me feel good...But for these kids in Cambodia who are sex slaves, it's the complete opposite.

The Somaly Mam Foundation has been named the beneficiary of Michael Angelo’s The Lipstick Portraits, a series of striking and provocative portraits that stand in solidarity with women and children enslaved by the sex trade. Using red lipstick as a unifying motif, the portraits capture the strong and independent spirits of sixty inspiring women and men who have marked themselves with red lipstick as a statement of solidarity, personal freedom, and condemnation of those who destroy countless lives with the shackles and brutality of sexual slavery.

Michael Angelo, a leader in the beauty industry as well as a visual artist, was inspired to create these portraits after reading Mariane Pearl’s article on Cambodian brothels in which she describes red lipstick as the mark of a girl’s enslavement. Angelo later traveled to Cambodia where he met Somaly Mam – a former sex slave turned anti-trafficking advocate – and visited the shelters that she established for the girls being rescued from the brothels.

Deeply troubled by the way that tools of beauty – which Angelo uses in his work to empower his clients and celebrate their individuality – were being used to sell and enslave girls as young as 4, Angelo was moved to fight back. “I’ve used red lipstick as a wonderful decoration to accessorize and everyone says, ‘I love it’ and ‘it makes me feel good...But for these kids in Cambodia who are sex slaves, it’s the complete opposite.” Somaly Mam has also commented on the incredible weight that make-up carries for the girls that she rescues, saying, “When they [survivors] first arrive they don't feel like children. If they were in a brothel they had to have a lot of make-up on. When you take all of the make-up off they smile. They become children again.”

Recruiting some of the most outspoken and extraordinary people that he knew, including Susan Sarandon, burlesque star Dita Von Teese, actor Alan Cumming, Cambodian Parliamentarian Mu Sochua, and Somaly Mam herself, Angelo created these portraits to call attention to the scourge of sexual slavery. In the series, the red lipstick is symbolically transformed from a tool of cruelty and slavery to one of solidarity and empowerment.

Many of the subjects found the experience sobering; the actor, singer, and breast cancer survivor Jennifer Rae Beck said “It’s important to remember that the luxuries we have in our country, be it the right to wear lipstick or the right to choose where we live or state our opinions, are all gifts not to be taken for granted.” Susan Sarandon also commented on the subject of freedom, which in its most fundamental sense – freedom from slavery – is at the very heart of The Lipstick Portraits: “Finding little things that make you feel individual, reinforcing your taste and how you want to be seen is empowering. When you exercise those choices you exercise tremendous freedom.”

100% of the proceeds from the sale of The Lipstick Portraits prints, exhibition catalogues, and t-shirts will benefit the Somaly Mam Foundation, an organization founded by Somaly Mam that funds survivor rescue and recovery efforts in addition to operating advocacy, awareness and survivor empowerment programs.

The Lipstick Portraits will be on view May 8-23 at 401 Projects, at 401 West St. in New York. Visit The Lipstick Portraits on Facebook to learn more, see photos, and join the discussion.

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Chris Wright
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