Downtown Divas: Exploitation or Art?

There are easier things to do to get exposure as an artist than to go looking for heroin-addicted prostitutes underneath a bridge, but that’s all some people are saying Gigi Ben Artzi and Loral Amir were after when they released their video and photographic project called Downtown Divas. The project consists of Russian, drug-addicted prostitutes decked out in designer clothes. People have claimed that they have just used these women, but if it were not for this project none of us would have spent a second of our lives thinking about them.

We can all agree that what they do in the video and photographs is, most likely, far from the worst thing these women have ever been made to do. The video is sad but they all seem very relaxed in it and it feels like people just chatting to women who are taking a break from work. When you watch the video it feels more like a rare moment where they are not being exploited. They are just allowed to talk about their lives and relax for a minute.

The artists themselves say it was to show the lives of these women outside of the drugs and abuse but also to show how “heroin chic” has been part of fashion culture for a while now. Amir says models are often seen in photos looking like drug addicts with dark circles underneath their eyes, glazed expressions and as skinny as skinny can be, but when you put actually drug addicts in designer clothing “the contrast is astounding.”

He also says he wanted to “show a different side of the women and ignore that ‘drug addict’ tag that they carry around.” So they took them to a studio and dressed them up in clothes from labels like Louis Vuitton and Alexander Wang, photographed them and interviewed them about different things like where they’d like to live in the world and what they dream about.

The women talk about different things and drugs are hardly mentioned. The only woman in the video who speaks English says she once had a recurring dream where she ran through a cemetery looking for her father’s grave but could never find it. She asked a religious man what to do and he told her to “light candles” showing the kind of dismissive attitude people usually have towards them.

It’s important to understand that these women did not just fall into this kind of life through poverty. Ben Artzi explains: “One of the girls was actually a cop who was working for the drug enforcement administration. At some point she was tempted to try crack and now she’s hooked on it.”

He adds that of the men who use them: “Some are respectful journalists, business men, lawyers, politicians. All are very powerful men who choose to take advantage of their power and use these women.”

All that is said about the town is that it’s in Russia as the artists promised the women they wouldn’t say the name of it; this shows the threats and intimidation they must be under to keep their “customers” a secret.

You can pretend everything’s fine in the world, dress up in designer clothes and go out to a nightclub but the fact remains that all across the globe there’s women underneath bridges selling sex to keep themselves alive. That’s horrible, so are the photos, but that doesn’t make the things these women do every day any less real.

You mightn’t like it but ignoring it won’t make it any better and to do something about anything we first have to know about it, so fair play to someone for showing us.

Colm Quinn

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