'You are shocked, but you shouldn't be': Montreal exhibition celebrates female body hair, fantasy and beauty

Esther "Queen Esie" Calixte-Bea's journey from a shy girl, afraid that others would notice her body hair, to Glamour magazine cover girl, to feature artist in a solo show at a Montreal gallery, was completed this week.

Her "Creation of an Ethereal World" exhibition launched at La Centrale gallery in the Plateau borough and celebrates her body hair activism in splashes of vibrant colour and ethereal natural fantasy imagery.

"It's about entering a world where women can be themselves, women can be hairy, and obviously they're Black women like myself, so it's really about acceptance and healing," she said.

La Centrale programming and technical coordinator My-Van Dam said Calixte-Bea's work fit perfectly into the gallery's focus on promoting feminism and work from a unique point of view.

"Esther really responds not only to the BIPOC community, but also to be able to have a discourse that is feminist and is able to have more diversity and a different body type," said Dam, who was on the jury that chose Calixte-Bea's work.

The model and artist from Montreal's South Shore was one of the 10 cover girls on Glamour U.K.'s Self-Love issue in January where she was photographed in a blue jumpsuit cut to accentuate her chest and leg hair.

Calixte-Bea's family comes from the Wè tribe of the Ivory Coast's western forests. She learned through talking to her extended family that body hair activism would be far from out of place in her traditional territory.

"My aunt from Ivory Coast told me that in my tribe, women are very hairy and that the hairiness was seen as something beautiful in my great-grandmother's time," she said. "It was completely normal for women to be very hairy."

Inspired by this story, Calixte-Bea created a group of her own where women can embrace their bodies regardless of hair or other features deemed undesirable by mainstream ideas of feminine beauty.

"Beauty standards always change, and creating something from my imagination is always helpful," she said.

"It's not something that's talked about. It should be normalized, but it's sadly still not," said acrylic painter and photographer Stella Mazurek. "All bodies have hair on them, it's the reality of the body."

"That's what she really brings to your attention: that you are shocked, but you shouldn't be," said La Centrale administration and finance coordinator Mattia Zylak. "It's really cool that not only does she bring these things to your attention, but she does so in such a fantastical and colourful way that draws you in."

The show runs until Oct. 28.

Calixte-Bea hopes others, who may have struggled with the insecurities she did when younger, can see her work and find some comfort or inspiration.

"To get to see women that are hairy in positions of power, but also just living, is something that's really important in my work," she said. 

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