At a recent arts festival in Brooklyn, I came across a young performance artist who I approached after watching for several minutes.
My initial observation was of this: Human with hazelnut-colored skin, wearing white tank top and white pants, stands, moving only her upper body. I recognize her gestures, but cannot place how. She is moving head to the left and then right. Shrugging shoulders. And repeating.
Finally, I go up to her and read the sign beside her, describing the piece.
Black or White or by Reya Sehgal
Passersby are invited to beautify the artist’s face using skin color-based beauty products, creating a new kind of multicultural subject. Using Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” music video—an early ‘90s paean to multicultural love—as a framing device, this participatory piece explores themes of race and multiculturalism in the beauty industrial complex.
Beside the artist was a palate of colors squeezed out of skin foundation make-up. Her movements were copied from Jackson’s famous video and afterwards, she sat motionless, body covered by a white sheet, as passersby painted her face.
I told her I felt uncomfortable and I knew that was the intention.
I told her that I wished she had other colors like red or yellow (which have been used to describe skin tone and even race).
She responded that these are the only colors available for people to use as foundation. These are what are marketed as skin tone shades.
I slowly walked away, allowing more people to enter this space and get involved. I drifted my eyes back toward her throughout the day, watching people cover her skin.
After about an hour, I walked up to her once the crowd dissipated. She was covered in thick gasps of browns and beiges. I grabbed a make-up sponge and dipped it into the bowl of water beside all the colors. Then, I moved toward her face and began wiping the paint away. I wanted to remember what her face looked like before the cover-up. I didn’t think any of those colors made her any more beautiful. I noticed myself feeling anger at all the layers of cover-up on her. With each scrape, I returned sponge back into the water, heading back toward her face to remove more. No matter how much I tried swiping at the oily make-up, it wouldn’t come off. I realized she was succeeding in this performance. I was not only thinking of race: color, blending, what is added/what is taken away, but the anger of what is hidden, what feels like it needs to be hidden.
How beauty is marketed. How we are encouraged to cover up. To blend. To smooth.
I have never used foundation, nor do I currently wear any make-up. My skin is blotchy and freckled and scarred and dry. Those around me would title my skin: white, though I’m not sure what shade that would be called in the land of make-up.
There have been times in my life where I dumped mascara onto my lashes or attempted a layer of color on my eyelids. I never quite made it work. I certainly didn’t feel any more or less beautiful. I felt covered up. I definitely felt in drag.
Within the construct of beauty, a lot of pain exists. Pressure. To hide what we are often told to hide. To brighten what is told is too dark.
I wonder what would happen if we all sat with palates of colors beside us…..how would others paint us and would anyone try to erase away what exists.
Would anyone just leave a face….a body…..alone….