Transcending an aesthetics of coloniality: reimagining relationships with colour as a decolonial praxis

by Ceara Ione Webster

Autoethnographic reflective note: Before I get into this paper, hi hello wagwan? This is not necessarily a ‘good’ paper, but is one I loved writing because it demanded a lot of reflection from me. I have tried to add in more definitions for context and rephrase certain elements to make it easier to read. That said, it might be hard to understand unless you live inside my head. I hope it is, at the very least, just interesting to read. Enjoy the chaos, art, and decolonial effort below!

A beginning 

Descend with the painter into the dim tangled roots of things, and rise again from them in colours, be steeped in the light of them. 

(Gasquet, reporting remarks made by Cézanne in Batchelor, 2000: 34) 

In The Luminous and the Grey (Batchelor, 2014), Batchelor notes that some artistic approaches position colour as a secondary feature, an addition or supplementary factor added to a work of art. Others regard it as primary, where the world (the world Batchelor refers to is in The Wizard of Oz) is colour and, over time, is rendered progressively more grey, devoid of luminosity. The focus of this exploration could be said to be primary as it centres colours. To achieve a reimagined relationship with colour, we must first descend (or retreat inwards to reflect by looking within and beyond the self) together through lightness above ground and through the darker shades of brown and grey into the soil together – i.e. observe and unpack the current structures of coloniality in which we exist. Then we pick apart the delusional hegemony of colonial aesthetics. Only then can we arise into, or exist within (to avoid hierarchical language), an alternative worldview that celebrates colour. 

This paper proceeds by outlining exactly what colour is and then locating colour within the processes of coloniality which rest upon and perpetuate “chromophobia” (Batchelor, 2000). To trace this chromophobia we examine how it manifests in art, as a part of the appropriation and force of an “aesthetics of coloniality” (Calvo-Quirós, 2013), and in the body. We then explore how this chromophobia is manifest not just in the European coloniser of the ‘past’, but in the phenomena of racism and colourism today – both between and within racial groups as internalised instances of racism and colourism (Fanon, 1952[2021]; Selvon, 1956[2006]; Okazawa-Rey, 1987; Phoenix, 2014; Nagar, 2018; Campion, 2019; Yadon & Ostfeld, 2020). This journey into the roots of colourism and racism as manifestations of chromophobia is necessary so that we (you, the reader, and I, the author) can sit with these realities. This setting, only once established, will enable the creation of art that attempts to reimagine relationships with colour that simultaneously thinks beyond, and remains cognizant of, the realities of racism and colourism that coloniality has embedded in art and inside the body. This paper is a praxis, combining colour theory with the decolonial practice of destroying and rebuilding relationships, in this case, with colour, their aesthetics, their force, and the beauty of their diversity. 

What is colour?

Colour “is a variation in the spectral power distribution of light as discriminated by the human visual system. It is a qualitative perception of light” (Hanson, 2017: 5, emphasis added). Biologically, as humans age, the lens of the eye yellows causing blues to dull; spatially, simultaneous contrast can cause colours to be influenced by one another (Hanson, 2017). Simple colour tests have generated a broad response range from the same observer at different times and between different observers, and people can perceive colour slightly differently depending on if they are observing it with their left or right eye (Hanson, 2017: 3). In terms of chemistry and physics, the presence of “various phosphors in fluorescent lighting means that the colour of their illumination changes imperceptibly cyclically 100 times a second” (Hanson, 2017: 3). So, while this does not necessarily change the perception of the colour, it illuminates that colour is never in a form of stasis, it is always moving. Blue-green visible light (to humans), for instance, has a wavelength of light that is 530 millionths of a millimetre (nm) and has a frequency of 566 million million oscillations per second (Hanson, 2017: 5) and what we perceive to be white light is actually a “mixture of different wavelengths” (Hanson, 2017: 5). For this paper it is enough to end here and state that humans are limited and can only see a certain proportion of wavelengths that we translate into colours. Our perception is influenced by colours’ proximity to one another, lighting conditions, having typically functioning cones and rods, and a myriad of other factors. Colour is, subsequently, qualitatively perceived and variable, limited by physics, biology, and also by culture.

Coloniality and its aesthetics

Building on that final point, we can observe how culture has influenced the perception of colour stemming from and beyond the inception of European colonialism. Particularly, through an “aesthetics of coloniality” (Calvo-Quirós, 2013) which results from, and contributes to the proliferation of, chromophobia. Coloniality is the continued “patterns of power” that were birthed from colonialism, maintained in “books, in the criteria for academic performance, in cultural patterns, in common sense, in the self-image of peoples, in aspirations of self, and so many other aspects of our modern experience. In a way, as modern subjects we breathe coloniality all the time and every day” (Maldonado-Torres, 2007: 243). 

Coloniality includes an aesthetics of coloniality (Calvo-Quirós, 2013). The aesthetics of coloniality, as defined by Calvo-Quirós, is comprised of “ processes by which the West utilizes aesthetic theory to validate ethnic and racial oppression and segregation through discourses around taste, art methodology, and the deployment of color” (Calvo-Quirós, 2013: 76). It emerged when European imperialism intersected with Enlightenment thinking to generate a “unified project of aesthetic conquering” that asserted an “aesthetic ethos about the Other” to maintain the “epistemic perpetuity of European…dominance” (Calvo-Quirós, 2013: 81). Maintaining an aesthetics of coloniality was done through the registering of mixed people in “‘el libro de color quebrado’”, the book of people of broken colour (Carrera in Calvo-Quirós, 2013: 83). This aesthetic segregation inscribed colour as an identifier that visually solidified inequities to avoid aesthetic miscegenation (Calvo-Quirós, 2013). This does not just apply to the physical segregation that was based on colour, but that “possessing or conquering the Other means also to control their aesthetics and…acquire their color palette” (Cavlo-Quirós, 2013: 90). In essence, appropriating that which has been subjugated.

Indeed, we began with Cézanne and, while this paper uses his words to fuel a decolonial work, we must not be naive to the influence of such artists within the colonial enterprise. Cézanne also exhibited this appropriation of art from tribal cultures, which came to be reframed as “cubism, surrealism, symbolism” (Anzaldúa, 1987: 68). For Calvo-Quirós this exemplifies an attempt to utilise aesthetic theory to legitimise ethnic and racial segregation (Calvo-Quirós, 2013: 91, 112).  This paper therefore looks at some European theorising on colour that reinforced particular relationships to particular kinds of colours. Of particular note for this paper is the subsequent emergence of chromophobia from assumptions and disseminated associations about colours. These are explored below in the next section.

Colour as a force: chromophobia in art and society

According to Batchelor, “colour has been the object of extreme prejudice in Western culture” being “systematically marginalized, reviled, diminished and degraded” (Batchelor, 2000: 22). Like other prejudices “its loathing, masks a fear: a fear of contamination and corruption by something that is unknown or appears unknowable”; as such it plays on an anxiety of corruption through colour (Batchelor, 2000: 22). This anxiety of corruption through colour is called chromophobia. Colour becomes a reminder of the uncertainty of life and the ‘impurity’ of us all. There is no better nor worse colour, shade, hue, saturation, luminance of human skin when born. Yet it matters because colour still intervenes in the colonial project of purification. Colour threatens purity and because of that it is rendered dangerous to the “higher values of Western culture”; colour becomes the corruption of culture (Batchelor, 2000: 23) and it’s constructed danger fuels, and draws from, the fear that births it.

Colour is a “permanent internal threat” (Batchelor, 2000: 23) so what is there left to do but segregate that which threatens not just other bodies through its subversive existence, but that threatens the very fabric of High culture? This was the view of prominent artists and architects, with Charles-Edouard Jeanneret stating colour was “‘suited to the simple races, peasants and savages’” (Batchelor, 2000: 41). When colour was used in Western art, the goal was to “conform, subordinate, control” the colours that the colourist deployed (Batchelor, 2000: 28). Colour, then, is rendered an aesthetic slave to the colourist master. 

This is not just observable in the art and art theory of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but in the twenty-first century body that fuels persistent colourism. Stereotypes associated with light-skin – being “more feminine, refined, or delicate” or overly feminising men (Hunter, 2005: 119) – bring great intra-group conflicts between light and dark-skinned Black peoples, and Black and Black-mixed friend groups (Hunter, 2005; Campion, 2019) and intra-familial colourism, where dark-skinned girls are shamed by their lighter-skinned family members (Comas-Díaz, 1994[2010]). 

Intra-group conflicts show colourism transcends a binary of white-black conflict and can be internalised within non-white individuals. Studies have confirmed the presence of colourism from India to the US, Britain, and Latin America in areas as wide ranging as arranged marriage skin colour preferences, determining political attitudes, media censorship of the darker-skinned, and personal internalised beliefs about beauty (Nagar, 2018; Lawrence, 1977; Okazawa-Rey, 1987; Phoenix, 2014). In the latter case, such internalised colourism becomes increasingly painful to deal with because it becomes “psychically difficult to live ‘within a ruling episteme that privileges that which they [the dark-skinned woman] can never be’” (Cheng, 2001: 7 in Phoenix, 2014: 98), according to globalised beauty standards that uphold racialised beliefs about beauty. 

On the body, this can involve cosmetic surgeries that change “‘ethnic features” (like wide-set noses, thick lips, and single eyelids) to make them more “European or Anglo” (Hunter, 2005: 14). Since 2005, we have seen an inverse of the trend of thinning one’s lips to filling them and the glorification of tanned skin. This appropriates select exoticised features of the Other. This is because “beauty is an ideology” whose “standards serve the interests of dominant social groups” (Hunter, 2005: 5, emphasis added). Here we continue to see an aesthetics of coloniality involving the disparaging of the Other’s undesirable features and an appropriation of the overtly exoticised ones. 

These standards of beauty are able to produce internalised self-hatred. In this way, life imitates art. The novel by Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners, captures this particular real impact of chromophobia. Selvon wrote the character Galahad, who arrived from the Caribbean in London during the Windrush Generation. After experiencing the hostility of racism, he looks at his hand says: 

“…‘Colour, is you that causing all this, you know. Why the hell you can’t be blue, or red or green, if you can’t be white? You know is you that cause a lot of misery in the world. Is not me, you know, is you! I ain’t do anything to infuriate the people and them, is you! Look at you, you so black and innocent, and this time so you causing misery all over the world!’” (Selvon, 1956[2006]: 77). 

To take some artistic license with the scientific definition of colour, this is what comes to represent the spectral power of colour in the theoretical sense. The loaded meanings that have become associated with various shades of skin and the way that colour moves people – to subjugate the Other, to aspire towards the beauty of the light-skinned person, to actively resist an aesthetics of coloniality – demonstrates just how powerful colour can be and is globally, both in art (as literature and beyond) and in skin. 

Decolonial praxis: reimagining colours in art and skin

So, how do we undo this chromophobia? The first step is to note our contribution to colonial structures like the aesthetics of coloniality that enable chromophobia. I am what is called a “mixed-race” or “multiracial” person (I have argued elsewhere these categories insufficiently account for the experiences of people with multiple heritages. Instead, I would refer to the ‘mixing’ body elaborated on in the paper: Webster, C. I., 2020. Off grid: the role of spatialising experiences on identity recognition in mixing bodies. Unpublished) and I am yellow/olive-brown, medium-light-skinned. Subsequently, I am involved in processes of colourist stereotypes. Confronting that reality is uncomfortable, which is why it is important to do. Only by being in discomfort and acknowledging it (being deep in Cézanne’s tangled roots) can one then move towards unpicking one’s own colonial indoctrination. I aim to pick at these strands through painting a celebration of the diversity of colours in skin. This will hopefully construct an alternative way of perceiving (feeling, emotionally and physically, and seeing) colour. This is not necessarily chromophilia, but it privileges colour’s diversity and power. Though abstract, it remains fundamentally informed by the empirical realities of chromophobia and its effects. 

This unpicking is decolonial, beginning with “epistemic de-linking: from acts of epistemic disobedience” (Mignolo, 2009: 15). I aim for my piece to epistemically disobey ingrained colonial aesthetics of colour use in art. This particular piece is just the removal of a couple of bricks in the architecture of coloniality on its own. However, it is also an interruption of the idea of the modern civilised subject and, in this interruption, it can perhaps reveal the “particular staging of modernity” (Bhambra, 2014: 116) and contribute to the larger “destruction of the coloniality of world power” (Quijano, 2007: 177). 

Figure 1. Black as Default: reimagining colour

This painting (Figure 1) is one in a series called Black as Default. The aim was to explode colour into a nexus with no obvious periphery or centre against an inverted backdrop. Before one begins painting itself, it is usual to prepare the canvas. This involves either covering the canvas with a coat of white paint or applying gesso which smooths the surface. This is encouraged because cotton or linen canvases come with natural texture and colour variance depending on the harvest (Upper Canada Stretchers, 2017). The canvas can be bleached to lighten the natural colours of the linen (tan-grey) and cotton, and application of gesso is still then encouraged to avoid having a rough surface that may soak up too much paint (Upper Canada Stretchers, 2017). This rush to whiten the canvas sat uncomfortably in me. Canvases already come in a default white and this need to purify it so it was worthy of the art it was to wear suggested that natural whiteness was unacceptable. The canvas, like the body, has demands made of it to fit a politics of beauty that leans towards the ‘light’. To subvert the white and primed backdrop (Figure 2) was to subvert an aesthetics of coloniality and politics of beauty, aiming to honour the origins of the brown-black of our ancestral skin that remains inside us all. 

Figure 2. Subverted backdrop. Appreciating the beauty of a darker, as opposed to the lighter, default

Originally, I wanted the piece to feature the spectrum of skin shades from dark-skinned to light-skinned similar to the PERLA Colour Palette (Figure 3). This colour palette has skin tones ranging from 1-11 (from lightest to darkest). From this I drew the inspiration to use the piece to question the absolutist dualism between the ‘black’ person and the ‘white’ person. Unfortunately, the PERLA system still hierarchicalises (numerically and vertically) skin tones. I wanted to illuminate more complexities of the skin which involved mixing outside of the umbers, blacks, and titanium whites, otherwise I risked perpetuating the traditional colour scales of Le Corbusier and Oznefan. 

Figure 3. The PERLA Colour Palette (PERLA, n.d.)

These are: the major, dynamic, and transitional scales (Batchelor, 2000: 48). The major scale contains ochres, reds, white, and black among others (the latter two, interestingly, not pluralised) which is said to constitute a “‘strong’ and ‘stable’” scale with “‘unity’” present across all “‘great periods’” (Batchelor, 2000: 48). By contrast the dynamic scale is “‘disturbing’” containing “‘agitated’” colours like vermillion, citron yellows, oranges (Batchelor, 2000: 48). The transitional are also subordinate to the major. Similarly, Goethe believed “savage nations, uneducated people, and children have a great predilection for vivid colours…animals are excited to rage by certain colours…people of refinement avoid vivid colours” (Goethe, 1840[2015]: 55). This selective (racist) amnesia forgets some of the most barbaric acts of rage and cruelty were committed by the ‘refined’ person, due to their own chromophobia. This constructed “rageless, fleshless, colourless whiteness” is an attempt where the “illusion of culture without corruption [through colour] can be acted out as if it were real” (Batchelor, 2000: 112). So, instead, I steep my work in colours of all ‘scales’ because varying colour is a political act that continuously corrupts the ideas of purity, leaning into the “ambiguous, uncertain, and unstable” (Batchelor, 2000: 100). 

The decolonial work reveals the colour of skin, while it may range from a darker place to a lighter one, is not a simple spectrum. Black mixed with various amounts of white does not produce a beautiful spectrum of skin colours. Our descriptions of skin colour are farcical. They deliberately misunderstand the beauty that is the complexity of skin colour. I wanted to recognise the composite parts, hence colour choices of raw umber, titanium white, mars black, permanent rose, yellow ochre, ultramarine, and cerulean blue. Skin tones are not just the blanket colour we call them: black, brown, white, they also contain undertones which can be pink, yellow, or neutral. These can display blue or blue-green veins or shield veins from view. The groupings of colour on the canvas (Figures 4 and 5) display the elements of skin colour, pulled apart and magnified. Colours slide into and over one another (ochre and white in Figure 4, raw umber and ultramarine in Figure 5) and also break apart upon the canvas texture (Figure 5). They are in contention and complement, mixing together, and maintaining their own character.

Figure 4. The intermixing and texture of colours

Figure 5. Painting color quebrado, the breaking apart of colour to reveal its composites

Compositionally, this paint exchange takes place on a circular canvas (Figure 1) to avoid inadvertently hierarchicalising any colours. Moreover, colours occupy no particular central or periphery space. They all cross boundaries that could constitute a ‘focus’ on one colour over another. The paints themselves are acrylics. These were used specifically to ensure that pigmented colours could be displayed luminously (vividly) over a dark background. Materially, acrylics are a form of polymer. They are malleable and dry quickly so once they are on, they are there, which demands decisiveness in their use. The plasticity of the paint was chosen to mirror the plasticity of skin, in that skin colour changes naturally over time through tanning and environmental adaptation. So, though this painting is static, the plastic qualities of its materials mean that, like skin, the colours continue to move over time depending on one’s perception of colour and the reconfigured relationship to colour and what affect it inspires. Texturally, the background was painted smooth so that the colours on top could be applied with a palette knife. This was so the palette knife could create peaks of colour (see the peaks of mars black in the lower left hand corner of Figure 4). A netting was applied over the wet paint and pressed into the paint to create texture for those who cannot see the colour of the painting, but could feel the textures instead (see appendix, Figures 7 and 8). This does not represent the real texture of skin, but alludes to it in celebration of a variety of colours and textures of skin: skin that is plastic, like acrylic, that stretches, darkens in the sun, and lightens in the winter when the sun sleeps. 

Ultimately, this work is decolonial because it seeks to upset the beliefs about colour formed due to the following of the basic equation for colour (in this case, red): 

 x is red iff for any observer p: if p were perceptually normal and were to encounter x in perceptually normal conditions, p would experience x as red” (Matravers, 2001[2011]: 188). 

This forms a belief that x is red “(which will, for example, persist when the experience has ceased). I need not be experiencing the redness of a ball to believe that it is red” (Matravers, 2001[2011]: 189). Recall Maldonado-Torres’ definition of coloniality. Coloniality, like belief, supersedes experience under colonialism. As beliefs underpin a grammar for understanding colour, they also underpin a key part of coloniality about what colours of skin represent and the chromophobia born from these delusional beliefs about the (im)purity of colour. Art can be complicit in this belief generation and perpetuation in its service to, and manifestation of, coloniality. This work has attempted to refute such established beliefs. 

Reflections 

To finish this paper (but by no means its work), it is important to return to our beginnings. An aesthetics of coloniality involves using colour to subjugate the Other through the demonising of colour or appropriation of colour palettes. This occurs in art but also in the body, particularly in the generation of a politics of beauty that privileges the characteristics of the light-skinned European. Our biophysical perceptions of colour are determined by the oscillations and wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation and it can move us, affectually, to rage and to hatred which manifests as chromophobia. It moves people politically, from the segregation of the pure white and the color quebrado to internalised-self hatred and aspirations of white beauty. 

However, this paper has reimagined the corrupting force of colour by appropriating “corruption” from the colonial discourse and instead using it to celebrate the melding together, the union, and acceptance of colour as it is in the world in unexpected forms, ways, and waves. It is an attempted decolonial move toward an empowered ‘chromo-sovereignty’ (Calvo-Quirós, 2013) of the self and community in body and art. A resistance which recognises coloniality’s past and present, yet refuses it a place in our futures apart from the lessons it can teach us. Colour’s complexity is not a spectrum of grey or brown, but is luminosity, oscillation; bodies steeped in movement and force: dull to lustre and back again. Colour is Power. 

References 

Anzaldúa, G., 1987. Borderlands/La Frontera: the new Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books. Batchelor, D., 2000. Chromophobia. London: Reaktion Books Limited. 

Batchelor, D., 2014. The luminous and the grey. London: Reaktion Books Limited. 

Bhambra, G. K., 2014. Postcolonial and decolonial dialogues. Postcolonial Studies, 17(2), pp. 115-121. doi: https://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13688790.2014.966414. 

Calvo-Quirós, W., 2013. The politics of colour (re)significations: chromophobia, chromo-eugenics, the epistemologies of taste. Chicana/Latina Studies, 13(1), pp. 76-116. URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/43941382. 

Campion, K., 2019. “You think you’re Black?” Exploring Black mixed-race experiences of Black rejection. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 42(16), pp. 196-213. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/01419870.2019.1642503. 

Comas-Díaz, L., 1994[2010]. LatiNegra: mental health issues of African Latinas. Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, 5(3-4), pp.35-74. doi: https://doi.org/10.1300/J086v05n03_03. 

Fanon, F., 1952[2021]. Black skin, white masks. London: Penguin Books. 

von Goethe, J. W., 1840[2015]. Theory of colours. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Hanson, A. R., 2017. What is colour?. In: J. Best, ed. Colour design: theory and applications. Duxford: Elsevier Science & Technology, pp. 3-21. 

Hunter, M. L., 2005. Race, gender, and the politics of skin tone. London: Routledge. 

Maldonado-Torres, N., 2007. On the coloniality of being: contributions to the development of a concept. Cultural Studies, 21(2-3), pp. 240-270. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/09502380601162548. 

Matravers D., 2001[2011]. Art and emotion. Online: Oxford Scholarship Online. doi: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199243167.001.0001. 

Mignolo, W. D., 2009. Epistemic disobedience, independent thought and de-colonial freedom. Theory, Culture & Society, 26(7-8), pp. 1-23. doi: 10.1177/0263276409349275. 

Nagar, I., 2018. The unfair selection: a study on skin-color bias in arranged Indian marriages. SAGE Open, pp. 1-8. doi: 10.1177/2158244018773149. 

Okazawa-Rey, M., Robinson T. & Ward, J. V., 1987. Black women and the politics of skin color and hair. Women & Therapy, 6(1-2), pp. 89-102. 

PERLA, n.d. PERLA Color Palette. [Online] 

Available at: https://perla.princeton.edu/perla-color-palette/ 

[Accessed 01 May 2021]. 

Phoenix, A., 2014. Colourism and the politics of beauty. Feminist Review, (108), pp. 97-105. doi: 10.1057/fr.2014.18. 

Quijano, A., 2007. Coloniality and modernity/rationality. Cultural Studies, 21(2-3), pp. 168-178. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/09502380601164353. 

Selvon, S., 1956[2006]. The lonely Londoners. London: Penguin Books. 

Upper Canada Stretchers, 2017. Cotton vs. linen: which canvas is best & why. [Online] Available at: https://www.ucsart.com/learn/blog/cotton-vs-linen-which-canvas-is-best-why [Accessed 01 May 2021]. 

Yadon, N. & Ostfeld, M. C., 2020. Shades of privilege: the relationship between skin color and political attitudes among White Americans. Political Behaviour, 42, pp.1369-1392. doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-020-09635-0. 

Appendix – The Process 

Figure 6. Colour in process: mixing of titanium white and raw umber

Figure 7. The setup, featuring palette knife, canvas, water, netting, and acrylic paints. 

Figure 8. Texturing the skin colours of the canvas. 

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