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Color Me Black, Artist Francoise Duresse Explores Racial Implications


The best art is provocative in that it engages you to think outside your comfort zone and to consider new truths.  That’s certainly the case with the work of Francoise Duresse, who makes you think about race and personal identity in semi-autobiographical series that explore the implications of skin color for herself as a dark-toned black woman in a world of lighter shades.  I wrote this story a few years ago when an exhibition of her work ran at the Loves Jazz & Arts Center in Omaha.

 

 

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Paper bag test case study #4 and #1, ©Francoise Duresse

 

 

Color Me Black, Artist Francoise Duresse Explores Racial Implications

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

As any person of color will tell you, the politics of race brands racial minorities with stereotypes that serve to isolate, diminish and exclude them.

In America perceptions of what it means to be black or to be a particular shade of black, for instance, carry the baggage of history and popular culture. Distortions abound. Media portrayals reinforce certain stereotypes.

Artist and University of Colorado art instructor Francoise Duresse, a native Haitian who’s lived and worked all over the world, has navigated societies that use skin color as a basis for stratifying, classifying people in caste systems. Her experience of “differentness” and her search for “personal identity” as a stranger in strange lands is something she often explores in her art. She looks at how “colorism” has and still does act as a litmus test for inclusion-exclusion, acceptance-denial.

That’s the case with her mixed media works on view now through July 24 at Loves Jazz & Arts Center. “Feeling separate” amid a majority population that doesn’t look like you is a powerful vantage point for any artist. Selections on display from two Duresse series, Queen Nappy, the Place from which I Come and The Paper Bag Test, examine the issue of black identity and image within the context of society, media, peers, heritage and ethnicity.

As her work illustrates, what’s bound up in one’s blackness is a complex question. Implicit in her pieces is an acknowledgement that certain assumptions made about blacks and certain attributes ascribed to them are not just race specific but hue specific. Her proposition is that Eurocentric, whiteness models make light skin more acceptable than dark skin across the racial spectrum.

These perceptions cut both ways, affecting not only how others see blacks but how blacks see themselves. Anecdotally, it’s well-known light-skinned people of color traditionally fare better than their dark-skinned counterparts when it comes to jobs, promotions, grades, appointments, memberships, invitations, customer service, et cetera. Duresse takes into account the burden of such realities.

Her Paper Bag Test refers to a once prevalent and still “hush-hush” practice of allowing or denying entry to public places based on skin color. Persons lighter than a grocer’s brown paper bag, she notes, “pass,” while darker hued individuals “fail.”  Her point is vestiges of this color coding extend to all kinds of situations or settings and remain fixed in people’s minds. It informs societal, cultural, institutional racism.

An image of herself as a child and another as an adult literally adorn a string of paper bags, the portraits colored from lily white to jet black and all the gradations in between. Each time her face darkens it grows less distinct, a reference to how people of color are perceived and can become invisible before our eyes. The final adult portrait is abstracted beyond human recognition, into what appears a heavy garment — perhaps a comment on the weight of perception one‘s subjected to.

Several Duresse works use motifs to comment on the minimalization, fragmentation and objectification that attend moving through life as a person of color. For example, she variously underlays and overlays a silhouette of her adult self or a painted image of her “audacious surrogate,” Queen Nappy, with minstrel, blaxploitation images culled from advertisements. In a series of these paintings her alter ego is ever more distorted and diminished by these intruding forces of myth and propaganda, until finally her portrait is utterly obscured. It’s a powerful rumination on the danger of losing one’s sense of self amid all the misinformation.

In other pieces she repeats a Polaroid of herself as a little girl, the skin tone varying from nearly white to pitch black, with every variation in between. These images are juxtaposed with a large foreground portrait of sober womanhood. The contrast of youth’s innocence and idealism with the hard bitten lessons of adult life offers an indictment of the colorized socialization process.

Some works echo each other. One presents a sea of diverse yet distinctly African-American faces. Another pictures the same faces, only now commingled, perhaps diffused through enculturation. In another, a collage of these faces surround and underlay the portrait of an adult female — a comment perhaps on how a woman of color is an assemblage of many fragments, strains, features, hues. A stunning work entitled Blue Eyes pictures the artist as a fully bloomed woman — her face comprised of different hued images of herself as a girl, an evocation of how she embodies a lifetime of perceptions, influences, experiences.

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