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Colour by numbers

by Alistair McGhie, 22 May 2019

Humanæ, 2012 (work in progress) by Angélica Dass
Humanæ, 2012 (work in progress) by Angélica Dass

You may remember the 1980s and 90s advertising campaigns of Italian fashion brand Benetton. Oliviero Toscani was the photographer and art director behind those print and billboard ads featuring models of different nationalities dressed in extreme pastel combinations, as if protagonists plucked from a children’s flip-flap book, beneath the tagline ‘tutti i colori del mondo’ (all the colours of the world).

In 1990 that tagline morphed into ‘United Colors of Benetton’ – a line so good it’s still their trademark slogan today – but Benetton abandoned the colour blocking and polychrome skin tones and their ads became none-too-subtle allusions to social and political issues. At the time, Toscani’s work – such as a line-up of three indistinguishable human hearts overprinted respectively with the words ‘black’, ‘white’, ‘yellow’ – was controversial. Today they read as one-dimensional; all bark and no bite; race a device to sell clothes.

More recently, Foreign Affairs, the American magazine of international relations and US foreign policy, ran the line ‘The trouble with race’ on the cover of its March/April 2015 issue. It accompanied a graphic adapted from the work of Brazilian photographer Angélica Dass, who, since 2012, has shot thousands of portraits, juxtaposing her subject’s head-and-shoulders with a solid colour background matched to the colour of their skin, registered at the tip of their nose. This is the Humanæ project. Each photograph is captioned with the corresponding Pantone colour number, Pantone being a standardised colour matching system used by graphic designers and printers. Humanæ is Dass’ response to intolerance related to ethnicity, religion, and colour; she intends that her work challenge ‘the myth of race’.

National Geographic published a single-topic issue in April 2018: the race issue. Editor Susan Golberg wrote a piece that began with an admission: ‘For decades, our coverage was racist. To rise above our past, we must acknowledge it.’ The issue included Humanæ and an interview with Dass in which the photographer explained, ‘Kids don’t describe themselves as black and white – we teach them black and white.’

Dass’ multicultural family was the inspiration for the project and were the first subjects to sit in front of her camera. In her popular 2016 TEDx talk Dass explains that her father’s skin colour has an intense dark chocolate tone, her grandfather was ‘somewhere between vanilla and strawberry yoghurt’, her mother was the ‘cinnamon-skinned daughter of a native Brazilian’, and her mother’s sister is ‘beige like a pancake’.

‘What I really want to show with my work – this colour family tree – is that there is no black, no white, no yellow.

I want to break this code using Pantone, the international colour code. I used Pantone because one colour is not more important than the others – they are just colours.’ And Dass assures us that no one who has posed for her project has matched with the alphanumeric Pantone code for black or white – black being the absence of all colour and light, and white being composed of all the colours of the spectrum.

A geneticist will tell us that we are not our paint jobs, and in the fifteen years since scientists completed the Human Genome Project the concept of race persists, but only as a fluid ideology – a social construct rather than a biological one, and certainly no longer the 18th-century plan which, among other monstrous consequences, divided humans into a social hierarchy.

When he was asked in 2000 (around the time his ad campaign featuring 27 death row inmates backfired, with Benetton subsequently firing him), ‘What can photography be or do in society?’, Toscani responded: ‘Photographs put you in front of a reality that most of the time you don’t want to see, don’t want to know about, don’t want to get involved with’. Less combatively, Dass sees photographs as tools for exploring and questioning, bridges between masks and identity, the social and the personal.

She has taken the project from Indonesia to Ecuador and a dozen countries in-between; into schools, galleries and out onto the streets. Humanæ was even on display at the World Economic Forum, Davos, Switzerland in 2017, framing the entrance to the congress centre where world leaders arrived each day. Dass acknowledges that her project, with its subtle intention to urge us to reconsider the binary categories of race, is potentially a journey without end. The 4000 plus (so far) portraits already demonstrate the infinite range of human skin colour.

Oliviero Toscani is back. He is once again working with Benetton as artistic director, and once again the scrum of models are clad in Benetton’s cloth kaleidoscope – except they’re not fashion models at all. They are 28 ethnically diverse Italian primary school children. Unsurprisingly for an Italian and a Brazilian, Toscani and Dass are both big football fans. And perhaps it’s interesting to note that during his Benetton sabbatical Toscani worked on campaigns for the Red Cross and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Yes, the work of these two photographers deploys the colour of a person’s skin in support of their message – but Oliviero is playing for Angélica’s team now.

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