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Skin Deep Stories

London-based Tatiana de Stempel tells us how the politics of beauty and the politics of art are intrinsically bound together, inviting artists and viewers alike to constantly rediscover and redefine the beauty in art and the art of beauty

Afro Oria, Watercolour on watercolour paper, 420 mm x 297 mm, 2015.
Afro Oria, Watercolour on watercolour paper, 420 mm x 297 mm, 2015.

Excerpts from the interview

Excerpts from the interview So much of our understanding of beauty and the politics that surround it have got to do with one’s skin colour. I am curious to know how you bridged your own conditioning process – what we grew up with, what we have seen and heard and learnt – with the liberating landscape of art. What surprised you about yourself as an artist while working on ‘What Colour Would You Choose’?

Well, it was not easy to bring this project to fruition because I do not have dark skin, racism has not affected me personally and I have grown up with privileges living in West London. But this does not stop me from seeing that there is racism and injustice in the world. I grew up in Notting Hill Gate when the first wave of Caribbean people came to London to work for London Transport. I would hear Reggae music and I could see that there was a whole different culture and way of looking and being. 
During this time, I saw a theatre show called the Black and White Minstrel, where white people blackened up and did various dance routines. I was shocked by these shows and how they mimicked and caricatured black people and this was the seed of what would become the WCWC project. Many years later, over a series of discussions with a friend about racial discrimination and skin colour, especially with regard to the fairness creams seen on large advertising boards in every major capital city in India, WCWC came to be. Shadeism has been internalised in the United States, India, Pakistan and the Caribbean countries where there is a thriving market for fairness creams because even within the darker skinned community there is prejudice from the past. Popular culture and literature has exploited this myth of female beauty and sexual attractiveness with lighter skin being thought of as more desirable and attractive than darker skinned women. Black and Asian men also internalise Eurocentric standards of beauty and associate femininity and sexual desirability with lighter skin, and dark skin with masculinity and male sexuality. In fact, the origins of colourism are widely believed to have come from the pigmentocracy of slavery, according to Ruth Fisher, project manager of the Understanding Slavery Initiative.
In WCWC, I wanted to explore as an artist the issues related to the colour of people’s skin and the social discrimination that it perpetuates. I felt that art could be a way to explore these issues; and, however justified I felt about my intentions, it was from Asian women writers that I received the most criticism regarding this project. So art here was not liberating but more about learning that there are huge issues to overcome before some black artists can feel comfortable working with some white artists and how white artists need to understand and have sensitivity to the issues of racism. 

Girl with Bunches, Watercolour on watercolour paper, 420 mm x 297 mm, 2015 .
Girl with Bunches, Watercolour on watercolour paper, 420 mm x 297 mm, 2015 .

Do you necessarily believe that the purpose of art is to mimic beauty in all its misshapen, mangled, distorted glory or to remind the world that beauty can go beyond mere semantics towards something more visceral? 

No, I don’t believe the purpose of art is to mimic beauty. I think the purpose of art is to question and examine our pre-constructed ideas of what beauty is. Ideas of beauty for women have been trapped in the “male gaze” and we can see this throughout the Western history of art, in the numerous, mainly naked, white women from Botticelli’s Birth of Venus to Manet’s Olympia. The Guerrilla Girls’ famous statement “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” confirms this as less than five percent of the artists in modern art sections are women, but 85 percent of the nudes are female. Male artists have tended towards exoticism and orientalism when depicting women from nonWestern cultures as seen in Matisse’s odalisque paintings. 
I do feel that the purpose of art now is to re-examine our preconceived ideas of what beauty is and how we conceive beauty away from a white male perspective, from the Eurocentric stereotypical ideal of female beauty to include what beauty is for black, Asian, gay and transgender communities, or older women. I do think that beauty in art has the possibility to be highly romanticised as seen in the pre-Raphaelite paintings. 

La Mary after Madam Matisse, Watercolour on Watercolour paper, 594 mm x 841 mm, 2016. 
La Mary after Madam Matisse, Watercolour on Watercolour paper, 594 mm x 841 mm, 2016.

In one of your drawings titled ‘Facebook 2’ you take on this perception of the ‘image’ head on. We are bombarded with ‘profile images’ and this constant need to look ‘pretty’ and visually show the world ‘that we are’. As an artist, do you feel this need to project an image of who you are through your work? And does that necessarily have to be a prettified version? 

Well, who you are is naturally reflected in your art, although artists such as Duchamp depicted himself as a woman called RroseSélavy. I have wondered how it would be different to be a man, and in this Facebook 2 I was playing with the idea of being many different people, that is, a Jewish man or a gay Sikh. I was influenced by Cindy Sherman and OreetAshery. I also worked with photographer JensMarott where I was putting on different costumes and taking on different personas. I was not thinking about being pretty but more about taking on multiple personalities. This is something I wanted to explore in this work and as a live street performance to see how people would treat you differently depending on who you appeared to be. I do think art offers the possibilities to escape who we are and be someone else. 

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