This interview was originally published on Sixty Inches From Center.
As children, we are often told not to judge a book by its cover, but this is a lesson we tend to forget over time. In Angélica Dass’s project, Humanae, also known as “The Pantone Project,” she erases the stigmas surrounding skin color by creating a growing collection of pigments—of people’s skin. In her travelling studio, Dass invites random sitters to plop down on a stool and have their photo taken. She then takes the average of the person’s skin tone pigment and matches it to a Pantone color, which becomes the background of the portrait. By documenting skin, Dass somehow removes its limiting markers. Our contemporary parlance imposes a certain system of categories and signifiers upon discussions and interpretations of race and ethnicity. With Humanae, Dass provides a stunning and straightforward apparatus that highlights the cultural barriers we place on ourselves and in doing so she starts to deconstruct them.
Kate Korroch (KK): What was the initial inspiration for Humanae?
Angélica Dass (AD): The inspiration for this project comes from my family roots: I am the granddaughter of a black and native Brazilian and the daughter of a black father adopted by a white family. I am a mixture of diverse pigments. Like in a painter’s pallet. Why not try to find the results of these mixtures? Is the color important? It’s a pursuit for highlighting our true color rather than the untrue red and yellow, black and white. For me it’s a kind of game for subverting our codes.
KK: By codes, do you mean social constructs?
AD: Using the word codes, I mean that we have learned many things that are both social, linguistic, and cultural–everyday nuances that I would like to rethink.
KK: When did you begin taking the photographs that comprise Humanae?
AD: I started this project as artistic photography for the final work of my master’s in April 2012. The first images were taken in Brazil with members of my family. Then I did the project at two arts festivals, the Rojo Nova in Barcelona and De las Artes in Madrid. I also did two Internet calls with some Spanish friends and friends of friends.
KK: How did the Internet call work? Did people meet you at your studio?
KK: You haven’t been able to travel with Humane around the globe, yet your work has been written about in many languages and has gone viral on the Internet. Were you expecting this massive amount of attention, especially from the Internet?
AD: I’m impressed by this success. I think that these portraits are very expressive because they evoke empathy in the audience. They echo what I talk about. What emerges from the photographs of the portrayed people’s faces completes the sense of the image. It’s not our essence, it´s only our skin colors, and they can change and vary in incredible ways: I´m not “black” and you are not “white.” One day all these issues will be studied as part of the past rules and handicaps, and I have discovered that it´s not only my point of view. My voice has found a lot of echoes and that’s maybe part of the repercussion. Considering the unexpected good reception, what I want now is to increase the catalog, and interact with more and more people from all over the world, with different perceptions, tones, trends, and origins
KK: I am glad you brought up the barriers contemporary language places on our ability to look beyond race. Do you have any ideas about how that evolution of language could come to pass?
AD: I am the daughter of a professor of literature. Words, language, and folk sayings fascinate me. I don’t know how this evolution can happen, I don’t know if this is possible, but in my world, in my house, black and white are not words that are synonyms of difference if I talk about skin color.
KK: Humanae not only comments on the cultural codes inherent to language; it also transgresses upon them. Have you ever encountered anyone whom has had a negative reaction to the concept of Humanae? If so, can you tell me about the situation?
AD: I never read the comments on the articles written about Humanae. On the Internet there are many people who spend time not necessarily to criticize, but to aggress. I have received mail with criticism, focusing on the lack of ethnic diversity in the project. A U.S. Senator said that they “love Humanae,” but that they were disappointed that the rich dark colors of Central Africa and India are not shown and that they hope they get at least as much attention as the European shades. In these situations I always respond, “Thank You!” and I tell them that in the end of the project I would like to show [the audience] Chinese, Japanese, Swedes, Danish, Colombians, Indians, Russians, African Americans, Afro-Caribbeans, Africans, Indigenous Australians, and Brazilians like me–black, white, yellow, pink or green as a Martian. Just humans.
KK: At this point, you have only been able to catalogue people at art fairs in Madrid and Chicago. You have made it clear that you’d like to conduct the project around the globe. Where would you like to go next?
AD: I would like to continue collecting images in the USA and Brazil. I think they’re two countries with a history of immigration and miscegenation. We are very mixed and I think it is interesting to investigate these tones. But some people asked me to go to their countries in Asia or Oceanía and how can I deny that dream? I would like, of course, going to Beijing, Tokyo, Cape Town, Luanda, Helsinki, Oslo, and New Delhi or find the subtle differences that are theoretically equal.
KK: It would be interesting to see the varied tones in historically homogenous and xenophobic countries. Will you try to seek out specific kinds of areas? So far the project has focused on art fairs in buzzing capital cities; do you plan to visit rural areas too?
AD: Of course I would love to. The difficulty is to find people and/or companies that want to finance this research. Right now I’m tied to my current city, Madrid, and to the spaces where my gallery can carry me–that determines that I will continue portraying the environment of the art world. On a global scale it would be impossible for me to do this without help. At present, only galleries and art festivals have invited me, but I would like to bring my work to other settings. I think it is important for the quality and diversity of work. But imagine: after 10,000 or 20,000 portraits, I can analyze all the cities where I go. I can check the pallets of each region, the color of a country. Imagine that in Gaza.
KK: How many volunteer models have you documented thus far?
AD: About 400.
KK: Through Humanae you encourage people to look at skin as part of a color spectrum rather than categorical identifiers of race. Have you found any cases where people who might socially be classified as different races are actually the same, or close to the same color? Or do you ever look at a person and assume their skin is one tone but it’s actually completely different?
AD: Of course this happens. Those classified as black match those classified as Latin, which is very close to an Indian who has the same color as a Pakistani who is a little more toasted than a white person who is sunburned. Even more, someone who is classified as occidental “white” (maybe with Italian, Greek, or Spanish ancestors) have results that are darker than a black categorized woman. Or, for example, Magreb people are the same tone or even lighter than people from Northern Europe. It’s one of the things I like about the project: we are equal but unique and we have to evolve even from our perception to our language.
KK: Have there been any exact matches? Is that even possible?
AD: There are exact matches. The colors and shades of human skin are “unlimited,” even in the same person (the proof is the sunburned guys), but the rating system Pantone (R) is limited. The color classification system in picture editors is based on mathematical algorithms that at times reach their results by approximation. So in the end there are more subtle nuances than human science can define! That’s why sometimes I think about leaving the Pantone scale and moving on to something more precise like CMYK, working with color percentages.
KK: It’s interesting to think about cosmetic trends such as whitening creams, bronzer, and sunless tanning. What do you think of the desire some people have to alter their skin tone to achieve what they maybe perceive as a more desirable palette?
AD: Everyone is free to do what they want, but your question makes me think about the stimuli we receive for these changes. We are influenced by aesthetics, fashion, campaigns, and celebrities. Maybe we have to “plant” other values to “harvest” other references.
KK: That’s a very good idea, and Humanae is doing just that! The title of the project, Humanae, is a Latin word meaning “human.” I did a bit of research on the word and I continually encountered it paired with “vitae” and “dignitatis,” usually in the context of Catholicism. Vitae roughly translates to life and dignitatis translates to dignity. These are wonderful words to be associated with your project. Do you intend to suggest these associations?
AD: I like all those words, adding others, like freedom, common, balance, share, mind. I think that those to which you refer can come together as the essence of what we need as human, a dignified life. Maybe it’s a good starting point to link words as color tones between humans.
KK: Can you talk a little about how you chose your title?
AD: I want to show people the most important point that unites us: we are human. All the other nuances make us special as individuals, but collectively we should think of what unites us as a collective. Latin is a language that can be understood as the root of human word in many languages, or at least in my mother language, which is why I chose it.
KK: Yes, please do! So far I’ve seen your Humanae photographs on your Tumblr, displayed in a standard gallery format at Expo Chicago, and in a mock-up Pantone color book. Are you planning to experiment with other exhibition formats?
AD: Yes, but to do that I have to improve and increase the collection of images that are part of the project.
KK: If you had unlimited time and resources, what would you do next with Humanae?
AD: I would love to travel across the five continents for a year, trying to increase the catalog. But that depends on not just money and time, but also opportunities. I would love to take pictures at United Nations meetings portraying opinion makers and leaders, but there is no money to buy this opportunity.
KK: Including UN leaders could be very interesting. Do you think they could learn something from the project? What would you want to say to them?
AD: Learn? Maybe that’s not the word, but maybe think, or reflect, or (why not?) play. This project is so visual. A look at the Tumblr shows how similar and unique we are. This simple statement should be clear to our leaders.
Angélica Dass (pictured above) currently lives and works in Madrid. She is represented by Max Estrella. To view the project and watch it expand visit Dass’s Humanae Tumblr. You can also visit her website here.
All images used in this interview were provided by the artist.