Critical color theory

On Angelica Dass and Divya Victor

A collage of photographs from Angelica Dass’s ongoing Humanæ Project appeared on the cover of the “The Trouble With Race” issue of Foreign Affairs magazine in March 2015.[1] Dass’s photographic pairing of human skin tone with swatches of PANTONE® color was selected for an issue slated to spotlight the global failure of multiculturalism. It is unlikely that Foreign Affairs was looking for a cover image that would serve as diegetic proof of this failure, but Dass’s embodied rooms of color could not describe more perfectly the perception of racialized bodies as artful abstraction that makes up the dominant multiculturalist vision. Dass describes her practice as a kind of radical visibility: she calls Humanæ “a pursuit for highlighting our subtle-continuous of our tones that make more equality than difference … our true colors, rather than the untrue Red and Yellow, Black and White.”[2] Elevating the representative specific over the generalized untrue race, Dass offers “a kind of game for subverting our codes”[3] in which the narrow racial imaginary is inundated with numerically identified bodies. The catalogue of human experience is limitless but trackable. The bodies undergo an erasure of qualities in order to attain this idealized and nameless “equality.” It is color — independent of race, ethnicity, nationality, history, or culture — that is emphasized to the complete removal of the personal-political identity.

The color category dangerously suggests that human bodies are each intrinsically colored without consideration of the psychosocially constructed and connotatively loaded ascription of skin color. One would assume that this Conceptualist pigment-worship as banquet of difference has enough historical and political fallout at this point to be recognizable as an act of pseudophysiognomic ecstasy. The supposedly subversive game that Dass is playing is a matching game in which visibility is produced for the purpose of expunging voice. The voicelessness is precisely what Dass claims ties her subjects to one another — it is their continuity. Dass’s subjects stand assimilated inside the colorized holding cells made for them, and they are meant to stay there, visible and voiceless.

This postracial framework stands in contrast to the interactive gameplay of Divya Victor’s Race Card, a performance in which Victor herself stands in as the object-body (à la Dass’s subjects), while audience members are solicited to assume the role of the artist/poet (à la Dass) in matching Victor’s body to a set of designated color swatches with the use of a worksheet. The problem the audience is then faced with is that despite being asked to perform the dominant role of the artist/poet, they must still play audience: they must watch themselves watch Victor. Victor’s circuit of self-consciousness is important. As Vanessa Place notes, “the cost of our comprehension is our complicity.”[4] In the case of Race Card,each Glidden color swatch that appears on the worksheet is presented to the audience with a name as well as a number, lending a semantic absurdity that underlines the precariousness of the task at hand. Audience members are expected to select a swatch before the performance ends, or risk identifying Victor as invisible. Where Dass’s Humanæ accommodates the gaze of its audience, encouraging the commodification of visible bodies while decontextualizing skin color as a racialized identifier, Victor’s Race Card forces audience members to identify “the poet without a void: the unavoidable poet.”[5] Victor’s audience must confront race. They are not permitted invisibility, and neither is Victor, making Race Card an exercise in burning down the passive-aggressive superhighway of postracial discourse.

Victor’s Race Card worksheet adopts the form of a Glidden-designed online form intended for customers beginning a new painting project. Victor’s Race Card closes with consumerist rhetoric (“please visit a Glidden Color Center at a participating retailer near you”)[6] as embedded critique of the ease with which customer-audiences slip back into commodifying bodies as fetishized products of difference. Late capitalism wants this rhetoric as much as it wants Dass’s wiping of politicized identifiers for mass consumption by invisible audiences. By vetting Glidden’s pitch, Race Card asks audience members to watch themselves consuming race as they always have: as the socioeconomic value of visible bodies.

Conversely, Dass’s use of PANTONE® color in Humanæ signals a collaboration with corporate objective to the point of sponsorship. PANTONE® claims to be “known worldwide as the standard language for color communication from designer to manufacturer to retailer to customer.”[7] Humanæ stays on message, standardizing skin color on the metric of the corporation; Dass delivers body-product as aesthetic spread. Perhaps this is why the press has celebrated Humanæ for forgoing political stakes. This neutrality is of course extremely political. Without identity in play, it is possible to focus completely on consuming the subjects of Humanæ. Palate ticklers like “the fresh colors painted from the subtle sherbet pinks to the creamy coffee and chocolate tones”[8] suggest that we are invited to eat the deliciously serene faces of those made identifiably visible before us.

Humanæ’s production of complacent wonder is marketable. The audience feels good tucked away in invisibility, whiteness, affluence, cultural dominance, right, and righteous passivity. Race Card is an indictment of the performance of this routine. Its production of participatory self-consciousness creates and acknowledges the pain of visibility and forcible erasure for racialized bodies. It is unsellable, this pain, this painting project.

1. “The Trouble With Race,” Foreign Affairs, February 10, 2015.

2. Angelica Dass, “About,” Humanæ.

3. Ibid.

4. Vanessa Place, “Playing Divya Victor’s Race Card” (lecture, REVERSE — Copenhagen International Poetry Festival 2014, Copenhagen, September 19, 2014).

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.


8. “Skin Toning With Humanæ,” Digital Design Therapy, August 9, 2012.