Monday, February 01, 2016

Ebony and Ivory

The London-based artist Tatiana De Stempel's exhibition focuses on the impact of skin colour on people

Photos: Tatiana De Stempel. Photo by Albin Mathew;  Muslim women at Trafalgar Square, London

By Shevlin Sebastian

In June, 2015, the London-based artist Tatiana De Stempel noticed a group of young women, from Saudi Arabia, wearing black burqas, and holding expensive handbags, laughing and taking selfies at Trafalgar Square. “They were having a ball,” says Tatiana. “I was struck by them because, usually, Muslim women are very sombre in public.”

So Tatiana approached them. And they immediately agreed to her suggestion to stick their tongues out as she took photos. Over several months, Tatiana took photos of all types of people – blacks, transgenders, whites, Indians, Chinese and Japanese – all sticking their tongues out for the camera. She also took photos in Greece and Kochi.

Several of these photographs have been put up at Tatiana's show, 'What colour would you choose', which was held at the Backyard Civilisation Gallery at Mattancherry, near Kochi. The show (January 15-24) has been curated by the Delhi-based author Manoj Nair. “I wanted to show how, even though people have different skin tones, they have the same pink tongue,” says Tatiana. “In other words, deep down, we human beings are the same.”

This idea came to her, when at the India Art Fair, in January, 2014, at New Delhi, Tatiana, along with Manoj, met up with Kerala artist Binoy Varghese. “We were talking about the matrimonial advertisements in India, where the preference is always for ‘fair’ girls,” says Tatiana. “And there is a high demand for fairness skin creams in India. That was when I decided to do this project.”

She was also prompted by an incident in her childhood. In London, there was a Black & White Minstrels Show, in the 1960s, where people, who are white, would be dressed up as black persons and wore black makeup, but the area around the eyes was painted white. “It looked weird,” says Tatiana. “And I never forgot it.”

However, during the year-long project, Tatiana came across some paradoxes. “In England, as soon as the sun comes out, everybody steps out to get a tan,” she says. “They want to turn brown. That's why they go for summer holidays to Greece and Spain. No one is happy with the skin colour they have.”

In Athens, a young girl called Maria summed it up well: “White people want to be black, and black people want to be white. As for me, it is good to be tanned, because all your marks and scars can be hidden.”

In Kochi, when Tatiana held a workshop on skin colour, the responses confirmed to her the deep-rooted desire among Malayalis and Indians to be fair-skinned. “All the women participants wanted a light-coloured child,” she says. “Somebody told me that women are told not to eat mangoes, or drink coffee, so that they can become fairer.”

Apart from photographs, Tatiana has done watercolour drawings of people who have undergone plastic surgery because they have been unhappy with their skin tone and colour. “I have done a drawing where the face has been changed by Botox surgery,” says Tatiana. She has also focused on French performance artist Orlan, who has done a lot of a plastic surgery on her face as part of her public performance.

The third aspect of the exhibition is a video in which Tatiana asks people their views regarding their skin tone. A black man, by the name of David, says, “Skin colour is a hierarchy, with white on top. As to whether I have the same opportunities as my white contemporaries, the answer is no.”

As Tatiana speaks, local artist Pradeep Kumar comes in to view the works. “This is interesting,” he says, after walking around. “Apart from the tongue, everybody has red blood. Maybe, this could be the subject of your next exhibition.”

Tatiana smiles and nods. A practicing artist for the last 20 years, Tatiana has exhibited in London and San Francisco. She has done paintings, etchings and photography. For the past 16 years, she has also been a visiting tutor at the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design at London. But her heart is in India. “I am having a great time in Kochi,” she says. 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

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