The Hues of Humanae

Angelica Dass (c) 
To Angelica Dass, colour was never a means to divide people: but rather, a means to unite. This led her to curate a powerful project, called Humanae. Here's her story. 

Nearly a century and a half has passed since slavery was abolished. Over half a century has passed since Martin Luther King pronounced his "I Have A Dream" speech. And yet, we continue to live in a world where the colour of our skin precedes everything else. I was born in a family that was full of colours. My father is the son of a maid from whom he inherited an intense dark chocolate tone. He was adopted by those who I know as my grandparents. The matriarch, my grandma,has a porcelain skin and cotton-like hair. My grandpa was somewhere between a vanilla and strawberry yogurt tone, like my uncle and my cousin. My mother is a cinnamon-skin daughter of a native Brazilian,with a pinch of hazel and honey, and a man [who is] a mix of coffee with milk, but with a lot of coffee. She has two sisters. One in a toasted-peanut skin and the other, also adopted, more on the beige side, like a pancake.

As you can see, I was born in a very colourful family. Within my family, we always saw each other as equal, but outside, it was all different. Being black in Brazil comes with a lot of tags. Being black is often associated with being poor, a slave or not knowing how to read and write. A lot of people tend to associate colour with a range of stereotypes. The idea is that it is better to be blonde and white as opposed to being curly hair. When I had my first drawing lessons at school, there were so many different feelings. It was exciting, it was creative – and confusing. I couldn’t understand the unique flesh-coloured pencil – I was made of flesh, but I was not so pink. I was brown, but people said I was black. Later on, when I took my cousin to school, I was usually mistaken to be the nanny! When I was helping in the kitchen at a friend's party, people thought I was the maid. I was once treated like a prostitute just because I was walking alone on the beach with European friends. Many times, visiting my grandma or friends in upper class buildings, I was invited not to use the main elevator. Because in the end, with this color and this hair, I cannot belong to some places.

I think I fought a little bit with who I am. When I was six years old, my mother straightened my hair, and until thirty, I lived with straight hair. I had no idea who I really was. But now, when I see myself in the mirror and see my hair for what it originally, really is, I see my authentic self. Now, I see it as a statement. I am very proud of it. I spent my whole life being someone else I was not. There are a lot of adjectives associated with colour – prejudices and stereotypes – that my hair was not good hair as it was curly. It is not about the aesthetic alone. I was mistaken to be a nanny or a server, because people couldn’t see someone of my colour being in a university as a student, because to them, it didn’t fit. This is the kind of everyday fight against the many issues we face.

Years later I married a Spaniard. But not any Spaniard. I chose one with the skin color of a lobster when sunburnt. Then onwards, there was a new question from people around me. What will the color of my children be? This was my last concern. But thinking about it and my own experience with colour, I began on my personal journey as a photographer. That was how Humanae was born. Humanae is a pursuit to highlight our true colors, rather than the untrue white, red, black or yellow associated with race. It's a kind of game to question our codes. It's a work in progress from a personal story to a global history. Humanæ is a chromatic inventory, a project that reflects on the colors beyond the borders of our codes by referencing the PANTONE® color scheme. PANTONE® Guides are one of the main classification systems of colors, which are represented by an alphanumeric code, allowing to accurately recreate any of them in any media. It is a technical industrial standard often called Real Color.

Exhibition in Sao Paulo (c) Angelica Dass

At Humanae, I portray my subjects against a white background.  I choose an 11-pixel square from the nose, paint the background, and look for the corresponding color in the industrial palette, Pantone. I started with my family and friends, then more and more people joined the adventure, thanks to public calls coming through the social media. The project had a great welcome! Invitations, exhibitions, physical formats, galleries and museums - it all just happened. And among them, my favorite: when Humanae occupies public spaces and appears in the street, it fosters a popular debate and creates a feeling of community.

I am very happy with the work that I do exactly because I don’t choose my subjects. It started very simply – whenever I have an exhibition, I put a studio in one place – am museum, school or university. I put online that I am doing this work, and people come in. I started with family and friends. I am doing this work – trying to prove that no one is black or white, and I tell people that if they are interested and believe in it, they can come along. It is always a surprise who comes into the studio. So the first question I ask when they come in, is, “What are you doing here? What brings you here to participate? Why did you decide to be part of this?” For me, it is very important that I have this personal engagement with each one that sits in front of the camera. It is very important that each one I sit with understand what I am doing, why I am doing it. They are really conscious of the issue behind it. It is beautiful because people start to share their stories with me: “Oh, I want that because of my family,” or “Because I have a story that connects with the work.”

Copyright Juan Miguel Ponce. Valencia

It doesn’t only connect to skin colour, but a lot of different things. For example, a transgender woman in Brazil came in and asked me if I had ever shot a picture of a transgender in the studio. I told her I had no idea as I never asked this kind of thing. She told me, I don’t know if you have but I want to be there. This is an equal space – you don’t see who is a transgender or not, who is poor or rich, or who is on the Forbes List or a refugee! Everybody is equal. Even if I am doing the work of pressing the button, it is because of all those four thousand people who believed in my idea and gave me their time and participation. That is why it is empowering.

As a photographer, I realize that I can be a channel for others to communicate. As an individual, as Angélica, every time I take a picture, I feel that I am sitting in front of a therapist. All the frustration, fear and loneliness that I once felt ... becomes love. Personally, I feel very lucky. I am doing what I love – that’s making photos and being a photographer. And the best thing is that I really know that I am helping a lot of people, and this work is touching a lot of people. When people say I want to change the world, I say I want to change people. And maybe, when I change thousands of people, maybe we can change the things in the world. But, the credit really does go to those 4000 people who, as volunteers, decided to participate in this project. They are the ones that make this project possible.
Offline, there has been no resistance. But online, because of the anonymity the internet allows, there is a lot of rubbish that people say. For instance, one person had commented on the YouTube video of my TED Talk, that my family has been of all colours and that if one burned all of us down we would taste like chicken. Another person actually said that I was trying to destroy the white race by trying to talk about colour equality and asking for multicultural things. People can be so narrow minded that they cannot understand even a word that I am trying to say. People don’t have the basic power to understand one word after the next – not just to complete the sentence. This is violence, and much more than racism. It is sad and stupid. I am a bit radical – when you talk about my family like this, I do feel very angry about it.

I want to work with more people and transform Humanae into a foundation. I want to work on the educational part of the project – I do work with a lot of schools and teachers, students, and psychologists, associations of families that adopt foreign children – and I want this part to evolve. I want the educational part to grow in an organic way. I want to try to be a little more professional and use the power of the work in making an impact.