Histories of Race, Histories of Colour: A panel discussion in collaboration with the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) – 7/2/2017

Histories of Race CSCA

CSCA poster

Histories of Race, Histories of Colour was a fascinating informal panel discussion that took place on 7 February in IAS Common Ground. The event was organised on behalf of CSCA by Levi Prombaum, a PhD candidate in the Department of History of Art, UCL. Dr. Mechthild Fend, Dr. Natasha Eaton, alongside visiting research fellow Dr. Rizvana Bradley, all members of the same department, were invited to discuss their research on the imbrications of skin, colour and race.

Prombaum began the panel discussion by introducing the panelists and the suggested readings[1] and explained his own motivations for organising the event. As a researcher in early portraits of James Baldwin, Prombaum is interested in probing questions of race/colour in black anthology, especially how colour paradigms are drawn and how discourses of colour function. He cites Julia Wilson, Mel Chen and Huey Copeland’s contributions to ‘A Questionnaire on Materialisms’ published in October[2] as sources for further investigations into broader dialogues on colour and race.

After Prombaum’s introduction, Fend opened her presentation with the question: how did colour arrive in skin and when did it arrive as a sign for race? Early notions of flesh-tone and complexion were considered issues of the humours and were not considered a specific colour. More essentialist theories of skin colour as surface arrived in the 18th century with the invention of the microscope and the proliferation of race and colour theories. Fend identifies two competing notions of colour in skin: optical colours as proposed by Newton, and material colours used by artists. In Newtonian colour theory darkness marked the absence of light, however in mezzotint printing techniques darkness was the amalgamation of all the primary colours and thus constitutes a presence instead of an absence. Fend concludes that epistemologies of skin colour produced two colour systems that were at odds with one another.

Approaching the issue of colour from an entirely different angle, Eaton considered the complicated history of the colour white and questioned the existence of a ‘neutral’ colour within the political sphere of India. She traces the transformations and uses of white, beginning with Wittgenstein’s late work that questioned whether there could ever be a ‘pure’ white, and Michael Taussig’s work on colour as a ‘meta’ or ‘polymorphous’ artistic experiment’. Within the political contexts of contemporary India, whiteness has undergone a range of transformations, from a signifier of non-violence to a mode of resistance and attack under Gandhi’s independence movement, to a colour for Sufi tawba (release from worldly concerns) and the colour of industrial materials such as cement. White is the absence of colour but also aspirational, as large chemical companies such as Hindustan Unilever target women with dark complexions to sell ‘whitening’ soap and skin-bleaching materials.

Finally, Bradley discussed aesthetic blackness and chromatic saturation as a critical mode to think about race. She builds on Fred Moten’s argument that the use of aesthetic blackness is irreducible to notions of race, at the same time seeking to move away from social-constructivist notions of race and colour towards a black ontology. Bradley invoked Fanon, who stated that the black man is not black autonomously but only black in relation to the white man. Bradley terms this state of dependent visibility as ‘thrownness’ which was inspired by the Harlem renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston’s words: ‘I feel most coloured when I am thrown against a white background’. Bradley then proposed a reading of Glenn Ligon’s work through this state of black-against-white background, as a means of exploring the regulatory metaphysics that control modes of visibility/invisibility, presence/absence and background/foreground.

Following the presentations the group discussion centred on how to think about blackness as an ontological ground for colour theory rather than as racial essentialism. During the discussion, the imbrication of race and colour was further complicated by gender, as female subjectivity has always been understood through the bodily. Bradley stressed the need to move away from social-constructivist ideas of race towards a black ontology while Eaton cautioned against totalising the problem and pointed instead to existing genealogies of black ontology within Europe. The discussion did not come to a definite conclusion but provided an engaging examination of the dissonant discourses of race and colour.

Diana Zhang


1. Reading materials provided by speakers prior to event, available at: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/art-history/news-events/csca/race-further
2. Mel Chen, Julia Copeland, Huey Wilson [responses to] ‘A Questionnaire on Materialisms’, October no. 155 (Winter 2016).


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