SF artist uses unconventional medium to comment on colorism in the Black community

A young San Francisco artist’s exhibit at the Museum of African Diaspora explores the issues surrounding beauty and skin color within the Black community, and it does so using a medium that was once used as a tool for discrimination.

The paper is creased, crinkled and careworn. And despite the life-like and beautiful portraits painted on them, the brown paper bags betray their humble beginnings — collected from groceries, shopping centers and corner stores.

“The form of the bag on the canvas is undeniable. It almost screams, ‘This is a paper bag. It’s a paper bag,” said artist Mary Graham.

For Graham, the choice was intentional. Her series of portraits is on display at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora. The exhibit is titled, ” Value Test: Brown Paper.”

Collectively, the portraits broadly explore the issue of colorism within the African American community and specifically the painful and complicated history of the so-called ‘Brown Paper Bag Test.’

“In many Black families, we might have heard the term ‘The Paper Bag Test,'” Graham said.

The ‘paper bag test,’ Graham said, was a form of internalized racism and self-discrimination. In its simplest form, skin color was measured against an average brown paper bag. The practice, however, could have profound and painful implications for people — socially, emotionally and economically.

“Colorism exists because racism exists. And we have not gotten rid of racism,” said Margaret Hunter, a professor of Sociology at Santa Clara University.

Hunter said colorism is rooted in racism and mirrors the patterns of discrimination in the wider world.

“It’s hard to be honest about the kind of advantages that you might have if you’re light-skinned and to own that. And to also think about how those advantages minimize others,” she said.

By painting directly onto the bags, Graham’s work invites the audience to confront — head on — the African American community’s thorny relationship with color.

” I wanted that tension to be present at all times,” Graham said.

Interestingly, Graham said while the portraits may evoke feelings of the familiar, reminding people of grandmothers and aunties and cousins, they are, in fact, entirely fictional by design.

“It didn’t feel right to paint a real person on the paper bag because the history is so fraught,” she said.

Like the best art, the portraits hold up a mirror to society in which we may find both beauty as well as the ugly truth of how we have often mistreated and misjudged one another.

Source : Cbs News