Denise Kalonji and Camilla Dahlström are committed to depicting dark skinned subjects in their art. The very process of creating art is a testament of one’s existence, the art itself becomes a visual manifesto of the artist telling the world that “I exist”. Simply by existing and working in an art scene that continuously marginalises them, Denise and Camilla, as well as other artists of colour, contribute to the normalisation of people of colour’s participation in the general- and academic discussions about art.
When discussing art history in the academic sphere, it may feel as though one hasn’t been given enough tools and knowledge to be able to perform any sort of postcolonial analysis of art. The same can be said about programmes pertaining to literature- and cultural studies, often containing curricula that can only be described as exhaustingly eurocentric. Even though there are ample depictions of dark skinned subjects, and non-western subjects throughout Western art history. This was the sentiment shared by me and my friends as we made the decision to study art, cultural studies, and literature at Stockholm University in the mid 2010s. Comparatively, the UK has, for example, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and the US have a handful of academic institutions and programmes focusing on the depiction of non-Western subjects within art and literature.
The lack of interest in discussing the depiction of black- and brown bodies has led to a gradual and discreet alienation of people of colour who have any desire to enter the Swedish art- and cultural world. With that said, I would like to shine some light on two artists and their individual experiences as women of colour working in the contemporary art scene.
Denise Kalonji – “When it comes to my art, it’s like an extension of myself”
Denise has always been made aware of the ways in which people perceive her as a black artist in Sweden. In her childhood, her mother would always buy black barbie dolls with black hair and she can’t recall having a lot of light skinned dolls whatsoever. She knows that light skin and eurocentric features are the societal norm, which is why she presses upon the importance of a nuanced representation of black and dark skinned people in media and art.
– As a kid, I had a friend who was much darker than me but she insisted on drawing white characters and that was sort of a wake up call for me. For her, it was normal to only draw herself as light skinned and to only draw light skinned people.
– I’m born in Hornstull, but ironically enough I learned about “race” after I had moved to Tumba at around 7-8 years old. I wouldn’t say that I was bullied and no one yelled the n-word at me yet but I was made to feel like I had some kind of deformity.
After she started taking art more seriously, the main characters in her stories would often be depicted as black because “that’s my own experience and you often draw inspiration from your own experiences”.
– After I discovered anime, I noticed that I would almost never find characters that look like me in the media and when I did, the characters never had a normal household. The household of a black character often consists of single parents and lots of family issues. When I developed my character, Gwen, I wanted to show that this character has parents that live together and that she had a normal upbringing.
How has the lack of dark skinned characters impacted you?
– It has motivated me to keep going. If I keep creating art, then more people who look like me may find my art as an inspiration to create.
Have you experienced any racist microaggressions in the art scene?
– Vanessa from the new Pokémon comes to mind. She is dark skinned but when i find fan art in, for example, Tumblr, the fans still decide to depict her in a much lighter skin tone. At the same time there is a movement today called “blackwashing” where fans choose famous light skinned characters and depict them as black. In this case, I noticed that the characters who are somewhat problematic are always interpreted as black or dark skinned whilst characters who are more innocent are interpreted with lighter skin.
– In the artwork, Belle is painted as having dark skin but in the movie adaption she is played by a woman with much lighter skin. “Colorism” is internalised by many black people and I used to have the same issue. I used to draw black characters with very light skin than I do now, even though I myself used to think that I had drawn them much darker. After I confronted myself about why I thought dark skin was ugly, I realised that colorism often goes deeper than you think.
Denise is referring to Johann Zoffany’s painting of Dido Belle and her cousin Elizabeth Murray from 1779 and the movie Belle (Amma Asante, 2013).
Colorism is an ideology that originates in racist beauty ideals pertaining to light skin carrying more positive connotations than dark skin by people from the same ethnic background. Colorism has been studied as a sociological term in many universities, most of all in the United States. A survey performed by the University of Georgia found that employers oftentimes prefer light skinned black men above dark skinned black men, without taking their qualifications into account.
How can we deal with the issue of representation?
– One way to deal with it is to acknowledge classical black artists and non-western art throughout history. If you, for example, think about Picasso you should also acknowledge that parts of his art style are stolen from African artists. If you look at an African artwork from that time, it’s easy to find similarities with Picasso’s art. But Picasso’s art is praised while classical art from Africa gets exotified and isn’t taken seriously.
– I always try to read up on my own history and old traditions from the Igbo people. For example, I discovered that the Igbo people would practice a religion called Odinani and one of their traditions consists of the artists isolating themselves for a whole year to focus on creating art. At the end of the year, they would have an exhibition after which they would destroy all of the artworks.
– Some of these artworks weren’t destroyed and sold without giving any credit to the original artist. I just think it’s sad that we don’t talk about this when art was such a big part of this religion and culture.
Camilla Dahlström – “No that dark skinned people and immigrants are becoming a larger part of society, they also have to become more represented in art”
When Camilla sits down to paint, she’s not set to portrait a dark skinned person. The subject instinctually becomes dark skinned: “It becomes natural for me to paint a dark skinned person because I myself am dark skinned”.
– I’m raised in Sweden so in some way I’ve always been the person that stands out because of my skin tone. It’s not something that I’ve thought about any more than this. I experience racism all the time and it’s so sad that I’ve had to learn to live with it and accept it.
Have you ever felt alienated in the art scene here in Stockholm?
– Not just because of my skin tone but mostly because the art world is so snobbish in general. They put a lot of weight on one’s education. Although I think that it’s changing a little. There are so many talented people out there and there’s power in creating. You shouldn’t become repressed only because you’re lacking something.
How do you feel that your art has been perceived in different exhibitions? Has it ever been questioned?
– I have been to a few fairs and exhibitions and when I travel outside of Stockholm, there’s a lot of older ladies and gentlemen that have approached me and said “Oh, so you paint women from Africa”. My subjects aren’t really just from Africa but from everywhere. And a lot of people in the same company can say that “my neighbour knows someone from Africa and he seems okay”.
– They also say things like “it’s nice that you’ve found an occupation in Sweden, not a lot of immigrants do that”. Racism is something that I often hear and it’s something that people around me don’t get to hear. It’s a form of reflection of my art and of me as an artist. One can only wonder how it’s like if you’re not an immigrant.
Why do you think that it’s important to talk more about racism in the art scene?
– Now that we’re discussing this, I feel more and more how important it is. It’s very popular to paint women and faces, and a lot of artists then choose to paint light skinned faces. Due to this my art stands out more but then it also becomes more important for dark skinned people and immigrants to become more represented in art. Painting has been crucial for my own well being but it’s fantastic if it also becomes important to other people. It’s fantastic to be able to affect society in some way.