The 2021-22 Pembroke Research Seminar: "Color"
Leslie Bostrom, Visual Art
Evelyn Lincoln, History of Art and Architecture
In this seminar, led by an artist and an art historian, we ask how global histories of race, gender, and class are connected to structures of knowledge and power that are ordered by color. Color, above all the color of skin, locates our place in the world. The racial colorism that distinguishes so minutely between skin shades, and assigns value accordingly, is proof, if any were needed, that color has both a semiotics and a psychology. The category of race is built largely on psychological and cultural responses to color that operate across the spectrum of the visual world. Exactly how do our responses to color affect our biases and perceptions implicitly and explicitly? When and how has color ordered and disordered knowledge, and what has been its role? How is color determined and determining in constructions of race? What role does color play in forming ideologies of purity and contamination? How do we understand the concept of spectra and oppositions in the categories of white, brown, and Black that are fundamental to colorism, and when and how are these distinctions mobilized, assigned, or assumed? What is the role of black in anti-Black racism? How has color organized our perception of the characteristics of people, animals, and things along a spectrum of sophistication, class, intelligence, and education? How has color ordered labor, economies, and trade and enabled the functioning of capitalism? How does the sensory world of color intersect with perceptions of gender? What is the history of color’s role in designations of nationalism, tribalism, and alterity? How should we now speak, on one hand, of the obvious association between the brilliant, saturated colors of human art and techne and the tastes, violence, and labor that produce them and, on the other, of colonial rule and lands made toxic by the mass production of colors that were both enjoyed and reviled elsewhere? Can a rich and attentive grasp of color’s histories point us to radically better practices? How can a more varied and aware response to colors productively disrupt our own naturalized associations with them?
The experience of color comes to us with light and vision; to avoid it, we must close our eyes. While there is no consensus about why humans are equipped to see color, we use variations in color for important information about food, health, emotional states, and safety. As practitioners of the colors we name with our first words, we form interior color charts that order language, judgment, politics, economies, class, aesthetic categories, and gender identities. Color has been central to organizing lineage and inheritance, proclaiming political solidarity, and gathering groups under flags and banners. The global effects of color’s histories are being holistically studied in terms of what historian Jagjeet Lally terms ‘socio-chromatic’ relations in South Asia (Lally, 2019). He asks, "Is there a pre-colonial history of sensory order and disorder? Did colonialism imbue color with alterity? Or, have color and alterity long gone hand-in-hand…?”
We aim to bring together scholars and practitioners from the hard and social sciences, as well as the arts and humanities, to articulate how the experience of color itself has been central to the historical taxonomies and discriminations that have ordered lives both throughout cultural, social, and political systems and in the ones most familiar, and therefore most naturalized, in us. While we arrived at this topic through the role of color in the histories of art, aesthetics, and the emotional response to color, the questions we ask resonate in disciplines from philosophy to literature, biology to anthropology, looking at color through a historical lens to interrogate the challenges of our times.
The Pembroke Seminar meets on Wednesdays, from 10:00 am – 12:30 pm.
For more information contact: [email protected] or phone 401-863-2643.