Earlier this summer, my beautiful then five-year-old Nepali nieces sat with me in our garden enjoying the warm and easy sun. What started as a conversation about what happens to melanin when it finds home in all that glorious vitamin d, looking at our skin browner than it’s winter shade, turned into a difficult conversation about race, gender and diaspora.
One of them began to talk about wanting white skin and blonde hair, and what she would do if she had it. Whilst her twin sister disagreed, responding fervently that she actually liked her brown skin and her black hair, I needed to know what exactly had triggered the other’s denigrated thinking. Her answers, however, were unsurprising – a consequence of not only the (gendered) shadeism (and anti-blackness) that holds dominance in Asian communities but her experiences as a brown girl in a white supremacist society.
Upon my questioning, she responded with a resolute and yet strangely logical answer:
but everybody on TV is white and all the nice people are blonde. Nobody wants to be brown.
There was nowhere she could really see herself.
I found it particularly jarring that two girls as young as that had already begun to negotiate their bodies, profoundly aware and conscious of their place in the world. What it means to exist in their bodies, what it is to be looked and yet simultaneously be or feel invisible alludes to the bounded relationship between representation, desire and worthiness to be loved in a raced and gendered reality. All of this becomes increasingly complex when you live in a diasporic space of perennial ‘otherness’ in white, Western landscapes. Amongst my peers of colour, this has ultimately come to be linked to questioning where and to whom you belong to in British society. At twenty-five, as a Pakistani woman I still struggle daily with these very same unanswered questions.
But there are no British statistics currently available about Women of Colour and body image.
This is further complicated by the fact that our representations, across ethnicities, are not only underrepresented but also misrepresented. The very lived realities of racism and sexism that shape our relationships to our bodies, self-esteem, and wellbeing within communities of Colour then remain largely ignored in mainstream Britain.
‘A Different Mirror’, a multidisciplinary exhibition to be hosted in Brixton, London in 2014, is a response to these affective and painful realities that we face in the UK.
In providing a platform for 9 Women of Colours artists, this exhibition is an attempt to carve out a space where we give voice to a plethora of experiences and perspectives on body image. Using film, photography, visual art and poetry as the basis to capture and explore the conflicts about how we see ourselves versus how we are seen. It also goes beyond the important discussions of complexionism, hair, of veiling, and also makes room for different spiritual, personal, physical and political facets of the body. ‘A Different Mirror’ in confronting these crucial questions about body image, also helps us to see art as a powerful tool for healing and transformation.
We’ve planned a host of educational activities to encourage this mission , including:
- A unique commissioned two-day poetry/art workshop by I Shape Beauty for 7 Women of Colour to create an interactive installation on their experiences of shame,
- Hosting local school group visits,
- An artist seminar to encourage Women of Colour to use art for empowerment and healing,
- Holding an afternoon women’s circle to nurture discussion about the exhibition and women’s experiences.
We’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise at least £1200 for the I Shape Beauty workshops and installation. To put on the full range of activities, however, we need to raise £3000 and we therefore need your help and support to go up and beyond our goal!
At the heart of this project is a journey, one that shifts towards seeing ourselves as whole and full beings, our bodies as holding potential and possibility when we feel they are our own.
Pledge your support today and share the project amongst your friends and family in order to make this necessary conversation and transformation.
Hana Riaz graduated with a Masters in Race, Ethnicity and Postcolonial Studies at the London School of Economics and completed her undergraduate in Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
She is a queer (politically) black muslim feminist, a british south asian woman, writer, blogger and believer in the transformatory power of love. Being human, however, is what this whole journey is about.
She has a particularly passionate interest on the role art and culture play in social justice and equality at grassroots and academic levels, but also as a crucial transformatory space of personal and political healing for groups deemed on the margins. She hopes to continue to produce work that critically engages with the role of representation as narratives of belonging within these spaces. You can follow her writing on hanariaz.com, her personal tumblr InbetweenLove or catch her tweeting on @hanariaz.