The first event of the PaR (Practice as Research) thesis project called the Black Body and Beauty in China a study by Glenis Paul at the China Academy of Art: Hangzhou China.
As a black woman in China, my daily interactions with the Chinese public require discipline and patience in a monolithic and sometimes xenophobic culture. In most Asian communities, dark skin is considered ugly, especially for women. This is a little known fact in the western world. Not only is the color of my skin ridiculed daily, the texture and maintenance of my hair is completely misunderstood.
Even within the diaspora of the black community, these features of beauty are just recently in the last 70 or so years being celebrated as a source of pride. I come from a community of deeply entrenched post-traumatic self-criticism, a community just beginning to celebrate the diversity in textures and tones of skin and hair. This tradition, which celebrates natural black beauty is still young but it is a passionate and vitally essential movement of which I have been a fervent participant in Barbados and in Brooklyn, New York. I was not prepared for the intensity of opinions among the Asian community that their own tanned yellow skins were ugly. If tanned Asian skin cannot be beautiful, where does that leave my black sisters?
This is the first issue I try to address in my work, but there is a deeper much more troubling issue at stake, understanding China on a deeper level than merely through the eyes of an outsider. I have lived in China for 6 years now, and have begun to set down firm roots in this country, some would say my practice, interactions and study of the language I have earned a kind of honorary membership. Honorary member or no, I am still an outsider, but I firmly believe that in order to make any inroads on this issue I must be able to see it as the Chinese do. So the under-lying question I wish to pose in this study is: In an increasingly international world, and as an outsider, how can I bring the deeply entrenched stigmas of colorism to light in China?
China is changing fast, and understanding the changes and my possible role in helping to orient positive attitudes towards other cultures as well as learning the values that these open views can bring to improve deeply entrenched and outdated cultural ideas, is the reason for this life changing move to China, the focus of my artwork and the content of this study.
The first piece is part of the series Tattoo and is called Stencil. It was done in collaboration with fellow performance artist Liu Xiao and with the help of Zhou Tengxiao, Sarah Malone and Liu Ni. Liu Xiao agreed to paint my back a color approximating the Asian skin tone, then write the well known Chinese saying, “一白遮百丑” which literally means, one white covers one hundred ugly. He then used a stencil knife to cut out the characters revealing the dark skin underneath. This event took place on October 13, 2-5pm at the Wushan Square during the China Folk Arts Festival.