Written by Khensani de Klerk | Feature visual by Larah Fisher
*Shirley cards, named after a former Kodak studio model, were images used as the standard for colour calibration in photo labs all over the world. To colour match “Shirley’s” skin tone was to achieve a “normal” colour balance, a setting that was applied to everyone’s film, regardless of skin colour (Ali, 2015)
Today’s Fruit of The Week is a culmination of various topics centred on representation, inclusion and colourism. Originally born out of an interest in film photography and as an extension of last week’s writing following themes of the digital age- it is becoming more and more common, and necessary to focus on the theme of representation in the virtual space and what that means for marginalized identity groups that previously (and often) have not set the foundations for themselves in which to fully explore. But first, let us come to understand what colourism is, which is very well articulated in this Youtube video:
On Black absence: uncaptured histories and aesthetics. Exclusion
The Shirley card speaks beyond simply an image, but also captures a reality that is prominent in the architectural profession: the absence of black people. Black designers account for only two percent of the total population of licensed architects working in the United States (Warerkar, 2017). Dating from a mere year ago, the issue is pressing in that the parameters of architectural discourse foster and favour the progress of whiteness- be it through educational Western-centric teaching/learning, professional accessibility and/or application of “universal” epistemology on local contexts that have no room to explore their own particularity. It is a problem. Professor Lesley Lokko records this dilemma in her paper White Papers, Black Marks in describing the complete omission of black existence from Banister Fletcher’s “Tree of Architecture”. What is the architectural Shirley Card? The absence of our likeness accurately rendered in photographs is one more piece of the construct of white supremacy. Film stocks that can’t show us accurately help to control the narrative around appearance, and shapes our reality and the value of our lives (Stewart, 2013).
Colourism: The proximity to whiteness
The very toxicity of colourism is born out of a proximity to whiteness and is thus intrinsically conceived from colonialism and the psychological affects of its intentions having created hegemony through idealism of identities for the conquer of land. More so, the colonization of the mind, as Ngugi Wa Thiongo often focuses on, has left the colonized people functioning and unnoticeably working in maintaining the factory of oppression. The apparent colonial factory is not a dead site, the sound of its cogs run constantly, blending into the background sound of our everyday lives, without the need for it’s architect’s presence or colonial controllers. As the colonized, we still work in loops of self-oppression. Colonialism in its intentions to keep POC in minority societal positions, was psychologically twisted in ensuring that as POC even we believe(d) in the ideals of beauty, habits and being standard as white norms which we were constantly made to strive towards. And so when we look at colourism, a by product of colonialism and an activity in the factory, we begin to dispute and depart from these notions of tending towards whiteness, Eurocentricism and how we perceive ourselves in constant proximity to whiteness.
This brings us to thinking about how we’ve been captured in space and time, and the lack thereof. The ability to define the parameters of self-expression and more importantly self-exploration for the betterment and development of collective knowledge is fundamentally reliant on space. Space to occupy, space to move and space to progress. It is for this reason that we begin to question whether architecture as it stands today, as a physical entity and vessel of activity, allows for the true free expression of blackness from the starting point of setting principles that confined, defined and mythicized history of marginalized identity groups. It is difficult to suspect this answer of being a reality with our present day so called freedom and ability to act freely…
…within the Shirley card
…which had/has no room for us.
Looking to the Shirley card speaks volumes when reflecting on the omission of ever being able to capture let alone encourage the true presence of darker tones in space. This brings us to a central theme of this Koda®K/Too Dark Fruit of the Week. The tendency to measure one’s standards to the “set” standard is a standard set by whiteness. In a Shirley card there is no room for blackness, no room for physicality of capturing existence in a space of objective laws created to maximize the presence of whiteness.
As colonized people, we found loopholes to maintain our self-importance through other forms of expression intrinsic to our being. As spoken about in our recent Tribute to Hugh Masekela, African American Architect Jack Travis simply puts it that “if we look at music, we see a strong and definite Black aesthetic. The artistic field of music has certainly allowed the very nature of Blackness to be exposed and enjoyed. How did those artists achieve such a feat? They were fortunate to be able to express themselves on their terms from the start and they were not bound by, or particularly influenced by, the prevailing critics and leaders of their field during that time (Travis, 2015). The act of omitting black people and controlling how much well we are captured in space defined our narrative, and to an extent still maintains it today, through the evidence of colourism by people of colour on people of colour being a problem in the present day.
Colourism is not unfamiliar to the territory of social discourse today but is rarely spoken about in architectural and spatial dialogue. The most fundamental connection between Black people worldwide is a shared and unique sense of visual identity and the struggle we inherit due to our Blackness in the current world (Travis, 2015) and so it is imperative that we tenaciously continue to identify the very parameters that persist to confine our potentials in order to do away with the “spatial Shirley card”. This will be our moment of enlightenment perhaps, when looking to unlock the unknown of what non-Western development(s) materialize beyond imagination into. Particularly in architecture, being a discipline of intersection, the Shirley card is difficult to dismantle. We ask, as Travis does, why it is that in practically all of the other arts, we have a concept of what is Black or African? He continues to point out that he believes that there is a Black aesthetic in the environmental disciplines but that it remains hidden in plain view under so many layers of denial and controversy (Travis, 2015)
So what? How to toss the White-Supremist Shirley card? How to set Black Backdrops for free exploration, expression and progress?
Firstly, the intention of this piece was never set out to, and is incapable of reaching a set of recommendations on how to do this. The last intention would be to recreate isolated views through new “Shirleys”. This is because of the intersectionality of blackness and the potential problematic of misrepresentation that could occur through collective validation. We do not seek validation. The multi-cultural and constantly accelerating cultures of POC are palpably changing and progressing. Black architects have to develop a collective consciousness to bring forth a uniquely new traditional approach that only we can administer because of who we are, what we have experienced and what we now know of ourselves and others around us (Travis, 2015).
At some point we will feature Travis Scott in our Peeling Away at Patriarchy project. He is an educator deeply committed to exploring the meaning of blackness in culture and spatial sensibilities.
Considering how beautiful the rise of black creativity is and the space of virtual technology as a site to share and express ourselves, trends have become a daily occurrence. We should in and amongst this vibrant activity, be constantly weary of the post-colonial factory staying alert with avoiding its manual book.
Before you contribute to a trend, think of how much it will contribute to a normalized standard that could condense the space for those who do not conform to the validation that you have assumed – Shirley card syndrome number one.
PS: “Kodak did finally modify its film emulsion stocks in the 1970s and ’80s — but only after complaints from companies trying to advertise chocolate and wood furniture. The resulting Gold Max film stock was created. According to Roth, a Kodak executive described the film as being able to “photograph the details of the dark horse in low light.” (Stewart, 2013)
- Travis, J. (2015, August 27). Notes on a Black Architectural Aesthetic. Afritecture. (Afritecture, Interviewer)
- Hosey, L. (2016, December 30). African American Architecture Criticism. Retrieved March 12, 2018 from Huffington Post: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/african-american-architecture-criticism_us_5866a04ae4b04d7df167d45e
- Warerkar, T. (2017, February 22). Black architects, long underrepresented, are celebrated in a new exhibit. Retrieved March 12, 2018 from Curbed New York: https://ny.curbed.com/2017/1/27/14403988/nyc-center-for-architecture-say-it-loud-exhibit
- Ali, M. (2015, September 25). A brief history of color photography reveals an obvious but unsettling reality about human bias. Retrieved March 12, 2018 from Up Worthy: http://www.upworthy.com/a-brief-history-of-color-photography-reveals-an-obvious-but-unsettling-reality-about-human-bias
- Stewart, D. (2013, March 3). The Truth About Photography and Black Skin. Retrieved March 12, 2018 from Jezebel: https://jezebel.com/the-truth-about-photography-and-brown-skin-1557656792
- Lokko, Lesley. White Papers, Black Marks.Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2000