Picture: Vitus Shell, “Bright Idea”
Frantz Fanon, the French psychologist and theorist of colonialism and Third World liberation, observed that members of an oppressed group will frequently internalize the attitudes of their oppressors and then direct that aggression at each other: “The colonized man will first manifest this aggressiveness which has been deposited in his bones against his own people.” The phenomenon shows itself in America’s internal corollary to colonialism, the long generations of slavery, and Jim Crow laws, when African Americans accorded higher social status to people with a lighter complexion. The brown paper bag test was a ritual once used by black sororities and fraternities and other social organizations to determine social ordering based on skin color: anyone whose skin was darker than a brown paper bag was ineligible to join.
Vitus Shell, an artist from Memphis currently working on an MFA at Ole Miss, uses the brown paper bag test as the unifying motif for a show at the Tennessee Arts Commission. His work draws attention to the psychological wound of color prejudice within the African American community and connects it, in his statement about the show, with current threads in contemporary black society showing up in magazines and music videos.
Shell’s work, in this show and earlier, makes heavy use of foam-cut images of African Americans printed in black ink. They usually appear in formal clothes from an indeterminate earlier time. The technique renders the faces without a lot of detail, so his figures evoke general memories of generations past rather than specific individuals. He uses the technique on several pieces, including a series of 100 small brown paper bags printed with the identical image of a man and marked with phrases that refer to skin color or social status in some way, like “café au lait,” “mulatto,” “yellow bone,” “field hand,” or “Imitation of Life” (a reference to the 1959 Douglas Sirk melodrama that deals with a young black woman who “passes” for white). A few of the bags are marked “pass,” more are marked “rejected,” and others are sorted only by implication. On several of the “pass” bags, Shell colored in the faces yellow or white, or shaded the surrounding background a darker brown, or put in some other reference to social privilege—like the bag marked AKA, in reference to the African American sorority (written in AKA’s trademark pink and green colors). The “pass” bags cluster to the left side of the array, along with other bags with similar modifications, suggesting implicit “passes.” The “rejecteds” fall among bags in the center and right side. Even this loose order breaks down. One face colored red is marked “pass” and another the same color is marked “rejected.” Furthermore, underneath any words or additions of color, each bag carries a picture of the same man, printed in black ink. The associations between words and visual characteristics are, at the bottom, arbitrary.
Shell doesn’t limit himself to these foam-cut, “earlier times” images. Four portraits on board depict distinct, individual contemporary figures. Again, he accompanies the portraits with words. A picture of a teenage boy with cornrows has the words “sharp features” and “well to do.” Simply seeing the phrases encourages you to read those characteristics into the portrait, but the words could as easily describe the other portraits tagged “fragile” and “middle class” or “guilty,” “green” and “hazel.” In this series, the paintings model the mechanisms through which we train ourselves to see people based on what is said or written about them. They also show the continuation of internalized color and appearance-based prejudice into contemporary African American life.
Many of the works also refer to the commercial products sold to African Americans to help them suppress their “African” characteristics, like dark skin or curly hair. The phrase “lighter, brighter, cleaner,” a reference to skin-lightening agents, constitutes a secondary motto for the show, appearing stenciled on brown paper bags and serving as the title for three paintings of a black woman wearing a mask of light makeup. Each painting’s background contains a collage of ads for black-oriented beauty products and for other aspects of the good life for sale, like jewelry or whiskey. The ads bring out the way capitalism abets African American self-effacement by providing products to hide their features.
Shell shows the natural convergence of psychic self-oppression and commercial culture. Commerce feeds on need and insecurity and will always seek out the weak link in the chain of psychological wholeness. A huge amount of the business of creating consumer demand involves getting people to ask themselves how thin, rich or popular they are—how acceptable they are, or, more likely, are not—and then rushing in with solutions for purchase. These mechanisms have a fruitful audience in African Americans, who in addition to the usual human insecurities also live in a society that has specifically defined them as inadequate. This devaluation was officially promulgated in laws for most of U.S. history and continues today in subtler forms of judgment cast on people like those in Shell’s four contemporary portraits.
Picture: Vitus Shell, “Momma’s Baby Poppa’s Maybe”
Within this context of psychological harm, one stand-alone painting, “Momma’s Baby Poppa’s Maybe” becomes particularly devastating. A cluster of figures—a woman with children of various ages—stands together on the right side of the frame. To the left a boy stands by himself. The image and the title suggest that even within the family, pernicious status judgments occur. Within the context of this show, you assume that, based on skin color or some other aspect of his features, his siblings or members of the community hint that maybe he had a different dad and isn’t a full member of the family. This family offers no refuge. Although the faces in this painting are rendered with more detail than the foam-cut prints, it is impossible to discern a difference between the boy’s skin tone and the others, making it hard to see the judgment cast on him as anything other than arbitrary.
Many individual works in this show have the potential to hit you like a gut punch with their records of pitiless judgments of individual worth based on skin color, but Shell floods the gallery with reminders of in-group aggression between African Americans. The exhibit taken in total, as an installation, lays out a portrait of an inheritance of psychological damage built up from small and large slights—the proverbial tiny thousand cuts—repeated over the years.