The embodied ‘raced’ self, transposed into online space as avatar carries with it interminable questions related to the nuances of identity, representation and Blackness. So much so, that the weight of questions burdens both the inner critical reasoning inherent in the process of making work and the outer facade of the creation itself. Any notion of lightness, joy of creativity in the process of making can be crushed or lost, by the over positionality which takes place in order to create.
This piece describes the process of critical thinking and considerations followed by the process of making my first 3d avatar for Virtual Pavilion[i] a virtual reality gallery containing Afrofuturist work, visited by a spaceman.
Mediated images of Blackness are powerful agents, carrying with them historical constructs which can subsequently influence a range of judgments from social to historical ideologies, to personhood on the body.
Avatars are designed to take the place of our embodied selves in online spaces becoming our virtual identities in interactive games, social media spaces and more recently in online work environments. This is a weighty contextual and ethical responsibility, at a granular level we can decide what we want to look like and in so doing, how we want to be perceived. As our true likeness? As an adopted persona? Or something in between.
Having decided on making a ‘true likeness’ version of myself, for the Virtual Pavilion one of the first questions I asked was ‘how dark should I make my skin?’ Therein lies the problematised issue; ‘colourism’ and the politics of skin tone outlined succinctly by Arthurs [ii] in which she describes our shared experience of growing up knowing, somehow the received beauty standard was positioned on a sliding scale, with the ultimate goal being a proximity to whiteness. Sio [iii] outlines the scale in question; a quantitative eight category scale of proximity used in the British colonial Caribbean. Arthurs goes on to describe how having found herself on the wrong end of this scale, her strategy was to find out if she could move towards the right end of it, through finding whiteness in her heritage. Finding strategies towards whiteness is a legitimatising narrative in the colonised mind, associated with people with darker skin, it’s another way of ‘bringing up the colour’[iv].
Here the legacies of empire are writ large in the psyche of generations born outside the formal system of empire in its neocolonial traces, dogged by the issue raised by Fanon.
“The colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country’s cultural standards. He becomes whiter as he renounces his blackness, his jungle.”[v]
In consideration of those positions, and in opposition to them, I decided that my skin tone would be dark black, I moved my virtual identity towards the end of the scale which is a new beauty standard, more than just acceptable, but beautiful. Having released myself from the colonised burden, I started to play and decided to become a space cowgirl. This reminds me of another very important point; in this moment of now, if we allow it there will not be enough distance from a past which moulded our colonised psyche, no matter which colour system we ascribe to.
I cannot exist in the now, without creating active interventions in my own colonised critical mind and that of people engaging with my work, my virtual personae and my embodied self, are creating space to declare wholly, this is who I am, and this is what I look like.
[ii] Arthurs, A. (2021). Can we finally talk about colourism? [online] Harper’s BAZAAR. Available at: https://www.harpersbazaar.com/uk/culture/a33393035/colourism-alexia-arthurs/ .?
[iii] Sio, A.A. (1976). Race, Colour, and Miscegenation: The Free Coloured of Jamaica and Barbados. Caribbean Studies, [online] 16(1), pp.5–21. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/25612729?seq=4#metadata_info_tab_contents
[iv] Colloquial term for breeding whiteness into your family i.e. progress towards making your family generationally lighter in skin tone.
[v] Habha, H.K., Sardar, Z., Marx, K., Engels, F. and Harvey, D. (2008). Black Skin, White Masks The Communist Manifesto. [online] Available at: http://abahlali.org/files/__Black_Skin__White_Masks__ Pluto_Classics_.pdf.