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Stunning Self-Portraits Make You Think Twice About Interracial Identity

Brazilian artist Adriana Varejao has been exploring themes of interracial identity through an unlikely medium – self-portraits.

Brazilian artist Adriana Varejão, redefines what it means to be human.
Adriana Varejão
How would you describe your skin color?
Adriana Varejao

To confront and challenge concepts like colonialism and miscegenation in her home country, she turns her own visage into a canvas and translates the many skin colors that populate Brazil into a palette of paint. The result, “Polvo” – an exhibit presenting racial diversity through the face of one woman who is brave enough to dare anyone to lose themselves in her nebulous color wheels.

Inspired by the 17th and 18th century practice of Spanish casta paintings, Varejao aims to document the variety of skin colors in Latin America and reframe them in ways that slice and dice mixed-race ethnicities into far more than black and white. During the days of Brazil’s slavery, “mixing was the norm,” but now, it’s seen as vile and “not normal.”

Defining the norm was a Euro-centric obsession, one that resulted in an elaborate system of castes – white Spanish at one end and those of African or indigenous descent at the other – that had social, cultural and economic implications. The lighter skinned individuals existed at the top of the socio-economic pyramid, with better jobs and higher standards of living, while their darker skinned counterparts sank to the bottom…all because of this “one idea” that one person believed and played telephone all the way around until it was one solid belief.

The legacy of this classification persists in Brazil, a country seen less as a "racial democracy" and more as a purveyor of segregation. And interracial identity remains a potent issue, particularly since black and mixed-race people officially outnumber white citizens, according to a 2010 census. According to the 2010 census, Brazil is a country where non-whites now make up a majority of the population. It's one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world; home to 97 million African descendants - the largest number of black people outside of Africa.

Here, in this complex historical context, is where Varejao kicks off her project. Her self-renderings stare back at the viewer, like a traditional work of portraiture, flanked by a number of color blocks constantly reminding us about the tones in the figures' skin. Those tones are deliberate, plucked from a 1976 racial census in Brazil that asked citizens to describe their own skin color. The survey produced 136 different descriptions, ranging from "Sapecada," meaning flirting with freckles, to "Cafe com Leite," meaning milky coffee, and "Queimada de Sol," sun kissed. The artist chose her pigments based on this selection, painting herself in each constructed identity.

Along with the portraits, Varejao's project includes the set of oil paints she used in the series, a flesh-toned kit she's dubbed "Polvo," the Portuguese word for 'Octopus.' "The logo of the octopus was chosen as its dark-colored ink consists primarily of melanin." Lehmann Maupin gallery explained, "the same natural pigmentation found in human hair and skin."

To view Adriana Varejao's work, please view the slideshow.

It takes a mixture to be who we are.

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