There’s a subtle kind of racial overtone in any drugstore you visit: It’s found in “skin-tone” band-aids, for example, or “nude” nail polish. We tend not to dwell on the shade of pantyhose; but in truth, the way commercial colors and products are named can be really restrictive.
A few years ago, French artist Pierre David was invited by the Museum of Modern Art Brazil to create an installation that addressed identity and diversity in the South American country. Hoping to involve Brazilians directly in the project, Pierre asked 40 museum employees and art students to pose shirtless in a series of portraits. He organized the shots into a Pantone-inspired swatch library, and asked an industrial paint company to mix 40 cans of paint to match the participants. The final exhibit featured a “swatch” library of colors designed by Superscript studio, and a lineup of paint cans labeled with the features of each model.
“Reducing an individual to a color poses the issue of racism in an immediate way,” explains David on his website. “Is it harmless to say, ‘I like (or I do not like) your color?’” Human Pantone responds to the history of slavery in Brazil, as well as questions about France’s legacy as a colonial power. At the same time as it foregrounds the banality of tone-based racism, Human Pantone is meant to celebrate the remarkable diversity of skin colors. Because, David notes, just as flesh-toned band-aids don’t match anyone’s real skin, no one will ever exactly match up to a single swatch in his library. Which is actually really cool.