TED | Angélica Dass: The beauty of human skin in every color

It has been 128 years since the last country in the world abolished slavery and 53 years since Martin Luther King pronounced his “I Have A Dream” speech. But we still live in a world where the color of our skin not only gives a first impression, but a lasting one that remains.

00:42 I was born in a family full of colors. My father is the son of a maid from whom he inherited an intense dark chocolate tone. He was adopted by those who I know as my grandparents. The matriarch, my grandma, has a porcelain skin and cotton-like hair. My grandpa was somewhere between a vanilla and strawberry yogurt tone, like my uncle and my cousin. My mother is a cinnamon-skin daughter of a native Brazilian, with a pinch of hazel and honey, and a man [who is] a mix of coffee with milk, but with a lot of coffee. She has two sisters. One in a toasted-peanut skin and the other, also adopted, more on the beige side, like a pancake.

01:45 Growing up in this family, color was never important for me. Outside home, however, things were different soon. Color had many other meanings.

02:01 I remember my first drawing lessons in school as a bunch of contradictory feelings. It was exciting and creative but I never understood the unique flesh-colored pencil. I was made of flesh but I wasn’t pink. My skin was brown, and people said I was black. I was seven years old with a mess of colors in my head.

02:29 Later, when I took my cousin to school, I was usually taken for the nanny. By helping in the kitchen at a friend’s party, people thought I was the maid. I was even treated like a prostitute just because I was walking alone on the beach with European friends. And many times, visiting my grandma or friends in upper class buildings, I was invited not to use the main elevator. Because in the end, with this color and this hair, I cannot belong to some places.

03:12 In some way, I get to used to it and accept part of it. However, something inside of me keeps revolving and struggling.

03:23 Years later I married a Spaniard. But not any Spaniard. I chose one with the skin color of a lobster when sunburnt.

03:35 Since then, a new question started to chase me. What will be the color of your children? As you can understand, this is my last concern. But thinking about it, with my previous background, my story led me to make my personal exercise as a photographer. And that is how Humanae was born.

04:00 Humanae is a pursuit to highlight our true colors, rather than the untrue white, red, black or yellow associated with race. It’s a kind of game to question our codes. It’s a work in progress from a personal story to a global history.

04:21 I portray the subjects in a white background. Then I choose an 11-pixel square from the nose, paint the background, and look for the corresponding color in the industrial palette, Pantone.

04:40 I started with my family and friends, then more and more people joined the adventure, thanks to public calls coming through the social media.

04:52 I thought that the main space to show my work was the Internet because I want an open concept that invites everybody to push the share button in both the computer and their brain.

05:08 The snowball started to roll. The project had a great welcome — invitations, exhibitions, physical formats, galleries and museums … just happened. And among them, my favorite: when Humanae occupies public spaces and appears in the street, it fosters a popular debate and creates a feeling of community.

05:46 I have portrayed more than 3,000 people in 13 different countries, 19 different cities around the world.Just to mention some of them — from someone included in the Forbes list, to refugees who crossed the Mediterranean by boat. In Paris, from the UNESCO Headquarters to a shelter. And students both in Switzerland and favelas in Rio de Janeiro.

06:15 All kinds of beliefs, gender identities or physical impairments, a newborn or terminally ill. We all together build Humanae.

06:28 Those portraits make us rethink how we see each other. When modern science is questioning the race concept, what does it mean for us to be black, white, yellow, red? Is it the eye, the nose, the mouth, the hair? Or does it have to do with our origin, nationality or bank account?

06:58 This personal exercise turned out to be a discovery. Suddenly I realized that Humanae was useful for many people. It represents a sort of mirror for those who cannot find themselves reflected in any label.

07:17 It was amazing that people started to share their thoughts about the work with me. I have hundreds of that, I will share with you, too.

07:27 A mother of 11 years — A mother of an 11-year-old girl wrote me, “Very good for me as a tool to work on her confidence, as this past weekend one of her girlfriends argued with her that she does not belong and should not be allowed to live in Norway. So your work has a very special place in my heart and it’s very important for me.”

07:58 A woman shared her portrait on Facebook and wrote, “All my life, people from across the globe had difficulties to place me in a group, a stereotype, a box. Perhaps we should stop. Instead of framing, ask the individual, ‘How would you label yourself?’ Then I would say, ‘Hi. I’m Massiel. I’m a Dominican-Dutch, I grew up in a mixed family and I’m a bisexual woman.’ ”

08:31 Besides these unexpected and touching reactions, Humanae finds a new life in a different variety of fields. Just to show you some examples, illustrators and art students using it as a reference for their sketches and their studies. It’s a collection of faces.

08:52 Researchers in the fields of anthropology, physics and neuroscience use Humanae with different scientific approaches related to human ethnicity, optophysiology, face recognition or Alzheimer’s.

09:11 One of the most important impacts of the project is that Humanae was chosen to be the cover of Foreign Affairs, one of the most relevant political publications. And talking about foreign affairs, I found the perfect ambassadors for my project … teachers. They are the ones that use Humanae as a tool for educational purposes. Their passion encourages me to go back to drawing classes, but this time as a teacher myself.

09:50 My students, both adults and kids, paint their self-portraits, trying to discover their own unique color.

10:08 As a photographer, I realize that I can be a channel for others to communicate. As an individual, as Angélica, every time I take a picture, I feel that I am sitting in front of a therapist. All the frustration, fear and loneliness that I once felt … becomes love.

10:41 The last country — the last country in the world who abolished slavery is the country where I was born,Brazil. We still have to work hard to abolish discrimination. That remains a common practice worldwide, and that will not disappear by itself.

11:08 Thank you.

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