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Lightening Lipstick

Robert Colescott, Lightening Lipstick (1994)

Born in Oakland, California, Robert Colescott (born 1925) was raised with a love for art and music, spending much of his early years drawing and playing drums with local bands. He was greatly inspired by the sculpture of the African American artist Sargent Johnson and enrolled in the art department at the University of California, Berkeley. 

Colescott traveled to Paris to study with the acclaimed French artists Fernand Léger. He was impressed by the city's racial tolerance and its thriving community of African American artists. Following a sojourn in Cairo, Egypt, he returned to the West Coast, where he established himself as a leading figural painter. Colescott received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1985; represented the United States at the 47th Venice Biennale in 1997 (the first African American to do so); and was elected to the National Academy of Design in 1999. He taught for forty-three years as professor of art at the University of Arizona until his retirement in 1997. In 2005 he served as the Class of 1943 Wells Professor at Indiana University.

Robert Colescott is not afraid to face prejudice head-on. As an African American who witnessed America before and after Civil Rights, he feels that self-censoring his work, for the sake of political correctness, would be shirking his responsibilities to the issues of race. It is better, in his estimation, to expose bigotry in all its ugliness and ludicrous proportions than to politely sidestep difficult topics. Many of Colescott's works from the 1970s feature a recasting of art historical masterpieces, such as Vincent van Gogh's The Potato Eaters or Emanuel Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware, in blackface. His use of pop icons, like Aunt Jemima and minstrels, has not always been appreciated within the black community. Some people have felt these images only serve to perpetuate negative stereotypes of African American culture.

In Lightening Lipstick, Colescott addresses a sensitive racial issue within both the black and white communities: a preference for lighter-skinned African Americans over darker complexions and consequently, the privileges that having lighter skin entails. Lightening Lipstick examines how the perceptions of skin color inform identity and the incongruity of these different perceptions. A light-skinned woman looking at her darker reflection exclaims in Spanish, "Soy latina!" ("I'm a Latina"), while the face in the mirror responds, "Negrita" ("Black Woman"). The woman appears to be denying her African heritage and suggesting the racial transmutation that has occurred in America since the Spanish Conquest. A barometer of this "lightening" is charted from one to six, beginning with a very dark-skinned man shown over an enslaved woman and ending with a very white skinned Howdy Doody-like caricature. By using humor and satire, Colescott creates a complex narrative that addresses the serious social ramifications of imperialism and slavery on future generations.

Colescott's use of pop culture references, "appropriation" of art historical prototypes, irony, and his painterly, cartoon-like style, set the stage for the postmodern art that followed. His confrontational approach and honesty connected with a hip-hop generation weaned on MTV and desensitized to media exploitation. Younger African American artists, such as Michael Ray Charles, Kara Walker, and Adrian Piper, are deeply indebted to him. By taking a stance on complex issues, such as racial blending, Colescott challenged these artists to go beyond outrage over stereotypes and examine contemporary issues of identity.