John Akomfrah, Our Skin Is a Monument I, 2020. Courtesy of Frieze
Disappearance, fugitivity, invisibility and opacity are all useful methods to think through resistance and refusal. In a sense, each of these modes is underscored by the notion of freedom, or rather, exist in service of freedom. We disappear and make ourselves invisible to circumvent surveillance and to bypass the watchful gaze. We disappear and make ourselves invisible to resist being seen and therefore being owned. But how do you disappear when your skin is a centuries-old monument? When it is bold, conspicuous and observable?
John Akomfrah’s Our Skin Is a Monument I (2020) is a helpful starting point in thinking through these questions. First appearing as a cover for the October issue of the Frieze Magazine, the work is a limited edition Giclée print made in support of the Frieze x Deutsche Bank Emerging Curators Fellowship. It is foregrounded by a promotional still from the 1954 American musical film, Carmen Jones, starring Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte. A Shirley card functions as a border around Dandridge and Belafonte whose posture is sexual and sensual. Beginning in the 1940s, Shirley cards were used to calibrate skin-colour balance in film technology. The original Shirley, after whom the cards were named and modelled, was said to have beautiful eyes, great hair, and beautifully white skin. She was not only gorgeous but would set Kodak’s skin tone standard, further embedding the racial bias that existed within larger society. Shirley’s white skin would be memorialised and monumentalised for decades through the use of this card. Her whiteness, as articulated through her skin, is a bold and observable monument.
Akomfrah’s Our Skin Is a Monument I takes its inspiration from Caroline Randall Williams’ essay ‘My Body is a Confederate Monument,’ first published in the New York Times. “I have rape-colored skin. My light-brown-blackness is a living testament to the rules, the practices, the causes of the Old South. If there are those who want to remember the legacy of the Confederacy, if they want monuments, well, then, my body is a monument. My skin is a monument,” she writes. Just as Shirley’s skin monumentalises, so too does Caroline’s.
As a monument, the black body continues to be surveilled and policed, unable to fully escape this condition. Our Skin Is a Monument I is about memorialisation, but it is also about the struggle for escape. After being arrested for fighting with a coworker, Carmen (Dorothy Dandridge)’s only recourse is to become fugitive. Running away becomes the only option for freedom. Fugitivity and freedom become entangled, where fugitivity becomes less about criminality but a possibility towards emancipation.