The Race in This Face

Photographer's project zeroes in on what we still haven't learned about racism

What’s shocking about Jonathas de Andrade’s photography project, which reignites a study on race and class in Brazil that was completed in the 1950s, isn’t the difference made by shifting centuries and continents, it’s how little has changed.

A friend introduced the Brazilian photographer, who often works with existing texts or archival images, to Race and Class in Rural Brazil, completed by Columbia University professors at UNESCO's behest. Their charge was to explore the ostensibly subdued racial prejudice and discrimination found in Brazil, despite sharing the United States' situation as home to Native Americans, African Americans and Caucasians. Researchers showed photographs of white, black and mixed-race Brazilians to other Brazilians who were then asked to evaluate the subject's attractiveness, work ethic and morality.

The study is, at best, befuddling in its contradictions and the uncertain footing with which it situates Brazil as a "lesson in racial democracy for the rest of the world." That claim is followed by pages detailing, for example, eight designations for people of mixed African descent living in the plantation-adjacent villages in Bahia. The study describes classifications based on various physical criteria including how kinky and unmanageable their hair is, how flat their noses, and how thick their lips, and then a run-through of how each is associated with a series of character attributes, from irritability to humility to laziness. Those visible qualities, once tied to invisible ones, trickled down to affect the socioeconomic opportunities for these people. This study of racial democracy is, in other words, a treatise on racism's potent and insidious presence, even in places where we imagine it is not found.

"It studies the process of judging people, which is something completely controversial in our day, so I was shocked to see the naturality in which the text runs through the terminology in Portuguese and how it was describing and trying to understand the criteria of these judgments," de Andrade says. "Something also impressive was how still, today, we would see these types of terminology with racist connotations being used in Brazil in daily life. The terminologies of the '50s, which could sound out of date or completely past, were not at all. They still somehow look familiar."

De Andrade made his own foray with A Study on Race and Class: Bahia by spending a week in Santa Fe photographing about 60 Santa Feans; it follows a similar project he completed in New York City in 2015.

"I thought it could be interesting to go to the United States and understand, in a sort of boomerang effect, how these race issues happen there today," he says. Making portraits was just a conversation-starter.

Working in the cosmopolitan Big Apple left him wanting to try somewhere inland and closer to the Mexican border, he says, and Santa Fe became that destination when SITE Santa Fe Biennial curatorial team member Kiki Mazzucchelli invited him to develop a project for the Biennial. The project saw him spending a week in Santa Fe's community centers, schools (including the Institute of American Indian Arts) and library, and even on the street corner where immigrants seek day labor jobs.

New York's multiplicity, complexity and crowdedness could camouflage some of the racism lingering there, he says, but on the whole, he found it far more common for Santa Feans to report having had direct contact with racism. He left with hundreds of images of faces in motion as people spoke about their lives, their experiences and the prejudices they've survived.

The photographs debut Saturday, July 16, when the Biennial opens to the public. The 2016 Biennial, much wider than a line, continues SITE's now more than 20-year-old tradition, which has focused in recent years on art from the Americas. Much Wider than a Line explores shared experiences in the Americas—those phenomena that cross the lines far from border country and tie our continents together, like the legacies of Indigenous eradication, slavery and oppression. The shinier remnants of those legacies, like ongoing influence of Indigenous cultures, a relationship to the landscape and an appreciation for vernacular art and craft, comprise the core of the exhibition.

De Andrade's more than 250 photographs are interspersed with text from the original UNESCO study as well as notes from his conversations with the subjects of his photographs, the total piece stretching more than 37 feet long and 9 feet tall.

"The text and the photographs, they create a friction together of what is yesterday, what is today," he says.

Sometimes, text that looks out of date isn't very old at all.

"I hope people would be able to make a connection between these two very different historical times, but also to have this realization of how much race is still an issue in the contemporary world, in spite of all the advances," Mazzucchelli says. "Certain prejudices and behaviors are repeated throughout history."

Given recent headlines, she says, a conversation on how an idealized version of multiracial society fails to correspond with reality seems particularly relevant.

De Andrade will decide what the next step for his work and this project on race and class should be after he sees the response to this piece, he says, but it's likely time to bring it back home to Brazil. He's sure it'll produce different results than the original UNESCO study, but why that is could break at a complicated point over what people have simply learned not to say.

"There is a point of being politically correct, even in the economic studies, that would make it impossible to have a study that would explicitly be made on judgments, and the procedure of the study itself is to offer possibilities for judging, and these must be studied. … For me, this is fascinating, what is acceptable and not acceptable in common sense, even in the academy, in the research and in daily life," he says. "Not saying such things doesn't mean that people don't feel or people are less prejudiced. … Actually, people, they keep judging very similarly."

SITElines 2016: much wider than a line
10 am-5 pm Saturday July 16. Free.
SITE Santa Fe,
1606 Paseo de Peralta

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