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Beyond Black and White: A Look at Angélica Dass

With her Humanae project, Brazilian photographer Angélica Dass aims to photograph every skin tone in the world.
Angélica Dass

Angélica Dass: self-portrait

If you walk past the August Wilson Center between now and next August, you’ll see about 150 faces showcased on its façade. These faces are a part of a portrait-based exhibit called Humanae/I AM AUGUST and were captured by Brazilian photographer, Angélica Dass. Pittsburgh is one of fifteen cities around the world featured in this global art series. The installation is a collaboration among janera solomon and the Kelly Strayhorn Theater and the Magenta Foundation, with generous support from The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Richard King Mellon Foundation.

Each portrait shows a person’s face and bare shoulders in front of a similarly colored background. An alphanumeric code is listed at the bottom. This code, called a Pantone code, is part of an international and standardized color-matching system. Pantone codes ensure that manufacturers, designers, and artists in various different locations can communicate about the same colors when needed.

The Pantone code listed at the bottom of each portrait matches with the portrait’s background and the skin tone of the portrait’s subject.

“[To match] I use eleven pixels off the nose,” Dass says. “I choose the nose because this is a part of the body that changes…when you’re in the sun, when you have the flu, sometimes, when you cry.”

The subtle variations in color and volatility of skin tone is central to the statement Dass is making with Humanae. Rather than looking at people as simply Black or White, matching skin tones with their Pantone codes allows us to see all the variations in skin color that exists. Additionally, we can see that a person who would be labeled Black can easily share a Pantone code with someone of a different race. Humanae invites people to think about skin color in new and unique ways.

Humanae/I AM AUGUST

Humanae/I AM AUGUST by Angélica Dass

Every day of your life constructs who you are as a creative person.
Dass says the origins of Humanae is personal. Her father was a Black man, adopted by a White family, and her mother is half-Black and half-Native American. Her own family is filled with people of many different colors and backgrounds, yet everyone is seen as equal. Outside of her family, however, Dass has experienced the judgment of others, based on her skin color.

“I married a Spanish guy who is very pink and with green eyes, and people–I don’t know why–but they’re very curious about what will be the color of my son. Of course, that doesn’t matter for me. The idea was to talk about the way I see the world. I see the world the way I see this wall. Everybody has a different color, but I really feel they are all unique and equal at the same time.”

According to Dass, equality and identity are the main themes of Humanae. Through this project, she has had the opportunity to photograph many different people, all from various backgrounds. She’s captured people who have been on the Forbes List and people who are homeless, but you’d never be able to tell who’s who when looking at their pictures. By not seeing their clothes and other material possessions, each person truly is seen in an equal light.

This bare vulnerability has made a few of the models a bit uncomfortable. Dass says that while people like seeing photos of other people, they tend to struggle when they see their own. This is likely because Dass does not use edit the portraits to eliminate wrinkles, scars, or other attributes that may be viewed as imperfections. In the days of Photoshop and Instagram filters, this can be shocking for some. Despite this, Dass believes most people are proud to be a part of the project, regardless of how they feel about their own photograph.

Dass’ artistic vision aligns well with the mission of the August Wilson Center.  Humanae/I AM AUGUST producer and Kelly-Strayhorn Theater executive director janera solomon says, “The installation’s collage of faces and colors reminds us that the Center, like the timeless work of its namesake, is for everyone. This sentiment came through over and over again in our August Wilson Center Recovery Committee’s community conversations.”

Angélica Dass, janera solomon, Anqwenique Wingfield

l-r: Angélica Dass, janera solomon, and Anqwenique Wingfield (photo by Kenneth Neely)

Tori Mistick, a Pittsburgher who participated in Humanae/I AM AUGUST, is one of those people. “I was just really proud to be a part of something like that, of a piece of artwork. I was really giddy to see myself at first. Like, I could stand in front of it and take a selfie with myself!”

Mistick is just one of 3,000 people across about a dozen countries who have been photographed for the Humanae project thus far. These countries include Spain, Brazil, South Korea, France, and Ethiopia. All portraits taken to date are viewable online.

“The main space of exhibition of this project is on the Web,” Dass notes. “This, for me, is essential because you don’t have to see my work personally to discuss the issue. I want everyone, in their home, to be able to discuss the issue. The Internet is the perfect tool for that.”

Tori Mistick used her Humanae/I AM AUGUST photo as her Facebook profile picture, and to date, it has garned over 160 likes.  “So many people were curious about the project, and I think [my profile picture] prompted a lot of people to go see the exhibit in person.”

Humanae has been featured on Time.com, Oprah.com, and Elle India. Dass’s photos made the front cover of Foreign Affairs magazine, which typically covers news pertaining to foreign policy, economics, and global affairs. The inclusion of Humanae in this type of publication speaks to how layered the project is.

“[Humanae is] personal, artistic, educational, [and] political,” Dass says.

Angélica Dass

Angélica Dass talks with attendees at the Humanae/I AM AUGUST unveiling (photo by Kenneth Neely)

My work is more than photography. The biggest lesson is that art can make a difference in real life.
When it comes to her own work experience, Dass herself is quite layered. Fashion design, fine arts, stenography, and costume design are all things she dabbled in before she started taking photography more seriously. In 2011, she went back to school to refine her craft. A few years later, and it seems all of her past artistic experience informs what she creates today. Her love of photography started when she was young, as her father is an amateur photographer. She began taking photos when she was about eleven years old, but never thought she’d end up being a photographer.

“I always talk about that,” Dass says. “That every day of your life constructs who you are as a creative person.”

When she can, Dass visits schools and lead workshops for kids in Humanae cities to help them better understand the themes of equality and identity. When asked about the biggest lesson she’s learned from this project, Dass pauses to think. “I really understand that my work is more than photography. For me, the biggest lesson is that art can make a difference in real life.”

About the Author

Akirah Robinson is a licensed social worker, writer, and therapist who loves helping women heal. She lives in Pittsburgh, PA with her handsome husband and their hyperactive hound dog, Walker. Her first book, "Respected" was released in November 2014.

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