by Itoro Udofia
If you ever wondered how the seeds of self-hate were supplanted into our psyche, try going to a wealthy neighborhood. Once you get there, find people with enough time to paint your portrait. You’ll learn how their thoughts seeped into our minds, causing a well of self-doubt to soak our hearts.
It was my first time going to a master painter’s studio. He lived in a neighboring city, where the land spreads out to hold big houses, the roads are windy, and nature has enough space to flaunt its size.
I entered the studio ready, changing into a colorful dress that revealed my shoulders. The master painter was laid back about the whole affair. All I had to do was sit and hold the pose. “Very easy,” he said. He brought a pillow to make sure I was comfortable and then adjusted the light fixtures while I sat down.
Soon, the students arrived. Mostly older White and Chinese women. They unfolded their wooden easels, taking out paint, and putting their canvasses on the stand. They skirted their makeshift workstations towards the light. When that was done, their eyes focused on me.
“We are working with a new model today. She has a beautiful skin tone. Very rich, very rich…and different.” The master painter said while setting up his easel. Other students hemmed and hawed, eyes focusing in. “Yes…beautiful, beautiful.” I felt their eyes gazing and their hands moving, ready to create. I set the timer to pose. “Ok,” I said, sitting back in the chair.
During a pose, a model does not talk. She focuses her eyes on a specific point. Perhaps the corner of a chair, or a mark on the wall that becomes too hard to miss when all you can do is observe. Usually, my eyes meditate on a chosen point. After that gets boring, I listen to my thoughts. When that turns exhausting I go back to meditating on the point. No one usually talks, and if they do, they whisper. But my ears were alert to the chatter in the classroom.
“I’m not sure what other paints to blend with her skin tone.”
“Ooh! This is going to be challenging.”
“She has a rich skin tone.”
“Excuse me?” The master painter interrupts to ask me a question. “Do you mind if we take pictures of you? They will leave a tip.”
I nod my head thinking, You say tips? Of course!
“Yes, she has a different skin tone…”
“Don’t use too much purple in the paint for her skin.”
“I don’t know what to do! I don’t want her skin to blend into the background.”
The timer goes off, marking the end of the first pose. I rest for a moment and set the timer for another pose. Not much changes in everyone’s sentiments about the model they must paint. I do something a model should not. I shift my eyes about the studio. Most of the portraits are of White and East Asian women. The women are no darker than a beige crayon. The master painter critiques some paintings, warning the painters to be mindful of where they focus the light and shadow. He speaks of understanding perspective and value when painting. Something pulses in my body. I think to myself, the painter’s language is a metaphor for living. A metaphor for adoring and perceiving the value in all creation. I hear the conversation between the master painter and his disheartened student.
“I’m having a difficult time painting her. Her skin tone is so dark. I’ve never painted this before. What a challenge!”
“Yes, she has a very rich skin tone…”
“Do you have any suggestions on what I can do?”
“Pay attention to the…” I can’t make out the rest of the words. My ears tune out. I feel a surge of irritation through my body as my chest gets heavy. I want to move but I cannot. I hope she won’t say anything else. I have a couple more hours and it seems I will have to make due with the sentiment. I hear the timer go off.
“Well, this is certainly challenging. Whew! I guess the lesson for today is don’t be afraid of the darkness.”
Finally, a break. I’m eager for lunchtime. I sit down on a couch and take out a book. A student shares the couch with me. Other students sit around the couch and table. They make light conversation and eat. The room smells like peeled oranges and a tuna sandwich. Some inquire about why I’m not eating. I say I had a big breakfast and will eat the snacks available. They offer me food. I oblige to eat some pineapple a student offers. My ears become alert again as I tune into their conversation.
“The last girl we had to paint was difficult, but this girl is much more difficult.” (I’m sitting right next to the student saying this).
One of the students sees my frown and adds ease to the comment.
“Yes, but the model we have is so great. You can sit perfectly still. You never move!” She smiles at me. I go back to reading my book. In minutes I leave the couch.
The class reassembles. I set the timer for a pose. I hear a student talk to the master painter while he observes her painting.
“Well, you might not be able to tell, but she is a woman.”
Was this student going to take my womanhood away too? Was I personalizing too much? I couldn’t help the flashback I had of a little girl painting caramel foundation on her face to wipe out chocolate skin. Lighter skin would make life less “challenging.” The makeup would shrink her not so “delicate” features, making her all the more identifiable as a woman. I thought of my family who worried about me during that phase of my life. They watched my inability to leave the house without my face on. They said I looked like a clown. Their comments made no difference. I continued to hide makeup in the pockets of bags, under the bed, in my school locker, hiding makeup that I didn’t even know how to use. I remember how that girl believed a clown face was more congenial. A clown face would make life less “difficult,” solving the challenge of a world at odds with how she was created.
My mind went back to the room with the painting students. I am grateful that my lips are full and my eyes do not cower. I want them to paint a woman who chose to be herself.
During the breaks, some students would speak to me. I was just so challenging to paint, they would say. At times, they would take a moment, become aware of their words, and soften the blow. Remarking that I was wonderful to work with, or calling attention to how smooth my skin was. One student made no qualms about expressing the truth of how she felt. “Wow! You’re a hard one.” I preferred her candor more than the other students. I noticed it was mostly the White students expressing their despair with painting me. This student, a Chinese woman, expressed her personal truth, which let me know she had never painted someone with my skin tone before. I appreciated the way she approached her painting with a spirit of curiosity rather than failure.
When she went away, I was ready to see what all the fuss was about. I was ready to look at the paintings. A tense feeling took hold of my heart. Would I see a monster? I imagined their paintings reflecting the images of minstrelsy. Hearkening back to the days when Whites created Black caricatures that made killing real Black people all the more easier. I’m sure they perceived an unseemly challenge. One they could destroy if we refused to entertain or turn a profit. After all, we weren’t human anyway. Even today, we must state that we are not these imaginings trapped in their heads and hearts. The idea of a minstrel is entertaining until it becomes frightening. An idea always goes back to its source.
I braced myself. If the paintings teleported me back to that time I would protest. Demand for a cultural competency training — something — anything to stop the insanity. When I looked I was surprised. I was prepared for a fight, but little did I know I would have to confront my own internalized ideas of what these students would paint.
I saw variations of a beautiful woman. Natural hair, dark skin, flat nose…a wonderful aesthetic to freshen up a studio filled with beige colored women. Certain areas in each painting could stand critique. The likeness of the actual woman needed more fleshing out. Proportions of the nose to the mouth, the eyes to the ears, a deepening of skin could be more defined…Their handiwork lets me know they could create in a way that had humanity no matter the color. Why didn’t they seem to believe that? Why did I doubt that?
Out of my own curiosity, I was eager to see the painting from the student who called me a girl and said that if-you-looked-close-enough-you-could-verify-that-her-painting-was-not-of-a-man, but a woman.
I’m no painter, but I certainly saw a human on the canvas. She looked a little different from the original, but I knew that was me. The student and I began a conversation.
“I could add more highlights to your skin, especially now that I’m seeing you up close. But please don’t take any pictures yet…I’m not sure it’s any good.”
My heart softened. I understood she was an artist. I was grateful that she created something real, in spite of her chatter and bias, I could look at the painting evenly and tell her the truth. “It’s beautiful,” I said.
“Thank you…are there any suggestions you have for me?”
“Well…my face is longer.”
“Ah! Well, what do you know? I think that’s it…”
I still think there needs to be a cultural competency training, and I have to find the courage to voice my concerns to the master painter. He is a man of color. I can hear the mark of another land in his voice. He spoke Mandarin to some of the students. I’m sure that at some point, a thought rose in his consciousness whispering, Silly White people, tricks are for kids. From the look of his studio and the gait of the students, I suspect they paint pale skinned people or sweeping landscapes all day.
I suppose painting can be likened to a human playing God attempting to make (wo)man in his image. The only thing is that a human playing God can have a limited curiosity, finding comfort only in what’s familiar. I understand difference and curiosity, but I cannot accommodate fear and supremacy. It’s intolerable. At some point, we must choose to rid ourselves of such base thinking. We cannot afford another second of engaging in terrorizing ideas that ultimately preach loathing of other people because they are different. The dilemma is that we are used to one group of people holding the creative idea and its image hostage.
Whatever the case, I must do my part to free myself of the self-loathing ideas and images trapped in my own head and heart. Reminding myself that I bleed, cry, laugh, and curse like anyone else. At the end of the day, those thoughts of self-loathing were never mine. They were the secondhand replacements for love. A thwarting of the intimacy we are capable of. A human is a human first, no matter the challenge perceived.
© 2017 Summer 2017, Itoro Udofia, African Voices.
Itoro Udofia is an educator and writer based in the Bay Area. She loves to tell stories about how African women weave themselves into the larger American fabric, negotiating their identity, legacies, and change. Her stories have been published in Saraba Magazine, Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism, the Edge Literary Review and Slice Magazine. She is currently a fellow at the San Francisco Writer’s Grotto.