By Taylor Larson
Decades ago, America stood as a country divided, split not between differing social structure, class, ideology or education, but two shades of color.
At a time where everything had an answer, a clearly defined path of right and wrong, there was no room for gray, for blending ideas into one middle ground.
Race was an issue at the forefront of the nation, a division based solely on skin pigmentation alone.
Protests and demonstrations sent waves of social consciousness rippling through cities. Lives were lost and victories were won.
Somewhere along the line, this nation faced up to its own hypocrisy and race relations improved.
Though the days of Freedom Rides and sit-ins are long gone, the country’s fixation on race continues, though not in the way people might expect.
With her exhibit “Redbones, Yellowbones, and Lightbrights,” Vanessa Clifton digs deep.
Her series of photographs critically analyzes the color division present in the African American community.
“The work comes from just being in the community. Especially with older people, they’re really judgmental about color, and I was thinking that it’s 2012—why are people still thinking like this? Slavery was so long ago, but people still can’t get that out of their minds,” said Clifton.
Despite slavery having been abolished 146 years ago, the fixation on race continues to linger into the 21st century.
The title of Clifton’s exhibit directly addresses these outdated attitudes, taking its title from derogatory statements regarding skin tone.
The term lightbright stands as the common term for those with a very light complexion, while redbone and yellowbone are used to describe those with a red or yellow tint to their skin.
“I’d be a lightbright because I’m a lighter shade,” said Clifton. “These terms have always been in place in the community.”
To illustrate the division such relations cause, Clifton shot eight life size profiles, viewed topless from their shoulders up.
Captured with a Nikon D-90, Clifton’s images are poignant and quietly powerful, X-ray imaging, strengthened by her choice to strip her subjects down to the bare minimum, emphasizing skin and bone, teeth and hair, eyes and nose: similarities.
Raw and strikingly simplistic, the images are startlingly lifelike for 2D prints, their calm expressions and blank backgrounds speaking to how internalized and isolating such attitudes have become.
The figures are positioned at an uncomfortable distance from one another, painfully close while at the same time remaining distinctly separate, with only a few inches space dividing the two.
The plain white walls of the Saniwax Gallery are ideal for the exhibit, as the contrast between skin tones, black backdrop, and overall starkness of the space provided draw viewers’ eyes immediately to the subjects at hand.
Though the subjects themselves do not appear hostile, there is a feeling of tension present in each set of photographs that contrasts with the sharp detail and vulnerability of the individual pieces.
Standing alone, the images are striking portraits—together, they create a dialogue, a visual critique of a dividing classification.
The size of the images draws attention to the magnitude of the issue, acting as a stark contrast to the subtlety and subconscious prejudice which often accompany one’s view of skin color. With these portraits, there is no room to hide.
Each contrast of skin tone positioned side by side strips away all boundaries, encouraging the viewer to question and examine the intense scrutiny that continues to divide a community.
It was this continuous examination which drew Clifton to the issue, leading her to devote two years to exploring the importance of skin color and, eventually, developing her concept for the show.
“It started out with the people face forward, with open lighting, clothes and jewelry. The second phase was to take the shirt off, take the jewelry off, and I did dramatic lighting instead of more open,” said Clifton.
“Then the third phase was to face them together, face them towards each other, to kind of imitate how we look at each other, how we judge each other.”
It is interesting to note that the fixation with image extends not only towards women, but men as well, affecting both sexes in equally negative ways.
“The men, if you’re lighter, you’re considered soft or weak or because you have it easier sometimes, or they think that you do. Darker is more masculine,” Clifton said of the color hierarchy. “That’s pretty much the stigma with men, whereas with women, if you’re lighter, you’re more feminine, nice, or not as aggressive.”
With her work, Clifton hopes to generate conversation and change within her community, with her exhibit acting as a starting point, a visual catalyst for change.
“I question why we, the African American community, are still separating and examining each other when we should learn how to come together as one,” reads her thesis statement.
It is said a house divided against itself cannot stand. Clifton’s work is a call to action, an attempt to raise awareness and inspire those who may feel isolated or looked down upon to come together—a concept from which we all may be able to take something away.