Fifty Shades of Kayumanggi

A three-panel art installation by Filipina artist France Viana, called “What Color is Kayumanggi?” is on display at the Mills College Art Museum’s “(Un)common thread: Mills College Senior Thesis Exhibition.”

The art exhibit features original works of graduating studio art majors who use a wide range of media from painting, sculpture, photography, ceramics and book arts, employing both traditional as well as conceptual frameworks, to create engaging art that challenges the viewer.

Installation view. 50 Shades of Kayumanggi. Mills Museum (Photo by © Phil Bond)

Installation view. 50 Shades of Kayumanggi. Mills Museum (Photo by © Phil Bond)

Installation view at (un)common thread exhibition, Mills Museum (Photo by © Phil Bond)

Installation view at (un)common thread exhibition, Mills Museum (Photo by © Phil Bond)

What Color is True Kayumanggi?

Finding the average kayumanggi (brown complexion) a distinct, non-translatable word, was a huge undertaking. The Kayumanggi installation started out with a collection of more than 120 photos of the hands of attendees and volunteers at the Philippine International Aid annual fundraiser in 2014 while Viana was working as PIA’s first artist-in-residence.

She photographed actual skin “samples” of Bay Area Filipino-Americans who claim 1/8 to full Filipino ancestry. What began as a personal exploration of her Filipino heritage became a community project.

Viana states, “Inviting community participation is an important component of my process. For this exhibition, I photographed the arms of over a hundred Bay Area Filipino American community volunteers to catalogue skin color shades.”

The cataloguing takes form in a mosaic of photograph swatches installed on capiz windows for the central panel of the installation. Capiz, nearly flat oyster shells that are translucent and used for windowpanes to filter the sun, are indigenous to the Philippines. According to the artist, the shells in a way are like one’s skin that filters the UV rays of the sun in varying degrees depending on pigmentation.

The patches of colors on the windowpane represent the varying shades of kayumanggi of the participants.

Art world stars at Mills (l to r): feminist art historian Moira Roth and painters Hung Liu and Yulia Pinkusevich in front of the capiz window installation (Photo by © France Viana)

Art world stars at Mills (l to r): feminist art historian Moira Roth and painters Hung Liu and Yulia Pinkusevich in front of the capiz window installation (Photo by © France Viana)

A detail of the capiz windows containing the actual photographs of skin colors sampled (Photo by © Phil Bond)

A detail of the capiz windows containing the actual photographs of skin colors sampled (Photo by © Phil Bond)

“A spectrographic average was then calculated from the swatches and the color profile was used to create this custom color in acrylic paint,” Viana explained. “I then scientifically averaged this hue and ordered a custom color match from Golden Paint Company.”

The resulting “Average Kayumanggi Color” is displayed in front of the panel of capiz windows.

The big surprise was how light the average color, custom mixed by Golden Paints turned out. This is due to the Bay Area sampling that were up to 1/8 Filipino ancestry and to erronenous preconceptions of just how dark Filipino skin is. In fact as early as the 16th century, Antonio Pigafetta, who Spanish explorer Magellan noted in his chronicles that the Cebuano women were “very beautiful and almost as white as our girls.” (Source: Quirino) (Photo by© Phil Bond)

The big surprise was how light the average color, custom mixed by Golden Paints turned out. This is due to the Bay Area sampling that were up to 1/8 Filipino ancestry and to erronenous preconceptions of just how dark Filipino skin is. In fact as early as the 16th century, Antonio Pigafetta, who Spanish explorer Magellan noted in his chronicles that the Cebuano women were “very beautiful and almost as white as our girls.” (Source: Quirino) (Photo by© Phil Bond)

50 Shades of Kayumanggi

“In Filipino, the distinct, untranslatable word “kayumanggi” is the name of this color,” said Viana. “I interrogate the semiotics of this color, the connotations of gender, class and race that we load on to a simple color and how these meanings impact perception. Exploring color as sign, I employ actual signs, digital prints on vinyl, to reference colors and their meanings.”

As one of the first participants of this project, I was invited by the artist to check my skin against the shades that said “Silvery Beige” or “Diwata” (meaning “nymph”), which is an image usually connoted with this light shade of kayumanggi. It did not match, as my skin had more pink tones than silver, so I moved on to the other blocks, but I didn’t fit the “Rose Pink” or “Mestiza” shade either.

As I continued to move around the different shades, a viewer asked what I was doing. I explained the concept of kayumanggi that the artist was exploring, and then led him to the other panels. He stated, “That is so profound.” So I said, wait till you see what’s on the other panel, and he checked out the mirror.

Exhibition viewers try to match their skin colors to the Kayumanggi shades (Photo by © France Viana)

Exhibition viewers try to match their skin colors to the Kayumanggi shades (Photo by © France Viana)

Kayumanggi Selfie Station

Think aesthetics and off-the-charts wit underscored as you go to the Kayumanggi Selfie Station. A round wood frame with a bronzed mirror is waiting for anyone to find out “Who is the most kayumanggi of them all?” – a sign placed on the left side of the mirror. A Filipino translation is also shown on the right side of the mirror in Tagalog, “Sino ang pinaka-kayumanggi sa kanilang lahat?” However you judge your looks in the mirror, one thing is for sure, you’ll see your shade of kayumanggi.

The Kayumanggi Magic Mirror Selfie Station questioned the fairy tale that equates “fairest” with most beautiful. (Photo by © Phil Bond)

The Kayumanggi Magic Mirror Selfie Station questioned the fairy tale that equates “fairest” with most beautiful. (Photo by © Phil Bond)

Filmmaker Mabel Valdiviezo at the Kayumanggi Selfie Station (Photo by © France Viana)

Filmmaker Mabel Valdiviezo at the Kayumanggi Selfie Station (Photo by © France Viana)

Catherine Wagner, professor of art in Mills College and an award-winning artist whose works can be seen in places like New York’s Whitney Museum, put it succinctly when she gave her impression of the exhibit:

"France Viana has created a strong installation at the Mills College Art Museum that questions issues relating to race and cultural identity in the Philippine culture.

“A stunningly graphic typology of skin toned color samples provides us with a deconstruction of identity to consider. Her work is both humorous and rigorous in its conceptual execution.”

The exhibit is ongoing until April 19, 2015 in the Mills College Art Museum at 5000 MacArthur Boulevard, Oakland, CA 94613. Admission is free. For more information, call (415) 430-2164.


Manzel Delacruz

Manzel Delacruz

Manzel Delacruz is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.


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