Creative Fusion: Angelica Dass / Brazil

Beautiful Jails

Angélica Dass is no stranger to integrating art and numbers.

Her best-known project, Humanae (pronounced “human eye”), involved 4,000 portraits of a wide variety of people, each staring straight into the lens and presented against a background matching the skin color of their nose, and placed and codified along the color continuum of the Pantone Matching System (PMS) that assigns numbers to colors with a high degree of specificity.

A Brazil-native with roots that trace to Africa, Dass studied to be a fashion designer and a theater costume and set designer, so she was familiar with the Pantone classifications. “If you speak about blue, it means nothing to me,” she says. “I always go to a palette to check.”

The display of Humanae faces seems simple at first—like a grid of passport photos, a repetition of headshots that’s almost hypnotic. But as the features and the skin tones of individuals emerge, and the assigned numbers considered, the work takes on more complex layers. But for all its complexity, the portraits and the project, which includes speaking engagements and workshops for school children, return to a simple fact. “Race,” Dass says, “is a lie.”

She began the portrait series—with photographs of herself and her husband—because she recognized the limitations of the labels we currently use to describe people’s skin color.

“I am not black and my husband was not white. He’s a kind of pink and I’m a kind of brown. But these codes are completely untrue. So I name it as this palette I am used to using in my work.”

Dass specifically chose a patch of nose to capture a color—a sample “that would not be the definite color of anybody.”

“I know that is the part of the body that changes. When you’re drinking, when you have the flu, when you sit in the sun—the skin in summer or winter will be different.” It became a perfect way to illustrate the emptiness of any color designation for people.

“I know they have different numbers for white. They have different numbers for what they call black. In the photos I made, and I have 4,000, I was not able to find anybody that fits these colors,” she says. And yet the classifications of black and white—and all the meanings and misconceptions that attach to them—continue.

“You would never accept that a teacher would enter your class and say the Earth is flat. Science has proved that the Earth is not flat, and we agree with that.” The same, she says, is true about race. But what she is not saying is that just because race isn’t real, that race doesn’t matter.

“The thing is that race doesn’t exist in science and it is a social construction,” she says. “But we have to speak about the social construction.”

Dass will spark plenty of conversation about her new project for her data-driven Creative Fusion Cleveland residency.

The project goes by the name 456.That number is the projected number of rapes that will take place next year in Cleveland.

“To tell you the truth, it’s something very personal,” she says, of arriving at this topic.

Dass, who now lives in Madrid, is used to walking everywhere. “In the beginning when I arrived in Cleveland, I was acting without knowing the code. Then I realized that nobody was walking around where I was walking around. You realize the only ones who are walking are the ones who don’t have cars.”

One day at a bus stop she met a man and had a brief conversation. A couple of days later she met him again while she was walking to the store and told him that she’s an artist, a photographer. When she returned to her building, he was waiting in her doorway. “He said, ‘We can make a photo of me, in the garden behind the building. You can make me a portrait.’” Dass told him this was not the moment to do that.

“I’m so sorry,” she said to him, “I really have to work.” He then asked if she was married and she said yes.

“There was nobody around, I was in the middle of nowhere. It’s the moment I realize the public space is not public.”

“As a photographer, I put myself in vulnerable positions because people put themselves in vulnerable positions with me.” But she was shaken by the experience.

She thought, “Maybe this is very normal. Maybe this is the way things are in this city for a female.”

Dass is hoping to work with local researchers to learn more about where rapes occur and will create an installation focusing on the environment—the places and spaces—instead of focusing on the predator or the victim. Still, she’s recruiting people for 456 portraits to help represent that sobering projection. “We know these numbers, but these are not numbers. They are human beings.”

“I don’t feel safe in this public space,” she says.