It wasn’t until she moved away from her home state of Maine, the whitest state in the country, that visual artist Eleanor Kipping realized it isn’t just her mixed race that affects the way she moves in the world — it’s also her lighter skin tone.
Discrimination toward people based on the shade of their skin, with favor given to fairer tones, is known as colorism — related to racism but often practiced within a specific community of people of color.
“I knew that I was a person of color, but it was in exploring that that I discovered colorism and my light skin in relation to that,” said Kipping, 29, a native of Old Town now back in Maine as a graduate student in the Intermedia MFA program at the University of Maine.
Kipping explores race and the experiences of women of color in her art. She works in a wide variety of disciplines, including photography, video and performance art. Her campus-wide art installation, “Brown Paper Bag Test,” up for the rest of the month as part of Black History Month, explores the concept of colorism specifically.
Kipping sought out women of color who would be willing to be photographed and would write down stories about their personal experiences with colorism and racism. Over the course of the past year Kipping shot and assembled the images, which showcase an array of women with different skin tones, and recorded audio of their stories with her own voice. The audio track for each image is available to listen to at eleanorkipping.com.
The images are mounted on frames, on the backside of which is brown paper. The “brown paper bag test,” for which the installation is named, was a real “test” administered by among black people in the late 18th and 19th centuries, in which skin the same tone or lighter than a brown paper bag was deemed desirable for acceptance into black fraternities or social clubs, and darker was not.
The test and this form of colorism has its roots in the ways skin tone played into how different slaves were treated during the slavery era — who would work in the fields and who would work in the house.
“People with fairer skin were given preferential treatment because they were closer in shade to their Caucasian masters and were deemed more desirable, more intelligent,” Kipping said. “It’s something that is perpetuated today in our standards of beauty.”
Kipping graduated from Old Town High School in 2007 and attended the New England School of Communications at Husson University, graduating in 2011. For two years she worked for Carnival Cruise Line as an entertainment technician, traveling throughout the Caribbean and Central America and then lived in New York City before returning to Maine in 2015.
It was in those four years that her art and her experiences as a woman of color and as being mixed race began to coalesce.
“That’s one of the things I’m most interesting in exploring in my work,” Kipping said. “Identity, switching between identities, the experiences of women of color in particular.”
UMaine has a variety of activities planned for Black History Month, which are all open to the public. Events include a Black History Month discussion group every Monday at noon in the Office of Multicultural Student Life in the Memorial Union and a workshop on social awareness at 1 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 22, in the Bangor Room in the Memorial Union.
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