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Painters of Colour

André Derain
Henri Matisse 1905 
Tate
© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021

Fauvism is an art movement that was started in the 20th century by a group of artists who felt that vibrant and complementary colours, and painterly skills such as strong brush strokes were more important than realistic representations of the world. A famous fauvist was Henri Matisse. His partner in crime was André Derain. Both artists left a legacy of work, many of which decorate the walls of museums and collectors’ homes today. 

The year was 1905. It was the salon d’automne once more. Paris was flooded with art lovers, art enthusiasts and art critics. Louis Vauxcelles was in Paris that year on the look out for refreshing new styles to write about. His eye rested on the canvasses of Matisse and Derain. These painters are like wild beasts, thought Vauxcelles, and he called them les fauves

Were the artists savage beasts painting portraits by wildly throwing bright colours on the canvas? Or were they simply artists who understood that colours work well in pairs, especially when they contrast one another, yet complement each other? Colour theory was already in existence when Matisse and Derain spent a summer in Collioure, where they experimented with a new way of painting people and landscape. They took the science of colour theory up many notches. 

Their pieces were not only abstract, they were bold, and they hit one’s eyes with an array of complementary colours that looked like they were freshly squeezed out of their tubes. A dab of green here, one over there, but this time red, an emphatic yellow stroke around here, another one of violet to contour the face. And, we have a man. The art world had never seen anything quite like this before the 1905 salon d’automne. It drove the people wild. 

People of Colour

As a joke, I often call les fauves people of colour, because they were. These were painters who understood colour theory: how colours complement and contrast one another. They saw how red and green (a mix of yellow and blue) marry well. And if they mixed red and blue, the result was a shade of violet and this complemented yellow. They knew their primary colours — Red, Yellow, Blue, and their secondary colours — Orange, Green, Violet. And if they mixed the three primary colours, they saw Black. White was formed also by mixing the three primaries, and by adding more and more colours, lightening the mixture until a white paste was formed. It was basic, they thought — elementary. Colours are what we see around us, they said. Why not use them to our advantage by making riveting pieces of art? So, the two artists spent the summer in the South of France, where the light is always exquisitely ample and the landscape marvellously sprinkled with different shades of colours, squeezing tubes of paint onto canvasses, dabbing them with primary colours and brushing secondary colours next to the primary ones. 

Mixing colours — this, I promise you, is a fun game for kids on a rainy day. If you’re gonna make a mess, make sure it’s a colourful one. 

I am a person of colour. Alas, I am no artist. Only a person who is not white, therefore, always known as a POC. This acronym sits very uncomfortably in my stomach, where I would love to regurgitate it and flush it down the loo forever. In the colour wheel of racism, there is white, black and brown. As someone of Chinese lineage, I am yellow. But it is not P-C to call an East Asian yellow anymore. So, in the US, I am a person of colour, and in the UK, I am known as a minority ethnic person (BAME). 

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff
Dr Rosa Schapire 1919 
Tate
© DACS, 2021

How does all this make sense, you ask? 

Well, it doesn’t. Not to me anyway. I can understand and respect it if someone of African lineage wants to be known as Black. Not all Black people are Americans, so not all Black people are African-Americans. Like not all brown people are from India. Many are from Pakistan or Bangladesh or even countries like Malta and Madagascar. They could even be from Zimbabwe (once named Rhodesia), Kenya, Malaysia, and/or Singapore. As for East Asians, we are so many — Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans, and those of us who are from dual-parentage families. Not all are Asian-Americans, Canadian-Chinese or even British-Chinese, nor do all East Asians come from China or Japan or Korea. Many are from Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and countries in Southeast Asia like Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia. Let’s not forget Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and French Polynesia. And I can tell you that the ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia are more brown than yellow. But I digress, as always.

Where was I? Ah — les fauves. Fauvism faded away after 1910. The movement developed around the same time as German Expressionism, proving that ideas are not original and that great minds think alike. Fauvism opened the doors to Cubism, and made many things in art possible, like Pointillism and Structuralism.

So, how now brown cow? 

I say we get rid of the acronyms POC and BAME. Let’s begin afresh and just call people people. Humankind, rather than the Human Race. We can pull humankind apart and start by being kind to another human being. And yes, human being, a person simply being. After we’ve processed this term, let’s then race to tear down the colour bar that keeps us apart, segregating people into different shades of colour for the purpose of maintaining the status quo and hegemony of those of us White and those of them Coloured.

Have you noticed that a White person is never a person of colour? And that it is ok to say someone is black or brown, but never yellow? Red, too, is long gone a colour to call someone who is indigenous to the land. And, it is faux pas to categorise someone who is native to their countries/nations as ‘Indian’, a term used by white colonisers to label people who were not from India, but thought to be so. Language evolves with time, and I feel it’s time to rid the English language of phrases like people of colour and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic. I am feverish with desire to put a stop to being labeled a minority ethnic and a person of colour. Minority ethnic? My ancestors come from the most populated nation in the world — China. If all of them spoke English as their mother tongue, they would outnumber the mother tongue English speakers on our globe. So, next to South Asians, I am hardly a minority. And, yellow I am definitely not. I’d like to think I am a little bronzed with a hint of gold myself. But then, we’re back to colouring ourselves again. So, no! Stop already!  

Here’s a piece of flash fiction inspired by a condition known as Yellow Fever. A condition that I heard a white woman speak about during my sojourn in Southeast Asia. 

As long as we, non-white people, continue to use the label POC or BAME to identify ourselves, we are continuing the colonial legacy of these labels, giving them the power and significance that they shouldn’t have and hold. As much as I understand that race is and will continue to be one’s identity, much like mother/father or being trans, cis or bi are identity markers, I feel that ridding the English language of POC and BAME, we start to break the conditions that fetter us, and remove the status quo that keeps some of us marginalised and underrepresented. In this way, we also start to get rid of racial stereotypes or stereotypes of any sorts, and then, one day, see the removal of any unconscious racial biases or prejudices that plague us. This would free humans to just be. And, we start to become human beings, not coloured and (post)-colonised beings. Don’t you want this as much as I do? 

And whilst we’re at it, let’s also remove the acronym WOC — Writers of Colour. I am a writer, like every person who writes for a living — simply a writer. I am not defined by colour as a writer. But I can certainly write many colourful stories that paint the world red and orange, yellow and green, blue, indigo and violet too.