A noticable red neon box sticks out at the blue wall in the the side of lively Weserstraße. The logo on the neon box -B and H on three stacking circles- belongs to Backhaus Project, and from 14 to 23 Ferbuary they hosted a solo exhibtion by Irma Fadhila: (un)Covering Melanin.
The first thing that appeared in front of me when I entered the gallery was two sets of tables that showcased some beauty products. But my attention turned quickly to the wall at the right side. Indeed, what was hung at the wall was the main point of the exhibition: 11 portraits attached to a string across the wall were staring back at me. Some of the faces were familiar, while the others were strange. However I could easily identify the strange faces thanks to the names on the handwritten notes below each portraits. Not only their names, I could also read some words that gave those faces some voices. Those words were wishes. One could quickly notice that they wished for something that they do not have.
(un)Covering Melanin tried to expose how colourism and eurocentric beauty ideals affect the People of Colour, in this case the PoC of Southeast Asian heritage. While skin colour plays a big role on how someone live their life, Irma Fadhila argues that this topic is not being discussed widely enough in the Western society. In the Asian culture however, it is an issue where the Asian beauty obsession is plain and simple: white skin.
At the end of the day, people who express the desire to have lighter complexions do not necessarily want to have lighter skin colour. They simply want to be seen as superior in order to be treated better by society and their peers. This shows how white-skin obsession is about socioeconomic status, where the lightest skin person in the room gets access to the most resources — satisfying the yearning to be treated well by others.Irma Fadhila on light skin obsession in Southeast Asia
The visitors were constantly reminded to this, not only by the notes that the subjects had written, but also by the beauty products that lingered in the middle of the gallery. For people that grew up in Southeast Asia, such products were felt so familiar in their daily lives. How could they not, when tons of advertisement pops up every day. For those whe had never experienced it could catch a glimpse on the iPad that played such ads on repeat in the middle of the room.
As a photographer, Irma Fadhila is more than capable to capture or even emphasize the beauty/flattering aspects of her subjects through lighting and composition. Yet in this project the subjects were presented as are, (and dare I say) under an unforgiving harsh and frontal light. No one wore any make up to hide blemishes or “imperfections”. As they were perfect: although vulnerable, yet audacious to share their traumas, insecurities, and past guilty wishes. The way the portraits stared back at you depicted the thick skin that they had to develop to endure lifelong external aggression and keep in internal distress. It’s not like they were perfectly comfortable. On the contrary, I could clearly see their discomfort, when I followed the voices from the other room.
In the other room, I found nothing but some chairs and a video that was projected at the wall. Here, the portraits came to life. Now I could hear the voices that belong to those faces. Yet no one moved their lips. They just sat silently in front of the camera, failed to stay still, and mostly chose to look away. The voice-over that echoes in that room elaborates their stories even more. Again: traumas, insecurities, and past guilty wishes. The figures in the videos stayed mute, as if they had to listen and listen their own stories.
Many also told how they already moved on, accepted who they are, or learned to confront the stigma. In fact, that is how we probably see them every day. A project like (un)Covering Melanin, however, reminds us that behind those strong faces, there could be years of enduring traumatic experiences. Many others most likely are still going through the same thing, or even giving in to the stigma. Irma herself remembers that this problem still continues inside and outside of Southeast Asia:
I believe that this project only represents a small percentage of the Southeast Asian community – there are other shades and colours of skin that also exist within our community. This project has no means to discredit the shadeism and colourism issues that are more prevalent in other communities, which is a much larger topic that we need to invest more time in — to reflect, learn and unlearn.Irma Fadhila