Man is alone, desperately scraping out the music of his own skeleton, without father, mother, family, love, god or society. And no living being to accompany him. And the skeleton is not of bone, but of skin, like a skin that walks.
“Black” and “white” signify their own arbitrariness, and are a deliberate way of maintaining and affirming a kind of colour-blindness. When I name myself or another as “black”, I mean “one whom others regard as “black”. I could not use the words “red” or “brown” or “yellow” in the same way unless they too had a political profile, and summarised and signified the value and effect of colour, rather than the colour itself. Black and white are therefore markers of ‘chromacity’, so to speak, designators of attitudes towards colours, rather than the colours themselves. In using the last phase, I do not mean to imply a distinction between the conventional associations of colours and the physical facts of colours themselves, for what I mean by seeing colours as colours is precisely seeing the cultural meanings they carry. The distinction I imply between chromacity and colours is not a distinction between culture and nature.
How does the world design me? Well, it depends who the ‘you’ in question is, of course. Eight years ago, the New York Times ran an article which read, “Barack Hussein Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States, sweeping away the last racial barrier in American politics with ease.”3 Yet another article from the same newspaper published earlier this year paints a rather different picture: “The heavily armed sniper who gunned down police officers in downtown Dallas, leaving five of them dead, specifically set out to kill as many white officers as he could, officials said Friday.”4 Suddenly, James Joyce’s assertion that “modern man has an epidermis rather than a soul” is disturbingly apt.5
Of the three main criteria that constitute our understanding of “race”—skin color, hair texture and facial features—it is skin color that most readily asserts “difference”. This association is not arbitrary: skin is color, and vice versa. Bleaching and tanning aside, it is not possible to separate skin from its hue. It is not unreasonable, therefore, to assume that the significance of skin color in human history exists precisely because color and what it signifies are generally regarded as one and the same thing. But what it means varies enormously across time and place. Eighteenth-century Europe marks the beginning of skin color as the overwhelming factor in theories of racial difference with which this essay is partly concerned. I say “partly” because of equal interest in “difference” is an interest in “origin”. And for the purposes of this essay at least, that’s where the thread of what it means to be human begins.
Here’s Where It Starts
In Setswana, one of the indigenous languages of southern Africa, the word “Maropeng” means “returning to the place of origin.” Maropeng is also the name of a paleo-anthropological site of 180 square miles, located about forty miles north of Johannesburg. Known in English as the “Cradle of Humankind,” Maropeng was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. Buried deep within its geological strata lies clues as to the origins of mankind. It is a site of outstanding natural beauty—a rocky “highveld” grassland of rolling hills and frequent wildfires—and a complex of limestone caves which have yielded more than a third of all known early hominim fossils since the 1930s, some dating as far back as 3.5 million years.6 In October 2013, two recreational cavers, Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker, discovered fossil skeletons in the Dinaledi Chamber (“chamber of stars”). A month later, the National Geographic Society and the University of the Witwatersrand funded the Rising Star Expedition, which sent six women scientists—chosen for their combination of paleo-anthropological expertise, caving skills and small size—into the caves. Their “find” of 1,500 fossils led to the formal announcement in 2015 of the discovery of an extinct species of early hominim, which scientists, following American Lee Berger, have assigned to the genus Homo. Although the description has attracted controversy, with a number of scientists arguing that the classification of Homo naledi requires more testing, one of the key arguments from the forty-seven-member international team for its inclusion into the genus Homo is that they buried their dead, an act of “deliberate cultural deposition,” which we might also consider to be act of design.7
There are two competing views about the origins of Homo sapiens: the Recent African Origin (ROA) and the Multi-Region Origin (MRO). MRO holds that humans first arose around two million years ago, and that all subsequent human evolution has been within a single, continuous species. The ROA, also known as the “Out of Africa” theory, suggests that modern humans evolved somewhere between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago, with one branch leaving Africa some 60,000 years ago which populated the rest of the world. ROA is based on fossil evidence (much of which was found at Maropeng over the past seventy-five years) and is general consensus among the scientific community. DNA, the “mother” of all design applications, is surprisingly clear on this point: there is more genetic variance on the African continent than the entire rest of the world put together. This fact is, to a paleontologist, proof enough that we all originated somewhere on the African continent. So at one level, yes, we’re all (or were) black, and at another, we’re all African. But that does little to explain history—or, perhaps more specifically, the history of skin and our troubled understanding of its hues.
The Skin That Walks
Both the Greeks and the Romans had a variety of words used to describe skin. Chros, in Greek, is a common name and often expressed the idea of proximity; enchroi means “close to the skin.” Homochroma refers to the “evenness of color” or “complexion” of the skin. Derma, meaning “hide,” was also used, akin perhaps to the English word “rind.” The two major words in Latin for skin were cutis, signifying living skin and pellis, signifying dead, flayed skin, used for animals and to convey dread or horror. Aristotle’s belief that the “skin cannot feel” contributed greatly to a general understanding of the skin as a “thin,” rather than “thick” surface, whose importance lay in its breach.8 Like Aristotle, Syrian philosopher Job al-Albrash believed that skin was an after-effect, the result of the actions of drying and hardening, like scum upon boiled substances. “The skin came into existence in an outside position because, when the humidity of the outside portion met the air, the latter destroyed the thinness which it possessed and it thickened.”9 But by the third century BC, a Classical taboo of cutting or breaking open the surface of the skin had relaxed sufficiently for the first dissections of dead bodies to take place at the medical school in Alexandria. In Galen’s De anatomicis administrationibus, the order in which aspiring medical students should learn about the body was laid down: bones, muscles, veins, arteries, nerves, intestines, fat and glands. The skin, the surface to be punctured in order to gain entrance to the workings of the body below, appears not to merit mention. Sixteenth-century anatomical illustrations such as those by da Carpi and Vesalius tend to depict the skin as a dainty, drawn back apron, hanging from the extremities of wrists, elbows and ankles.
Through Thick and Thin
This difference between skin as a “thick” or “thin” surface is of particular interest because of the importance many African cultures place on the body and its skin both as the primary medium for creativity and artistic talent and as the primary resource and repository of identity and self-expression. From oral history to body art, the body is simply another surface, much like any other, into which culture is carved, sculpted, cut, patterned and tattooed. In this context, skin acquires depth, becoming a “thick space” in which memory, history, tradition and testimony are literally inscribed. In contrast to the Western tradition outlined above of seeing skin primarily as the last, protective barrier that keeps the “outside in,” African traditions of the skin encourage its “inside”—blood, tissue, secretions—to interact with its surface, such as in the case of raised keloid scars that swell the skin’s surface and give it profound, almost elastic depth. The tendency amongst peoples of African descent to keloid scarring has produced a highly distinctive art form in the practices of scarification and cicatrice.
Traditionally, sub-Saharan African body art practices fall into three varying levels of penetration: scarification, where the surface of the skin is cut and irrigated with materials such as charcoal, certain insects with medicinal or healing properties, or herbs to encourage the formation of keloids; tattooing, where a colored substance is pricked or inserted into the outermost layer of the dermis to produce a dull stain; and painting, where patterns, combined in a dizzying array of permutations, are applied to the surface of the skin to depict beauty, tell a story, indicate age, rank, status and the like. Children are often given their first incisions immediately after birth, and further incisions are added at regular intervals, like at the onset of puberty, after the birth of a first child or after breastfeeding has ceased. These decorations—often involving considerable pain—are seen as a way of improving physical appearance and are often erotic in connotation. Together with ceremonial patterns, these markings do not simply proclaim cultural values and histories, but pass them on by reinforcing them in a tightly knit mesh of ceremony, ritual and aesthetics. Design, in this sense, is less something done to the external world—the external envelope of the body (clothing) or society (buildings), for example—as it is something to bring the world in to the body.
Color, too, often plays an important and symbolic role in many African societies, but it is not possible to attribute a general or unvarying significance to it across cultures. For some, the color of blood is the color of life, joy and good health, while for others it signifies death, grief and transience. In some Central African cultures, for example, traditional healers paint the sick with ochre to stimulate life force, while for the Ghanaian Ashanti, red is the color of mourning. The diversity of languages within Africa also makes it difficult to judge color accurately. Some take into account texture, the nature of surface, or shadings and patterns, which result in concepts of color that have no equivalent in European languages and can only be described through paraphrase. Amongst the Ga of Greater Accra, for example, there are distinct words for “red-with-a-rough-texture” and “black-which-is-shiny-or-dull.” Colors also make temporal references: for example, white often symbolizes links with the ancestors or underworld, but usually only in a ritual or ceremonial context. Color therefore takes on different meanings according to the measure in which it is used.
Our contemporary obsession with skin complexion is everywhere. From its exposure in cinema and advertising to efforts to modify and control its appearance with cosmetics and plastic surgery, our skin has suddenly assumed center stage. Both the idea of skin and its literal surface have gained a prominence in modern thinking.10 Since the 1930s, the language of critical and cultural theory has been full of the presence of skin, like Roland Barthes' work on the erotics of texture and tissue;11 Emmanuel Levinas's assertion that the exposed skin of the face signifies the sign of ethical nudity;12 and Jacques Derrida’s concepts of ‘double penetration’ (of the body, the hymen, and the pen and the paper it punctuates) brings the idea of skin into an entirely new dimension between form, surface and performance.13 Yet for the most part, Africa is absent from this discourse, despite the fact that skin and particularly the color of skin is associated with Africa and people of African descent in ways that are unlike any other supposed ‘cultural’ association between people and place. For the most part, to be African is to be black, and vice versa. A century ago in the United States, Americans of African descent were referred to as “Colored.” In the 1920s and 1930s, W.E.B. Du Bois ushered in the term “Negro,” which was supplanted in the 1960s by “Black.” At a press conference in Chicago in 1988, Reverend Jesse Jackson declared that the preferred term was “African American,” which has more or less stuck. But the interchangeable nature of the terms “Black,” “African” and “Afro” points to a deeper complexity than Western thinkers have historically allowed for.
The intertwined relationship between self, cultural identity and skin color is both overwhelmingly superficial (in the Aristotelian sense of a very thin covering), and profound. If we think about the skin’s surface less as a screen onto which our fears and fantasies about power, class and even sexuality are projected, and more as a literal space, of something with depth, mass and volume, it allows us to think more deeply and creatively about the elements that make up our identities, from history and shared experiences to ritual and mythology. Claude Levi-Strauss described the body as “a surface waiting for the imprintation of culture.”14 The appreciation of skin as a deep and pliable medium is embedded in many African artistic practices and holds provocative potential for contemporary design, particularly architecture, which has historically been viewed as the envelope of the body, separate from it, housing rather than embodying. In his “Notes for a Research Program,” Stefano Boeri describes the spatial and territorial uncertainty of new Europe, stating that our "now-useless vocabulary continues to make the distinction between 'center' and 'periphery', between 'public space' and 'private space.'”15 Boeri makes a compelling case for the development of new vocabularies—what he terms “eclectic atlases”—that better correspond to new spatial realities. Boeri’s lexicon offers unexpected insight into the way in which different understandings of space, form and place might be combined and read. Using “real” spaces scattered across the "new" European territory, he speaks of “inundation,” “osmosis,” “transplant” and “pulsation.” The corresponding lexicon of African “space” might draw on similar uncertainties: skins that are “thick,” “thin,” “branded” or “carved.” We might begin to speak of “ruptures” and “folds,” of surfaces that are “stretched,” of “supple and pliant spaces” and not the petrified monuments that underpin so much of Western architectural history and praxis. “Uncertainty,” as Boeri writes, “transforms into innovation.”
Superhumanity, a project by e-flux Architecture at the 3rd Istanbul Design Biennial, is produced in cooperation with the Istanbul Design Biennial, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Zealand, and the Ernst Schering Foundation.
Lesley Lokko teaches architecture and writes novels. She is Associate Professor of Architecture and the Director of Graduate Programme at the University of Johannesburg.
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Antonin Artaud, The Peyote Dance, trans. Helen Weaver (New York, 1976), 37–8.Go to Text
Steven Connor, The Book of Skin, (London, 2004), 148.Go to Text
Adam Nagourney, "Obama Wins Election," New York Times (4 November 2008), →.Go to Text
Manny Fernandez, Richard Pérez-Peña and Jonah Engel Bromwich, "Five Dallas Officers Were Killed as Payback, Police Chief Says," New York Times (8 July 2016), →.Go to Text
James Joyce in Padua, ed. Louise Berrone (New York: Random House, 1977), 21.Go to Text
The highveld is the portion of the South African inland plateau, which has an altitude between 1500m and 2100m.Go to Text
Paul H.G.M. Dirks and Lee R. Berger, et al., "Geological and Taphonomic Context for the New Hominin Species Homo naledi from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa," eLife (10 September 2015), →.Go to Text
Aristotle, Historia Animalium, trans. D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, in The Works of Aristotle, vol. IV, eds. William David Ross and John Alexander Smith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910), III.11.518a.Go to Text
Job of Edessa, Encyclopaedia of Philosophical and Natural Sciences, As Taught in Baghdad About AD 817, or Book of Treasures, trans. A. Mingana (Cambridge: W. Heffer & Sons, 1935), 88.Go to Text
Ibid., Connor, 10.Go to Text
Josue V. Harari, "The Maximum Narrative: An Introduction to Barthes’ Recent Criticism," Style 8.1 (1974): 56–77.Go to Text
Emmanuel Levinas, Collected Philosophical Papers, trans. Alphonso Lingis (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987), p. 116.Go to Text
Jacques Derrida, Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles, trans. Barbara Harlow (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1979), 37.Go to Text
Claude Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology (New York: Basic Books, 1963), 144.Go to Text
Stefano Boeri, "Notes for a Research Program," in Mutations, eds. Rem Koolhaas, Stefano Boeri, Sanford Kwinter, Nadia Tazi and Hans Ulrich Obrist (Barcelona: Actar, 2001), 356–377.Go to Text
Antonin Artaud, The Peyote Dance, trans. Helen Weaver (New York, 1976), 37–8.
Steven Connor, The Book of Skin, (London, 2004), 148.
Adam Nagourney, "Obama Wins Election," New York Times (4 November 2008), →.
Manny Fernandez, Richard Pérez-Peña and Jonah Engel Bromwich, "Five Dallas Officers Were Killed as Payback, Police Chief Says," New York Times (8 July 2016), →.
James Joyce in Padua, ed. Louise Berrone (New York: Random House, 1977), 21.
The highveld is the portion of the South African inland plateau, which has an altitude between 1500m and 2100m.
Paul H.G.M. Dirks and Lee R. Berger, et al., "Geological and Taphonomic Context for the New Hominin Species Homo naledi from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa," eLife (10 September 2015), →.
Aristotle, Historia Animalium, trans. D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, in The Works of Aristotle, vol. IV, eds. William David Ross and John Alexander Smith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910), III.11.518a.
Job of Edessa, Encyclopaedia of Philosophical and Natural Sciences, As Taught in Baghdad About AD 817, or Book of Treasures, trans. A. Mingana (Cambridge: W. Heffer & Sons, 1935), 88.
Ibid., Connor, 10.
Josue V. Harari, "The Maximum Narrative: An Introduction to Barthes’ Recent Criticism," Style 8.1 (1974): 56–77.
Emmanuel Levinas, Collected Philosophical Papers, trans. Alphonso Lingis (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987), p. 116.
Jacques Derrida, Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles, trans. Barbara Harlow (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1979), 37.
Claude Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology (New York: Basic Books, 1963), 144.
Stefano Boeri, "Notes for a Research Program," in Mutations, eds. Rem Koolhaas, Stefano Boeri, Sanford Kwinter, Nadia Tazi and Hans Ulrich Obrist (Barcelona: Actar, 2001), 356–377.