Click above to watch the full, 20-minute documentary on Shadeism
Ilene Sova remembers coming home from school one day, feeling speechless as bullies cornered her on the bus, demanding she explain her features.
“The big thing was my lips,” said Sova, now 38. “‘Why are your lips so big?’ ‘Why are your eyes so big?’ ‘Why is your skin so dark?’ That was the constant bullying. I remember bawling because I thought my face was deformed because my lips were too big.”
Sova’s experiences growing up mixed-race in a small town led her, now a contemporary artist living in Toronto, to become passionate about exploring issues of race.
She, along with Rema Tavares, 30, and Jordan Clarke, 29, have formed the 3MW (3 Mixed Women) Collective. Their art, a mixture of portraiture, painting and photography, explores what it means to be a mixed-race woman in the modern world.
This year at Nuit Blanche, Clarke, Sova and Tavares participated in an exhibition whose objective was to create a discussion about topics not often explored in the media. COMPLEXion displayed works looking at different issues surrounding skin colour, such as mixed-race identity and shadeism.
Dr. Miglena Todorova, a professor in media/cultural studies at the University of Toronto defines shadeism as “racism based on face/body features or shades of skin colour.” She says the lack of discourse in this area is apparent in one of the courses she teaches.
In Education and Popular Culture, Todorova, 48, requires her students to produce radio segments on subjects they find are important and under covered in the mass media.
“In over 90 radio programs produced in the class so far,” Todorova said, “the majority of the stories narrate issues of racism, poverty, violence against women, the meaning of being ‘Canadian,’ and other important issues that open our minds to the darker side of Canadian multiculturalism.”
Nayani Thiyagarajah, 25, also participated in COMPLEXion. Her short, 20-minute documentary, Shadeism, investigates both where this discrimination comes from and how it affects women of colour.
Having spent time in India before completing her last year in Ryerson’s broadcast journalism program in 2010, Thiyagarajah says she was astounded by the amount of skin-lightening products she saw advertised in Bombay.
She remembers a conversation she had with her then-three-year-old niece, who said she didn’t feel beautiful because of her dark skin.
“That really hit me,” Thiyagarajah said, “and I was like, ‘Oh no, this is now transferring down to the next generation when we never thought that that would happen. We just thought it would fade away.’”
“But unless we talk about it and talk about where it comes from and address how we can resist it, then it’s not going to disappear overnight.”
The film has been shown in seven countries, including Canada, the United States and India, and Thiyagarajah says she has received positive feedback overall.
“Generally the biggest feedback we’ve received is that people didn’t understand how big an issue it was outside of their own ethnic or cultural or racial communities or groups,” she said. “They didn’t understand…how many people it impacted globally, so that was really beautiful.”
Tavares, also the founder of the website Mixed in Canada, says that this lack of discussion about shadeism and mixed race can be problematic in many ways. For one, she says it perpetuates an inability to speak openly, which can be extremely isolating.
“There’s something very powerful in a negative way about feeling silenced,” Tavares said. “And when you feel like you don’t exist and you feel like you’re alone…(that) is such an isolating and depressing feeling.”
“Everyone who has the ability to communicate and build a platform for people of their group who can do it, should, because there’s not enough women of colour speaking to their experiences.”
Clarke, Sova, Thiyagarajah and Tavares have chosen art as their platform to explore these issues, and Sova believes exploring difficult topics in this way can be very compelling.
“I think it’s an easier way to communicate it through art,” Sova said. “I think we’re blessed in that way…it’s quite an easy vehicle to use and it’s captivating and engaging for people…how quickly you can pick up on the emotional nuances and racism and the feelings very quickly.”
Tavares agrees, and says that art can also be effective because it is a softer medium for sensitive subjects.
“I think it’s much easier to discuss highly charged issues through art because…every word is so important when you discuss these things,” Tavares said. “Whereas visual art is very interpretative, so you can talk about something that is extremely charged and yet it doesn’t stir the same kind of gut reaction; (art evokes) much more emotions that are experiential.”
Group photo of the members of the 3MW (3 Mixed Women) Collective. From left to right; Jordan Clarke, Rema Tavares, Ilene Sova. Followed by individual photos of Jordan Clarke, Rema Tavares and Ilene Sova. Photos by Alexandra Gater.