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Artist Ashley A. Jones Discusses The Colorism Project


Ashley A. Jones, an African American visual artist, based in Pittsburgh, has captured the historical/social life of colorism through The Colorism Project. In confronting the traumatic legacy of skin currency, Jones gives audiences a vehicle through which biases can be addressed and healing can take place. Acumen spoke with Jones recently who provided us an exclusive glimpse into her artistry and the mission behind her work.

ACUMEN  The Brown Paper Bag artwork is nothing short of brilliant in its arresting, perhaps even, haunting presentation. Discuss a bit about why you chose to capture the life history of colorism as you have.

ASHLEY JONES My journey into capturing the life history of colorism through art began during profound self-reflection and identity exploration while pursuing my MFA at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Confronted with isolation and otherness as the oldest and the only African American student in my department, I turned to art to express and navigate these complex feelings. Art became a conduit for dialogue, starting with creating brown paper bags as a symbolic canvas to explore themes of colorism. Initially adorned with names denoting various Black skin tones, these bags set the stage for a deeper investigation into the issue.

ACUMEN With The Colorism Project, how important was it for you to move colorism from the theoretical imaginations of viewers by having the faces of people impacted by the Brown Paper Bag test looking back at them?

ASHLEY JONES Moving the conversation about colorism from the theoretical to the tangible—by incorporating the faces of individuals directly impacted by the Brown Paper Bag Test into my art—was a critical step in bridging the gap between abstract understanding and personal empathy. It was essential to shift the narrative from an impersonal discourse to a human-centered experience. By presenting real faces, those of Black women who could potentially have been subjected to the standards set by the Brown Paper Bag Test, I aimed to confront viewers with the lived realities behind the theories of colorism. This approach was designed to evoke a more resounding emotional response and foster a more profound connection to the issue, making it impossible for viewers to remain detached.

ACUMEN Much of our research at The Acumen Group examines colorism from a eugenic standpoint that continues to classify blackness as a genetic taint that shows itself in the believed immorality, criminality, ugliness, and ignorance of dark-skinned people.  These theories have become a part of Black culture (Diasporically) that we seem unable to readily put aside.  You have captured this very painful, centuries-old practice in your work.  What were the challenges (if any) in positioning your work in such a way that it was no longer a dirty little secret and could inform and potentially heal? Has there been resistance from those not yet ready to confront tone bias? 

ASHLEY JONES Seeing the faces of real people and looking back at them forced viewers to acknowledge the personal and societal impact of colorism, transforming it from a distant concept into a present and pressing reality. It highlighted the individual stories, struggles, and resilience behind the broader phenomenon of colorism, underscoring that these were not abstract issues but real injustices affecting real people. This method of presentation aimed to humanize the discourse, compelling viewers to reflect on their perceptions, biases, and the role they play within the larger system that perpetuates colorism. In essence, it was about making the invisible visible and ensuring that the conversation around colorism was anchored in the experiences of those it affects most deeply. Navigating the complexities of colorism through my art was fraught with challenges, particularly in choosing to focus exclusively on Black women. This decision was informed by my research, which highlighted the disproportionate psychological and mental impact of colorism on Black women, rooted in America's distorted beauty standards. Initially, I never anticipated that my work on colorism, developed as part of my MFA thesis at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, would extend beyond the university setting. However, the project evolved significantly when it was later exhibited in a small gallery in Pittsburgh, PA, reaching a predominantly Black audience. The response was overwhelmingly positive, with many sharing their encounters with colorism, reflecting the experiences depicted in my exhibit.

ACUMEN What do you think keeps us confined to the "boxes" in which we've been placed (family, media, social media)?

The persistence of "boxes" of colorism within the Black community is maintained through a complex interplay of family dynamics, media representation, and social media influences. Family, as the first social institution we encounter, often passes down colorist beliefs and preferences that have been internalized over generations, inadvertently setting the stage for these biases to continue. Media plays a significant role by frequently glorifying lighter skin tones as the ideal standard of beauty, success, and desirability, thereby marginalizing darker skin tones and reinforcing the superiority of lighter skin within societal perceptions. Social media amplifies these issues, with its algorithms and echo chambers often promoting content that aligns with these colorist standards, further entrenching these harmful ideals. Together, these factors create a powerful force that upholds the structures of colorism, making it challenging for individuals to break free from these imposed "boxes" and fostering a cycle of discrimination and self-doubt among those who do not fit the favored mold.

ACUMEN What do you want others to know about The Colorism Project and what fuels your artwork?

ASHLEY JONES The Colorism Project is an endeavor rooted in the desire to illuminate and address the deeply ingrained prejudices and disparities that stem from colorism, particularly within communities of color. It aims to foster a dialogue that transcends mere acknowledgment of colorism's existence, pushing towards a comprehensive understanding of its impacts on individuals' lives—ranging from self-esteem and social dynamics to broader systemic inequalities. At the heart of this project is the conviction that art can serve as a powerful medium for social change, offering a mirror to reflect society's flaws and a window into the possibilities of a more equitable world.

To learn more about Ashely Jones and The Colorism Project: Colorism: Looking Outside the Brown Paper Bag, visit


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