Chromophobes, Xenophones and Lots of Textas

Kirsten Farrell muses on colourphobia through her life, her Phd and her reading of the book Colourphobia (2000) by David Batchelor

Feng Yan Psychedelic Bamboo, No.03, 2009, c-print, 120 x 90cm.

I was seven, or maybe eight, the late 1970s. In the hot, empty post-Christmas summer at my grandmother's house in western New South Wales I decided to write and illustrate a book using my new set of textas. I started with the title: The Hawaiian Princess. But first there had to be a title page, and drawing was one of my specialities; it brought me praise and recognition in my family and at school. And I somehow knew that, even in the Famous Five books that I could now read all by myself, drawings and pictures were the locus of any subsequent imaging of the written word in my mind. Anyway, I wasn’t sure how the story would go in detail, so drawing seemed the only place to start. It was the deliciousness of the idea, the situation itself that excited me. A white girl (my avatar) would encounter a lost Hawaiian Princess, befriend her and help her to find her way home. This was all I needed to set about depicting the First Encounter, using my lovely set of twelve textas. But I soon came unstuck. The brown texta for the skin of the dusky Princess and black for her amazingly long hair seemed a natural choice, but when it came to depicting me, the White Girl, I found I was cornered into giving myself yellow hair and blue eyes and pink skin. None of these things matched at all, in fact (especially in the summer when we spent days on end at the pool) I had learned that when people asked me "Where are you from?" what they really wanted to know was my ethnicity. My black hair, dark brown eyes and 'olive’ skin are not, as has variously been suggested, Italian, Greek, Roma, Latin American, Spanish or Aboriginal, but Anglo-Celtic, British, White.

But there were no White textas in my set, or even ‘skin-coloured’. I didn’t realise at the time, but the accumulation of these things was the beginning of my learning that the first use of colour is to categorise and differentiate, to judge difference from the self. In my experience it is one of the first principles upon which people rely to establish relationships.
In my own art practice I have never been able to leave colour alone. I’m particularly interested in systems for colour, and in the gaps between linguistic meanings of colour and the experience of it. The single most powerful aspect of colour for me is the way it resists systematic categorisation: it always leaks out the sides, over the edges of any intellectual boundary constructed around it. Science, philosophy, art, anthropology, web design: there are many varieties of system, but none that explain colour in its entirety. In my research into colour I have found that most things written about it are either encyclopaedic (John Gage’s Color and Culture), very dry or just plain difficult (Wittgenstein’s On Colour, the last thing he ever wrote). Many set out to be authoritative texts, to ‘solve’ the problem of colour in one way or another; so when I came across Chromophobia by English artist David Batchelor I initially became a total convert.

Written in 2000, it’s a little book and a big rant about how, throughout the history of Western thought “colour has been systematically marginalised, reviled, diminished and degraded”.1 He seems to have done much of the work for you: taking in Wittgenstein, advertisements for paint, Moby Dick, Aldous Huxley and the Wizard of Oz (the Hollywood version) and packing his argument up into a mere hundred or so pages.

At the heart of Batchelor’s case for the low position of colour in Western culture and thought is his explanation of the manifestation of chromophobia in the

...many and varied attempts to purge colour from culture, to devalue colour, to diminish its significance, to deny its complexity...this purging of colour is usually accomplished in one of two ways. In the first, colour is made out to be the property of some ‘foreign’ body—usually the feminine, the oriental, the primitive, the infantile, the vulgar, the queer or the pathological. In the second, the colour is relegated to the realm of the superficial, the supplementary, the inessential or the cosmetic. In one, colour is regarded as alien and therefore dangerous; in the other it is perceived merely as a secondary quality of experience, and thus unworthy of serious consideration. Colour is dangerous, or it is trivial, or it is both...Either way, colour is routinely excluded from the higher concerns of the Mind. It is other to the higher values of Western culture.2

He’s not the only thinker to suggest these things, but the way his argument is presented is direct and accessible. It’s almost as if colour is anthropomorphised in Chromophobia: for a long time I felt as though I had been radicalised into defending the rights of colour, much as you might fight for a disenfranchised minority group.

Re-reading the book as part of my PhD research I came across the following passage in the chapter Hanunoo, which addresses the relationship between culture, language and colour: “In Huxley’s writing, mescaline or LSD takes you to the ‘antipodes of the mind’ a largely unexplored continent populated by ‘exceedingly improbable’ metaphorical mammals and marsupials...”3 Batchelor then moves into a discussion about the meaning of colour in The Wizard of Oz. Of course he means the Hollywood movie but Oz is such a common slang expression for Australia that the dots in this hidden picture between the ‘antipodes of the mind’ complete with ‘exceedingly improbable’ wildlife and the idea of the ‘strange unexplored continent’ are so close to each other that they hardly need joining up. In this one paragraph he manages to conflate the idea of Australia with Otherness, or Other-Worldliness through colour in one go.

He didn’t mean it, of course, but that is the point. Batchelor quotes a tripping Huxley: "the ‘non-symbolic inhabitants of the mind’s antipodes exist in their own right, and like the given facts of the external world are coloured."4 It’s a kind of Freudian slip: neither Huxley or Batchelor are actually talking about ‘us’, of course, but this passage led me to consider that although a self-identified Westerner, I am both included and not included in this thought. It highlights for me the ambiguity of the view from Down Here. Australians, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, still occupy a position of otherness from the point of view of Europeans. We are vulgar and pathological (although meant as a joke, we are still tellingly called convicts by English people), we are infantile in the sense of being a former colony of Mother England. And, as Huxley romanticises, we are so exotic and primitive as to be beyond language in a kind of state of colour-grace, a kind of Noble Savage for the intellect: "Everything seen by those who visit the mind’s antipodes is brilliantly illuminated and seems to shine from within. All colours are intensified to a pitch far beyond anything seen in the normal state… At the antipodes of the mind we are more or less completely free of language, outside the system of conceptual thought." 5

Australians, I would argue, from a European perspective are thought of as primitive on some level. Perhaps I am overstating the case for argument’s sake here but then there is the unavoidable Otherness between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, which is reflected in the de facto separation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian art practice.

The elephant I have found in the room that is my current research into the use and meaning of colour in Australian art is that of race. Although I did not set out to think about racial identity, I have unavoidably bumped into one or other of its big grey-area legs on a regular basis. My problem with the textas prefigured this dilemma of difference and colour: as it turns out, the texts that have addressed colour in art in Australia inevitably concern Indigenous art. By now an avid proponent of the game of ‘Spot the Chromophobe’, a sort of reversal of the bigotry inherent in the games of ‘Spot the Aussie’ that kids from my school would play on bus excursions to Sydney, I came to sense that somehow this focus on colour and the Indigenous was a manifestation of chromophobia. But if it is, then how exactly? What might it mean to identify it as such, beyond simply pointing it out? Once you read Chromophobia it is easy to see how colour is marginalised. But what of it? Is it then just another form of political correctness, another sign of one’s critique of the dominant paradigm?

In 2000, the same year Chromophobia was published, John Gage (author of Color and Culture and Color and Meaning, among others) was a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research at the Australian National University. During his time there he co-curated (with Merryn Gates) an exhibition called Restricting the Palette: Colour and Land at the Canberra School of Art Gallery. The exhibition brought together an amazing array of work by (mostly) Indigenous Australian artists, demonstrating Gage’s research into the relationships between colour and the art of Indigenous Australians. Central to his thesis in the accompanying catalogue is the idea of a cyclical expansion and contraction of colour in art evident in the art of both the West and in Australian Indigenous art; and that the art of Indigenous Australians was cycling into an expansion of the palette.

Gage takes pains to point out that he does not mean to paternalistically legitimate ‘Aboriginal developments’ by linking them with Western traditions, but “to suggest that a parallel dynamic has also been at work in this country”6. He then digs into the idea of the ‘traditional’ Indigenous palette, that is, the restricted ‘earth’ palette of ochres and earth pigments. He argues that the colour choices made by Indigenous artists are not, as might be assumed, necessarily due to a spiritual connection to the land but instead based on practical circumstances. Gage shows, and reiterates this argument later in his subsequent book Colour in Art7 that given the opportunity Aboriginal artists will use all colours available to them.

It is noteworthy that these two texts by two English men arose contemporaneously. In Colour in Art, Gage includes an extended discussion of Indigenous Australian art as well as a chapter called “Colour Trouble” in which he acknowledges and legitimates Batchelor’s position. It’s not that there is anything wrong with English people commenting upon colour in Australian art and they are by no means the only ones. (Diana Young’s research into colour in objects and language in Indigenous Australian culture is particularly interesting). There are a number of texts that concern colour in Western Desert art since the Papunya painters.8 But there is nothing significant about colour in other Australian contemporary art. Is it such a non-issue for non-Indigenous Australians precisely because of this association with the primitive and infantile, or the “superficial, the supplementary, the inessential…the cosmetic”9?

I don’t want to explain my vague discomfort with assumptions about the way colour is conceptualised with a post-colonial whinge about ex-colonisers and their paternalistic attitudes, but to point out a species of xenophobia in the fear of colour, one that may be particular to Anglo-Saxon Australian-ness. Recently I was talking with a new (non-art but interested) acquaintance about art and he said, “Do you think Aboriginal painting fills a gap in Australia - I mean it’s just so beautiful and colourful.” It seemed to him that non-Indigenous art has less of a licence to be so colourful. I wonder if ‘we’ (the white people who Richard Bell says make a ‘thing’ of Aboriginal art) allow Indigenous art its colour because of our fear of colour: because in our own xenophobia/chromophobia towards Indigenous Australians and by extension their art, colour is a property of the primitive and infantile?

I still think that Chromophobia is a thought-provoking text, but these days I am a little over playing ‘Spot the Chromophobe’. Like homophobia and xenophobia the most difficult fears to overcome are the ones that are so ingrained that we don’t even notice that they are there. I’d like to think I’ve come to terms with my inner chromophobe and therefore my inner xenophobe: these days I have hundreds of textas.

Kirsten Farrell is an artist and PhD candidate in the Printmedia and Drawing Workshop at the ANU Canberra School of Art.

1 David Batchelor, Chromophobia, Reaktion Books, London 2000, p22.

2 ibid., pp22-23

3 ibid., p75

4 ibid., p75

5 ibid., p76
6 John Gage, Restricting the Palette: Colour & Land. Canberra: Australian National University, 2000, p3.

7 John Gage, Color in Art, New York: Thames & Hudson, 2006.

8 Such as: Judith Ryan, Colour Power: Aboriginal Art Post 1984 Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, 2004; Diana Young, ‘The smell of green-ness; cultural synaesthesia in the Western Desert’ in Etnofoor, XVIII/1/2005 eds. Regina Bendix and Donald Brenneis, pp61-77 and ‘Mutable things: colours as material practice in the northwest of South Australia’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol 17:2 pp356-376, June 2011.

9 David Batchelor, op cit., p22.