Diagnosed at 21 with vitiligo, which causes a loss of skin pigmentation, Jasmine Colgan says 'I am not a woman of color, but a woman of colors. … My skin, which is both black and white, is a literalization of this fact of my existence'
At a time when questions and controversies over America’s racial past, present and future have highlighted political and social divisions, artist Jasmine Maa Abena Colgan’s life, art and even her body, are a metaphorical—and even literal—subversion of some deeply held ideas about the nation’s history.
Born to a father of Irish heritage and a mother with Ghanaian roots and raised in Colorado, Colgan, 29, was diagnosed at age 21 with vitiligo, a progressive, autoimmune condition that causes loss of skin pigmentation. Since then, more than a quarter of her once-brown complexion has turned white, revealing that color isn’t necessarily even skin deep.
“This transformation has become a representation of my complex identity,” she says. “I am not a woman of color, but a woman of colors. … My skin, which is both black and white, is a literalization of this fact of my existence.”
Colgan, a master of fine arts candidate in interdisciplinary media arts practices at the University of Colorado Boulder, has created a photographic project called “Tough Skin,” depicting Americans with vitiligo, which received widespread media coverage from People magazine to Colorado Public Radio and Britain’s Guardian newspaper. She named the project in honor of her late grandmother, an Irish Catholic, farm-raised Nebraskan who told her, “You gotta have tough skin.”
As part of her MFA thesis project, Colgan will travel to Ghana to delve into her West African roots, where she discovered that her family’s story defies some common narratives about the nation’s history: Her Ghanaian ancestors were royal warriors and as “the eyes of Winneba,” protectors of the town leaders until the British man came. They fought and saved the land during brutal Atlantic slave trade, while her Irish father’s great-grandparents came to America at a time when the Irish were scorned as “other” and treated as “indentured servants.”
“I have some guilt, knowing the African history of trading humans into slavery for cowrie shells, while my family was royal and protected away from slavery,” Colgan says. “It’s taught me a lot about what to be as a person, how we need to give every person the respect they deserve, because everyone deserves respect.”
Colgan has experienced the frustration of not being seen for who she is.
“Some people only see me as a ‘colored’ woman who is turning white; they don’t see that I am half-white. … I have always been treated differently; it’s difficult to be in a place where you feel like you are unheard just because you are a person of color,” she says.
In keeping with her grandmother’s advice, Colgan has tried to respond to such frustrations with a pragmatic, positive approach to the world.
“There are parts of this world you’ll never understand, so you have to accept it for what it is, what people believe, who people are,” she says. “The most important thing is to respect yourself.”
Thanks to the 2019 Summer Graduate School Fellowship, Colgan will co-direct and star in a film that addresses her complex identity, along with Laura Conway, a Cinema Studies and Moving Image graduate student and Dakota Nanton,Visiting, assistant professor at the University of Hartford, who will co-direct the film for her thesis project.
Some people only see me as a ‘colored’ woman who is turning white; they don’t see that I am half-white. … I have always been treated differently; it’s difficult to be in a place where you feel like you are unheard just because you are a person of color.
In addition, Colgan has received a Nature, Environment, Science and Technology (NEST) grant from the university to team up with Marissa Martinez, a PhD student in chemistry, in an attempt to devise a process to print her Ghanaian photographs using gold.
NEST grants help students combine artistic practice and scientific research to explore common and disparate ways of observing, recording, experimenting and knowing.
The photos and videos will explore the history of resource extraction from west Africa’s “Gold Coast,” ground zero for the Atlantic slave trade, documenting the flow of resources that have tied Africa to the United States throughout its history, and the labor that is influenced.
The multimedia project, “Tough Skin: Sankofa Journey,” is named after a word from the Akan culture of southern Ghana that means “return” and “seek”—“Go back and get it,” Colgan says, referring to her explorations of “my complex heritage.”
“It will examine the troubled history of where raw resources come from,” she says.
The project also focuses on her personal entanglement with her ancestors’ land through her art: She uses a chemical solution made from platinum palladium in her photography; this enhances mid-tone grays.
“By depicting (a) platinum palladium mine (in Ghana) I will continue to refer to Africa’s geographical history as a site of resource extraction and complicate my relationship, as a user of those resources,” she says.
Colgan hopes to exhibit “Tough Skin: Sankofa Journey” at the University of Colorado Boulder in May 2020, in conjunction with graduation in a Master of Fine Arts degree.
“I feel it is important to share my journey with the public,” she says.
Once she graduates, Colgan hopes to pursue one of several options: teaching art from a black perspective at a university; starting a nonprofit organization to focus on “self-embrace and being comfortable with who you are”; teaching in Africa; or pursuing a career in acting.
Learn more about Jasmine Colgan's work here: https://www.photographsbyjazz.com