Mosaic Founders Usha Srinivasan and Priya Das with the cast and artists of Beautiful Dark, Saturday May 18th 2024

Mosaic Founders Usha Srinivasan and Priya Das with the cast and artists of Beautiful Dark, Saturday May 18th 2024

On Saturday, May 18th at the Mexican Heritage Plaza in San Jose, Mosaic America commissioned and presented the performance Beautiful Dark, with funding support from the Creative Work Fund. Founders Usha Srinivasan and Priya Das opened the show by addressing Mosaic’s mission to catalyze social cohesion by connecting people to place and each other, and doing so through multicultural gatherings focused on participative artistic expression. Priya mentioned our collective shared future, and that together we were all about to experience Beautiful Dark–a production that epitomizes what Mosaic as an organization stands for.

Four collaborative artists captivated an audience with their original performance that challenged our collective fixation on fairness and its impact on global beauty standards. The unity of cultures combined with dance, music and spoken word resulted in a provocative, original conversation on the important topic of colorism. If you weren’t able to make it, we provide you with an overview of Beautiful Dark, how to self-reflect on the impacts of beauty standards, and how to keep the conversation ongoing.

In the opening chapter, Cambodian dancer, choreographer and creator of the work Charya Burt starts with an originally choreographed Cambodian dance piece. Charya titles it “Srei Khmao,” transliterated from Khmer as “dark skin girl,” referencing her experience with colorism as a young girl. Charya infuses classical Cambodian dance with nods to her self-expression and the impact that colorism had on her throughout her life.

Artists Charya Burt and Niharika Mohanty practicing during Beautiful Dark rehearsals, Thursday May 16th 2024

Artists Charya Burt and Niharika Mohanty practicing during Beautiful Dark rehearsals, Thursday May 16th 2024

Alongside the composer and instrumentalist, Vietnamese artist Vân-Ánh Võ, Charya moves into the next segment–the mirror dance–as she slowly and abstractly outlines the focus on her skin and face through her classical Cambodian style movements. Combining the beautiful, haunting tension of the musical composition with Charya’s slow yet sometimes abrupt movements illustrates the focus and obsession Southeast Asian cultures have with fairness as a result of colorism, imparted by decades of colonial western rule.

Then Vân-Ánh Võ plays her original piece “Puddle of Coal” to include her own personal experiences with colorism. Using a wide variety of traditional Vietnamese instruments, Vân-Ánh creates aqueous soundscapes as a call-out to a puddle with moments of calm that bleed into deeper symphonies to mimic the array of emotions and impacts that being associated with a “puddle of coal” can leave on a life beyond just hers.

The performance then moves to Indian artist and Odissi dancer Niharika Mohanty, the segment called Kali Ladki–the Indian goddess of nature, motherly love, creativity and fertility. Niharika highlights her struggles with being perceived as dark, and the contradiction that she and others like her face meanwhile Kali is a visibly dark goddess who is widely accepted and worshipped in Indian culture. In her piece, Niharika calls to Kali Ladki by saying her name numerous times, each more frantic than the call before, as she goes on to express her personal struggle. “Color is a burden I inherited,” she says, while her sister, “radiant, as a white plumeria.” Despite trying “turmeric, sandalwood, and bathing in milk” leaving her skin “soft as silk,” her “dark skin is a misfortune.” Marrying her confessions to Kali with Vân-Ánh’s composition and elegant gestures of Odissi dance, Niharika creates a palpable sensation of her lifelong struggle with being perceived as dark.

Then the performance moves into a segment dubbed the Trio–three cultures–where Indian, Cambodian and Vietnamese cultures marry through artistic expression. Charya and Niharika dance in their own unique ways with pieces they originally choreographed while Vân-Ánh plays original music that comes together in a beautiful unity of cultures meant to signify the shared struggles they all face with colorism. They want the audience to know that not only are these far from isolated experiences but also are a means to come together from different backgrounds impacted by fairness focused beauty standards.

Then poet and author Shikha Malviya introduces the next segment with her poem from her original Book of White titled, “They Say.” She repeats, “they say, they say, such a pretty face, but so dark.” Shikha references the texts in her Book of White numerous times throughout the performance meant to act as a guide for how the artists are pushed to feel about their dark skin. She says, “they say if you were more fair, you would be more marriageable,” implying that those perceived as fairer have an easier time achieving conventional goals in life.

 

Writer and Poet Shikha Malaviya and Instrumentalist Vân-Ánh Võ during Beautiful Dark rehearsals, Friday May 17th 2024

Writer and Poet Shikha Malaviya and Instrumentalist Vân-Ánh Võ during Beautiful Dark rehearsals, Friday May 17th 2024

Shikha then welcomes the audience to the “World Salon,” where anyone and everyone can “be the brightest, be the whitest.” The fictional World Salon is a commentary on society’s obsession with beauty products meant to make skin whiter and brighter, and how fairness will bring a person closer to successes in life. With the use of various skin products, anyone can “be the brightest,” anyone can “make diamonds out of coal.”

As Shikha narrates, Charya and Niharika move into their segment “Skin Cream March,” wherein they dance with oversized jars of skin whitening cream called Pure White–an original creation designed after many real products that were used by them and others they knew in an effort to whiten their dark skin. As they march in unison, each with a comically large jar in their hands, Vân-Ánh chants “be the brightest, be the whitest, so white, so bright, like a star.” At this point the tone of the performance visibly changes as things become more upbeat and hopeful–tying into Charya and Niharika’s expectations that this whitening cream will improve the quality of their lives and make them more beautiful by social standards.

Then we witness social media videos of both Charya and Niharika using whitening creams to so visibly whiten their skin tones. As these videos play both artists mimic the application of the lotions to their skin and their perceived satisfaction with using them to make their lives better. They look at each other as if to offer expressions of approval for their whiter skin. As their “special day is here,” Shikha refers to their marriageability now that they are whiter. Vân-Ánh sings “whiter skin, better opportunity, your skin’s fair, more marriageable.” At this point they are acknowledging the success of the Pure White cream and its ability to bring them both better fortune, luck, success and even marriage as a result of its use, their facial expressions visibly happier as they perform their dance segment.

The dance ends with a disclaimer from Shikha about the variations in results from using the product, and the potential dangers associated with its use–”redness, swelling, irritation, tingling, burning, rashes, dry skin, peeling, pigmentation, and uneven skin tone. If ingested, rush to the nearest hospital to have your stomach pumped. In rare cases Pure White may cause an allergic reaction which can lead to cardiac arrest, and/or death.” While satirical in nature, the disclaimer speaks to the dangers associated with our collective fixation with changing ourselves and our skin, and that despite these risks, the promise of fairness can so often be impossible to resist.

Artists Charya Burt and Niharika Mohanty practicing during Beautiful Dark rehearsals, Thursday May 16th 2024

Artists Charya Burt and Niharika Mohanty practicing during Beautiful Dark rehearsals, Thursday May 16th 2024

As a segue, the tone of the performance then changes to a questionable one, to ask the audience have they gone too far with this obsession with changing to seem more palatable? Shikha asks, “are you sure that whiteness is the cure?” She warns to “beware that you don’t disappear into the great white void.” Meanwhile, Charya and Niharika, dressed in all white, fixate on their jars of lotion as they become the whitest version of themselves. Their dances tell the story of perceived beauty standards, of obsession with lei–lotions that promise to change them for the better–and the rather empty versions of themselves this creates. They wrap themselves endlessly in white fabric from the jars, symbolizing the overuse of the lotion itself, as they lose themselves in the great white void and no longer recognize who they are, donning white face masks and dancing slowly to an ominous, haunting melody created by Vân-Ánh. They want the audience to acknowledge the dangers that face us if we lose ourselves to this obsession, and to instead consider embracing our unique authenticity as a form of resistance that can then, in turn, inspire the impacts of colorism on our cultures to change.

Colorism has its reach near and far. It is not an isolated phenomenon but rather touches so many lives across the world. Beautiful Dark in its entirety outlines the insecurities that are imposed on those who are seen as dark as a result of colorism, the perceived happiness when a solution like whitening creams is presented, and the detriment of the obsession with changing our appearance to fit a mold that favors fairness above all else. Ultimately we can both feel and see the emotional journey through the riveting storytelling of dance, song and spoken word that Beautiful Dark offers–and its urge to make us reconsider being anything but our authentic selves.

So as Shikha says, “oh sister, you are good, just as you are. That saying of how beauty lies within holds a truth far more powerful than melanin. So I ask you once again–are you sure? Is this a risk you want to take, going from real to fake?” Beautiful Dark in its entirety urges us to ask ourselves the same questions, and to gently but firmly suggest that embracing ourselves as we are is the action we collectively need to fight against this form of discrimination.