Of Colour by Katherine Agyemaa Agard

Of Colour by Katherine Agyemaa Agard

Essay Press, 2020

Of Colour by Katherine Agyemaa Agard. Essay Press, 2020.

By Margaryta Golovchenko

In the second half of the untitled introductory section to Of Colour, Katherine Agyemaa Agard asks, “What colour am I?” By way of an answer, she then offers the reader a photograph of herself, pairing it with a column titled “Proportional Palette” that shows the colours found in said image. Since 29.4% of the photo’s surface area is identified as Sapphire (Blue), Agyemaa Agard concludes: “I think that I am blue.”[1] It is easy to instantly jump to Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and to the colour’s broad spectrum of affects, as Agyemaa Agard states herself in the References section when she lists the books people would mention “[w]ithout fail when [she] talked about [her] project.”[2]

Of Colour is an artbook memoir that straddles the line between essay and poetry. In an interview for the University of Washington-Bothell, Agyemaa Agard also uses the term “speculative non-fiction” to discuss the work, as it “allows me to reflect on basic truths and speculate on various matters related to them. It’s important to retain that freedom when I write.”[3] Of Colour is a living document rather than a static and fixed text that similarly treats colour as a container for the self to step into when language fails to convey and to soothe.

While the exploration of colour’s optics and affects, its artistic and material side, in the work of ‘colour writers’ like Nelson is present to an extent in Of Colour, the term “colour” takes on a multivalent function within the book. For Agyemaa Agard, colour serves as an entry point into locating the self within artistic and cultural traditions, of thinking about racialized bodies, and beginning to theorize personal and familial trauma. In the beginning of the second section, “Surface,” Agyemaa Agard’s photographic documentation of Trinidad is coupled with a questioning of the “colored signs” that line the road of identity, of asking yourself “who am I?” Later, this question of identity is expanded to the way identity is still used as an obstacle to keep out people from countries seen as undesirable in the hierarchical eyes of Western countries like the United States, limiting their mobility as well as work and study opportunities. The legacy of the historical, colonial binaries of colour are shown to persist to this day, a system that, by virtue of being upheld, continues to engage in anti-Blackness. Agyemaa Agard’s role in this is that of an interlocutor, “a colorman, mixing colors for others,”[4] one who sorts through lived and inherited experiences as if through vials of pigments on a shelf to show how they intermingle and work together, of the way they work together when they are laid down on the page like paint on a canvas.

It is through colour that Agyemaa Agard also documents the fraught understanding of race and colour within her own family, the importance placed on her lighter skin and, “the whole mess” when she stated “I’m [B]lack, betraying the family.”[5] In the first section, “Interior,” Agyemaa Agard includes her three milk paintings (2014) as a material manifestation of this questioning, each of the three square canvases that bring to mind handmade bars of soap representing Agyemaa Agard and her two siblings. The association with soap feels fitting, given that the connection between milk and bathing resurfaces only a few pages later in the form of a recipe for a milk bath meant “for a cooling head.”[6] Where some artists make art based on their experiences or as a way of processing knowledge inherited from family or culture, Of Colour is a demonstration of Agyemaa Agard’s immersive practice. It does not come from a place of obsession so much as a space of emotional intensity where “anxiety is urgency.”[7]

Visuals, both literal and the kind constructed from snippets of memory and oral history, are one of the primary modes of communication for Agyemaa Agard. Screenshots of email correspondences and website pages, photographs of Trinidad and Tobago, collages created out of pages from historical texts and documents on the slave trade and European colonization — these are some of the images that populate the pages of the book, yet they do not exist to merely illustrate Agyemaa Agard’s text. Instead, these images form a separate thorough line that runs through Of Colour as an additional layer of inquiry into autoethnography.

One of the most interesting uses of visuals in Of Colour are little snippets of textures scattered throughout the book. A note in the reference section tells the reader that these are textures of various surfaces from Trinidad that were taken by the author and artist using a handheld book scanner. The effect of these scraps of colour ranging in size and shape is one of unmediated, almost sobering, sort of looking, the kind where nothing stands between the individual and the world other than those few seconds before they reach out their hand to grab it. Whereas later in the book Agyemaa Agard takes two such textured surfaces and expands them to the size of a painting reproduction, pairing them with computer-generated alt-text as well as her own affect-based caption, the smaller scans function more as fragments of the peripheries gravitating to the centre, becoming one with the text in the form of a new whole. Similarly, Agyemaa Agard states that she “learned to see [herself] by seeing how other people read [her] […] learned to write [herself] against the language of those gazes.”[8] The reader reads Agyemaa Agard through this rich combination of text and image, which in turn prevents the flat simplification of character that would otherwise be tempting to partake in if the work were strictly fictional or even biographical.

Of Colour is a new addition to the growing genre of autotheoretical texts as Agyemaa Agard manifests one of the primary features of the form: the refusal to conform to white colonial expectations of what a text looks or sounds like. It is also not a text that exists to be at the service of the reader. Rather, Of Colour is a testament to narrative’s plasticity, the way experiences and stories are braided together into a thick thread that is constantly being worked on. “I must tell you that this grandmother — as are all characters including myself — is an amalgam of all my mother’s stretching back,” Agyemaa Agard says at one point in the section “Surface.” “Fictional and true all at once, a monstrous creation meant to allow for both plausible denial and recognition.”[9] The reader is a spectator witnessing the unfolding of Agyemaa Agard’s practice, in which colour is a catalyst rather than an entry point, and where, like on a canvas, words participate in an ongoing stratification of the self.  

[1] Katherine Agyemaa Agard, Of Colour. Essay Press, 2020. p. 4

[2] Of Colour, p. 198

[3] Stephanie Segura and N.L. Sweeney. Interview with Katherine Agyemaa Agard, 2020. University of Washington. https://www.uwb.edu/mfa/publications/essay-press-book-contest/katherine-agyemaa-agard

[4] Of Colour, p. 100

[5] Of Colour, p. 147

[6] Of Colour,p. 32

[7] Of Colour, p. 64

[8] Of Colour, p. x

[9] Of Colour, p. 56

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