Edgar Sanchez Cumbas’ exhibition, "No. This Is Not the Color of Flesh" – on view at SCAD MOA through Nov. 8 – investigates a number of timely issues, such as colorism, racism, and identity.
But the root of his interest in these ideas really stems from when he was a child growing up in Puerto Rico.
"My grandmother had this picture, the ‘Head of Christ,’ by Warner Sallman," Sanchez Cumbas explained on this week’s episode of Art on the Air. "But this particular piece was actually a hologram of the Jesus Christ in prayer. I was really trying to figure out what was behind, not so much the object itself… but more of the hologram, the way that it just moved and what was behind it. But not only that, the more that I think of it today, the way that I’ve always thought about it, it was this deep desperation of this portrayal of Jesus."
Years later on a trip to Germany, he had the opportunity to explore a number of churches and abbeys. Looking at the frescos within, and how they often incorporated sculptural elements, brought him back to his grandmother’s three-dimensional Jesus.
It "sparked" something within him.
"I started thinking about this intersection between religion and racism and bigotry," recalled Sanchez Cumbas. "So I couldn’t help [thinking about] the flesh tone color of the Jesus Christ. And to me, it sort of had a ham-like…like a raw piece of ham, feel to it, that’s just been sitting out somewhere in the sun, half defrosted, or half raw."
The title piece of the show is the culmination of the artist’s exploration of this idea.
"I started working on building up these layers over and over again, trying to make that center, that flat surface right in the middle of that piece, seem to have a sense of glow," he said. "A sort of mysticism, a way of portraying something that there’s an internal life spirit to all of this. But behind all of that is chaos, is laceration, is desperation.
"I finally just said, ‘Let me see what this piece looks like with what our preconditioned notion that we have about flesh tone.’ And I laid that last top layer on there. It’s very fleshy. It looks massaged. It looks very tenderized."
That’s when Sanchez Cumbas had an "a-ha moment" and literally said to himself, "No, this is not the color of flesh.
"I think that aesthetically and formally…I was successful," stated the artist. "But to come to the conclusion that we have this notion that the color of skin is that particular sort of Crayola flesh tone? When I realized that, that’s when that title came in. Flesh is derived from so many different colors, especially if we look at it [through] the lens of the artist conceptually."
Similar themes pop up throughout the exhibition, where Sanchez Cumbas displays a number of works that preceded the titular composition.
Take his "Coconut vs. Blueberry" drawings, for example. Within the context of the series, the ‘copra,’ the bright white innards of the coconut, represents light skin, while blueberries refer to dark skin. And his "Curiosity Cabinet" paintings, influenced perhaps surprisingly by Italian still life painter Giorgio Morandi, arrange color tones to evoke thoughts in the viewer about family, race relations, and identity.
"I started thinking of [Morandi’s] work and then investigating his process of arranging these objects on shelves," he said. "And trying to capture the light and spending hours and hours just looking at them, understanding the placement, arranging them, and then in one sitting, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, he gets it all."
The collected pieces have led to a show that Sanchez Cumbas hopes will cut through the outside noise and get to the heart of the issues he’s been exploring.
"We have to…move away from the spectacle that’s going on politically, socially, the way that we’re looking at self, our conditions," he implored.
"And maybe, maybe, somehow or another, say, ‘Wait a minute, what’s going on? Do we all have some deeper level of bigotry within ourselves that is not allowing us to really get past these issues?’"
You can see more of Edgar Sanchez Cumbas’ work @e.s._cumbas on Instagram or by visiting www.edgarsanchezcumbas.com.
Next week I’ll be speaking with eco-artist Stella Ranae Von Schmid about her wearable fiber works.
Tune in to "Art on the Air" every Wednesday from 3-4 p.m. on WRUU 107.5 FM in Savannah, and streaming worldwide at www.wruu.org.
Art off the Air is a digital-only column that is posted every week on dosavannah.com as a companion piece to the WRUU 107.5 FM show "Art on the Air."
Rob Hessler is an artist, host of the radio show Art on the Air on WRUU 107.5 FM Savannah, and Executive Director of Bigger Pie, a Savannah-based arts advocacy organization.