How Glenn Ligon’s “Coloring” Exhibition Can Teach Us About Diversity in Ancient Times

In June this year, Classicist Sarah E. Bond wrote an article for Hyperallergic called “Why We Need to Start Seeing the Classical World in Color” in which she discussed the ‘irrefutable, if unpopular, truth’ that ‘many of the statues, reliefs and sarcophagi created in the ancient Western world were in fact painted’.

Bond aligned the unpopularity of this view with the valorization of the whiteness of the ‘blank canvas’ of ancient statuary both as grounding a long history of discussions of ideal beauty (going back to Winckelmann) as well as by contemporary white supremacist groups (like Identity Evropa). Bond was subsequently attacked by a spectrum of the right, from conservatives to alt-right trolls, for being a ‘liberal professor’ who misrepresented her as claiming that ‘all white statues are racist’. Undeterred, Bond published a follow-up article earlier this month, also in Hyperallergic, called ‘How Coloring Books Can Teach Us About Diversity in Ancient Times’, the title of which is the basis for the present post.  Here is how Bond begins her article:

In a previous piece on ancient polychromy for Hyperallergic, I discussed how certain alt-right groups had begun to appropriate marble sculpture of the classical world as symbolic of white European superiority, when in fact most white statues in antiquity were painted. The piece caused some controversy, to say the least. Although it was misconstrued by some as an accusation that all white statues were inherently racist, the article was in fact meant to recognize that art historical interpretations of artwork have the power to influence the way individual people, groups, and entire fields of study define beauty. In the piece, I suggested that museums could return color to the ancient world by using new projection-mapping techniques to colorize ancient objects (as practiced on the Ara Pacis in Rome or frequently used on the Egyptian reliefs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) and to embrace the use of 3D modeling in museum displays. What I had not considered was a more analog approach to learning about ancient polychromy: the coloring book.

Bond proceeds to discuss the use of coloring books, both in pedagogical contexts at museums (e.g. Pigments of Your Imagination: A Color Restoration Book by the curator of ancient art Gina Borromeo at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum) and as part of the phenomenon of the adult coloring book (e.g. Classical Sculpture in Color: An Adult Colouring Book by the  classicist Lisa Trentin).


Bond also connected coloring books and the polychromy of ancient statues to another debate swirling around a prominent Classicist in the UK.

In the past few weeks, this issue has again caused intense — and somewhat malicious — debate in the UK, where a cartoon depicting a dark-skinned Roman father elicited an uproar over whether there truly was diversity in ancient Roman Britannia. Even the well-known (and highly respected) classicist Mary Beard became the target of uninformed criticism and trolling. It is clear that this issue needs clarifying and that it is not going away anytime soon. Even when presented with sculpture, mosaics, frescoes, DNA analysis, and texts that speak to a diverse Mediterranean, many wish to deny it. That’s where modern cartoons, movies, video games, museums, and even coloring books can step in and begin to shift the visual narrative.

When my friend, artist and curator Marisa Espe forwarded me Bond’s recent article, I was immediately reminded of the 2001 exhibition at the Walker Art Center: Coloring: New Work by Glenn Ligon.

Based on an archive of African-American coloring books from the 1970s, Ligon juxtaposed his own coloring work with that of drawings made by children using the same source material during the summer of 2000. Here is how Ligon articulates a key tension between the original coloring books and their use by children in his project in an interview included in the exhibition catalog:

Any representation of a black person, from Malcolm X to a boy swinging on a tire, was supposed to be inspiring because it meant that our histories, stories, and heroes mattered. Just seeing an image of something that hadn’t been depicted before was a revolution. There was immense social upheaval behind the creation of those coloring books; they weren’t just about giving kids something to do to pass the time. But if you give those images to a three-year old, none of that matters. Coloring is just something to do to pass the time.

Ligon continues to represent his own paintings in the exhibition as ‘hovering in that space between meaning a great deal and meaning nothing’. Furthermore, what connects his project more directly with the debate about polychromy in ancient sculpture is the shared question of beauty:

The coloring-book images come from a time when there was a reevaluation going on in terms of how black people and other people of color experienced their self-worth and beauty…Beauty is a force that is seemingly outside culture – which in the end it very well may be – but the discussion around beauty is often used to preempt any debates about exclusion or marginality or privilege…

This question of beauty and its long history of whitewashing in Western art historical and cultural debates is a vital point of connection between the reception and value of Classical antiquity and contemporary art.

And perhaps, as Ligon’s grounding of the 1970s context for his project and the controversy around the cartoon and Mary Beard’s defense, this debate needs to keep expanding beyond the ancient sculptures themselves, into basic ideas of how ancient people were and are represented. You can start here by coloring the following appropriated images of Solon, Perikles and Aspasia and the building of the Parthenon from a 1980s coloring book about Ancient Greece:




  (My thanks to Rebeka Campos-Astorkiza for discussing ideas about this post with me earlier this morning).

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