Edgar Sanchez Cumbas: Community of Flat Faces runs through May 7 at the Gallery 221 at HCC-Dale Mabry’s, Learning Resources Center, second Floor (inside library), 4001 W Tampa Bay Blvd., Tampa, 813-253-7386, hccfl.edu/gallery221.
On a typical day last year, Edgar Sanchez Cumbas was waiting in line at the convenience store near his studio in West Tampa, one of the city’s historically Latino neighborhoods, when he zoned out looking at a box of Chick-O-Sticks next to the cash register. The orangey peanut butter-stuffed candy sticks took him back to being a kid in the Bronx, where Cumbas’ family moved from Puerto Rico when he was 10 years old. Then a comment by the store’s Iranian cashier snapped him out of his reverie: “What’s up, papi? You gonna buy that?”
Cumbas — who was already working on a series of paintings inspired by skin color and its role in shaping how people judge and treat one another — went back to his studio and made a new piece. Hollowing out three dowels that he found in a trash heap, Cumbas coated and stuffed them with paint: red-brown to represent himself, yellow-green for his wife, whose ancestry is Greek, and beige for their 5-year-old daughter. Around each he placed a half-peeled away plastic wrapper, creating a cross between a painting and a candy bar.
Through May 7, Cumbas’s handmade Chick-O-Sticks are on view in a solo exhibition at HCC Dale Mabry’s Gallery 221. Titled Community of Flat Faces, the show features a body of around 30 works that Cumbas has been building up over two years. All of the works are paintings, arguably, though some are very sculptural paintings (like the Chick-O-Sticks) or even miniature installations (in the case, for example, of a piece consisting of three wall-mounted wedges of painted wood, one with an egg balanced on top). And all deal loosely, in meditative and painterly ways, and not through didactic means, with the idea of colorism.
First defined by Alice Walker in a 1982 essay, the term refers to the preferential or prejudicial treatment of people based on lightness or darkness of skin tone that occurs within racial groups as well as across them. The concept got a boost in exposure in 2013, when Oprah’s network aired a documentary called Dark Girls. The film includes a scene of a young African-American woman who recounts overhearing her mother say she would be truly beautiful if her skin were lighter. It has also been a hot topic in 2014 since Mexican-born Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o won an Academy Award and signed an endorsement deal with Lancôme, seemingly defying the biases of colorism.
But far more than standards of beauty are at stake: Studies have shown that light-skinned black women are sentenced to 12 percent less prison time than darker-skinned women charged with equivalent crimes, and that university students shown a photograph of a black man’s face along with the word “educated” later recall the man as having lighter skin.
Cumbas, 43, who has lived in Tampa since 1989, says issues of race and immigration have long been a topic of conversation in his Latino family — not to mention the stuff of everyday life, like being addressed as “papi” by a stranger of another race.
The issue of colorism hit home in a new way with the arrival of his daughter, whose skin color Cumbas began to contemplate before she was born. His painting “SPF 100 to Cover Your Skin” was made after a relative urged him not to let his daughter get too dark at the beach. Like all of Cumbas’ paintings, it takes an abstract approach to its subject: on a thick panel, a square of coffee bean brown is painted atop a field of white tinged pink with the faintest hint of red. Above the panel, a T-shape made of two wooden slats hoists a blue “sky” in the form of a horizontal smear of paint and a yellow “sun,” a dried blob of pigment, over the figure of the square.
In such a work, painting is as much the topic at hand as skin tone, and part of what’s being asked is how painting that is abstract — without conventionally legible figures, landscapes or other picture-like features — can be used very potently to represent, or stimulate reflection upon, real world phenomena.
Another gem is a small painting in the shape of a stout “S,” daubed with light and dark flesh-tone colors on paper patches adhered to the blocky panel. Cumbas describes it as a response to learning that his grandmother added the “s” to the end of Cumbas in Puerto Rico to make the family sound more European.
Hands down, though, my favorite painting in the show is “Community of Flat Faces 02,” a crusty conglomeration of different, fleshy shades of paint, with the exception of one hunk of chalky green, stuck on a 6x5" canvas in the shape of a generic human face. Cumbas stumbled upon the readymade canvas, which is a commercial product for portrait painters, at an art supply store. (Imagine: You are headed out to shop for materials to make your race-critical paintings, and you find that the store is already stocked with canvases in the shape of tiny white faces. Go figure.) This chance discovery is manna from heaven; Cumbas piles paint on top of the thing, giving it an eerie optical halo by painting its reverse side neon pink, to create one of the strangest little paintings I’ve seen.
Like the exhibition as a whole — the titular community of diverse paintings as stand-ins for people — this little canvas will have you putting more thought into your next judgment of a face.