Un/doing Albinism: Recodings of a bodily difference through historically shifting frames

(Sub­pro­ject within the scope of DFG Research Group FG 1939 Un/doing Dif­fer­ences: Prac­tices of Human Dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion, estab­lished in 2013)

Albinism is the medicalized term for a condition that results in a physical appearance with the prominent feature of hypopigmentation of the skin, hair and retina. This appearance deviates from physical norms throughout the world and results in many places in the stigmatization and discrimination of people with the condition. The phenomenon is often perceived ambiguously as falling between "race" and "disability". This project examines un/doing albinism as exemplary of un/doing difference from a macrohistorical perspective over a period of approximately 500 years. The geographical focus of this long-term observation is the transatlantic triangle between Europe, Africa and North America. The aim is to examine the history of hypopigmentation from the perspective of its transatlantic interconnections. Heuristically speaking, the project differentiates between three phases, which are marked by different framings of hypopigmentation: during the proto-albinistic phase, people with hypopigmentation are conceptualized as racial hermaphrodites or human-spirit hybrids; in the albinistic phase, they are seen as people with a genetic syndrome, and in the post-albinistic phase they are considered as people with certain aesthetic qualities. The project examines the recoding of hypopigmentation through the shift of its interpretative frames – the race discourse, magic, medicine and art – which exist partly in historical succession, and partly simultaneously in different social fields. The shifting of framings is understood here as a contingent effect of changing societal conditions, on the one hand, and a concrete act of undoing which emanates from social movements, on the other.

 

Foto: Pictures from Miia Autio’s photo series ‘Variation of White’ at the exhibition opening of ‘gute aussichten 2016/2017’ at NRW-Forum Düsseldorf. (© Christopher Hohl, 2016)