Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Colors of Zim

This interior designer has always been fascinated with color. But the interest has exponentially grown since moving to Africa.  After a recent trip to the paint store, I decided I should mention to you wonderful readers that color is a very cultural and geographically specific thing. (Not to mention generational and gender biased!) 

Meet the ugliest shade of pink known to man, found ev-er-y-where in my current life:  


This color is commonly known as "Rhodesian Pink."  This gaud-awful color -that has no business landing itself on any piece of architecture- can be found all over Zim on houses, gates, and landmarks, and is a quintessential mark of the old Rhodesian ("Old Rhodies'") influence on culture in the country.  The color is seen by many as upscale and upper-class, and interpreted by many older Zimbabweans as a sign of wealth. My. Least. Favorite. Color. Ever. 

Me?  Opinionated? Why, yes. Yes, I am. 

But I'm also dealing with a teensy bit of cultural bias.  Let's just say I did not grow up seeing a lot of salmon-pink houses in my day.

A set of our neighbors recently built a cottage on their property for the in-laws to retire into.  They invited me over to help pick out an exterior color.  Looking at their initially selected paint samples, I gave them my American choice (navy blue with white trim and apple green accents) and then my Zimbabwean choice (a modern stone-gray with white and yellow accents) to go with the newly installed tiles already on the roof.  The American choice was if I could do it my way.  The Zimbabwean choice was to make it fit in with the neighborhood's existing schemes.

Our neighbors loved the Zimbabwean set of colors and started to paint the cottage.  When the older in-laws saw the color scheme, they were horrified. "Gray?  That's the color of filthy concrete! No. We couldn't live with that." 

Our neighbors explained how gray is a new, clean, modern color. "It's fresh and updated," they had retorted.  But Old Rhodesian mom and dad were having none of it.  Add a few more weeks of debate and an additional two hundred color swatches.

The end result: The two cottage walls that face our neighbors' house are a lovely gray with yellow and white accents. The two walls that face outward toward the street are a bright Rhodesian pink!

Not only are color preferences based on many cultural biases, but the names of colors are, as well.  Some researchers have spent their entire careers studying the intersection of culture and color. I like to think that if ever I was forced to be a scientist -gasp- that is exactly what I would study, too.  We all know that different cultures have different symbolism for different colors.  But opinions on color go way beyond that. A variety of things -from one's surroundings, to the availability of a color, or the size of the color, or the linguistics of color, or the light being used- can affect the way a culture interprets a color and therefore how a person mentally and physically reacts to a color. 

Am I going into too much detail for those of you not interested in how Crayola has affected the world?  I'll stop myself here for your sake, but let me throw in a small portion of paint swatch examples that so very uniquely demonstrate where I am living. These are not the names you'll find at your Western paint counter:

Organdy = a crisp cotton cloth previously made in Zim, 
Springbok = an antelope found in Southern Africa, 
Dry Gold = mined in Zim, 
Bleached Baobab = a tree that grows in the dry portions of the country

Tea Cookie = a standard food in groceries here,
Whaky Khaki = the color worn by rangers, hunters, and anyone on safari,
Bushbuck = a large antelope found in Southern Africa

For any weirdos like me interested in this subject's happy details, here are a few links that scratch the surface of the fascinating intersections of color, psychology, and culture: