Feminism in art: The body as the canvas

“Our bodies are our biggest storytellers. Shapes, sizes, colour, scars, marks, burns, and moreadorn our bodies with stories and memories,” says Nidhi Jacob, who began the project ‘Breathing Canvas’

Padmalatha Ravi
Padmalatha Ravi

Ashlin Mathew

What is it about the female body that many feel compelled to comment on it. Why do men feel like they have the right to decide what is pretty and sexy and what is not? And why is it that women, most often, internalise these ideas and carry it with them all their lives?

It is with these questions that Bengaluru-based artist Nidhi Jacob began her project, Breathing Canvas, to explore human bodies and to paint on a living and breathing surface. Nidhi has been painting on surfaces such as walls, fabric, paper, metal and wood for almost 20 years when she felt the need to create on more than just a flat surface.

“Our bodies are our biggest storytellers. Shapes, sizes, colour, scars, marks, burns, and more adorn our bodies with stories and memories. With “Breathing Canvas”, I want to highlight the sensitivity that what is personal is political,” said Nidhi emphatically. She initially had a list of 50 women on whom she wanted to paint; she had known most of them for years. She eventually painted on 14 of them and one of them was her mother.

She began the project in 2015 and soon put out posts on the project on Instagram. And that intrigued documentary filmmaker Padmalatha Ravi. Incidentally, Nidhi and Padmalatha’s children go to the same school. “Would it be possible to take away the male gaze, the lover’s gaze and see these bodies that hold a million stories? Could I tell their stories through the art that Nidhi was creating on these women’s bodies?” These were queries that materialised within Padmalatha, who turned a photographer for this project.

“In this project, there was no male gaze involved and that itself took away the sexualised context of women’s bodies. Our idea of sexiness and sensuality comes from a male gaze. Women have internalised it too, so when they look into the mirror, those opinions and ideas shape their views of their bodies. So, what happens when we remove that gaze,” points out Padmalatha.

Through this process, Nidhi and Padmalatha spent time witheveryday women - mothers, working women, actors, dancers, entrepreneurs, and domestic help with the intent of exploring their strengths and understanding their weaknesses through perceived flaws, desires, and beliefs - both superficial and internal.     

“I wanted to go to the core of that person. I didn’t want my art to overpower their personality. For a theatre actor who was a part of the project, I chose to draw soft gentle flowers on her. It was because she would always be pulling someone’s leg, making people laugh, but after each of these instances, there would be a melancholic look in her eyes. This made me draw those flowers,” explained Nidhi.

The first person whom Nidhi had approached for the project was her mother, who had initially refused to be a part of it. “My mother said she didn’t understand why I was doing the project and stated that I was being whimsical. But, two weeks before the exhibition, my mother called me stating that she was ready to be a part of the project. Now, she is a part of it and that has also changed the exhibition’s narrative,” said Nidhi.

“As I painted on these women, I moved into their personal space and became witness to them travelling through different emotions of tension, resistance, ease, acceptance, and then gradually surrendering to the present moment and to a celebration of themselves,” pointed out Nidhi. Each of the body paintings took at least five hours.

As the day progressed, the canvas would also change. “As the hours went by, the vulnerability gives way to comfort. The lines become bolder, the canvas, not shy anymore is looking straight into my camera. By the end of the day, inhibitions are left behind, there is easy banter and lots of laughter. She is now posing. Nudity is no more a concern. There is a confidence, an acceptance of herself, of the art on her body,” described Padmalatha.

For both Nidhi and Padmalatha, the most evocative story came from the nanny looking after Nidhi’s children. She insisted that she wanted to be a part of the project. “After she shed her clothes and I began to paint on her, she said that she was feeling different from within. All her childhood she had heard that she was ‘black’ and hence not pretty. She had started to work at the age of 14 and sitting there being painted on had made her feel that something had shifted in her core,” said Nidhi, who drew an armour on her face and connected it to flowers.

Feminism in art: The body as the canvas
Photographer Padmalatha Ravi and the artist Nidhi Jacob

All of these emotions put on display while she painted on the body canvas made her realise that it was more than just a ‘personal art project’. It also led Nidhi to question if she would be able to do it on herself. After much conversation within, she painted herself.

“It was quite a nerve-wrecking experience. I didn’t know if I wanted to show my stretch marks, my contours and eventually I let go. I painted feathers and a tribal pattern in the front and put colours on my back. I had also decided I wanted to be photographed in the wild. We went to my farmhouse and once I got rid of my inhibitions of stepping out naked, it was quite liberating. I can be seen sitting on the grass, hugging trees,” said Nidhi with laughter in her voice. Padmalatha was not painted on in this phase and they hope to paint on her next time.

This exhibition was also about impermanence. Once the day was over, the canvas would wash away all that Nidhi created and Padmalatha photographed. For Nidhi, the impermanence didn’t seem to matter and Padmalatha was racing with the fading sun trying to capture something that wouldn’t exist soon.

Today, as the MeToo storm is raging the country, it is important for women to understand their right over their bodies. To reiterate what Simone de Beauvoir, the author of Second Sex, said, “The body is the instrument of our hold on the world.”

(The photography exhibition was on show at kaTTE, a gallery in Indiranagar, Bengaluru)

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