My Body, My Art: Questioning perceptions of feminism, body politics and sexuality

Three young artists are using social media to share art that questions perceptions of feminism, body politics and sexuality

Written by Pooja Pillai | Updated: March 8, 2017 10:12:34 am
(Above) Priyanka Paul’s work.

Priyanka Paul
An artist who makes provocative work that challenges the status quo and then proceeds to share them on social media must be prepared for the wave of vitriol that will follow. Priyanka Paul knows this and has developed an enviable sang-froid towards online trolls. “The goddess series received a lot of flak,” she says, “What amuses me, however, is that there’s so much offense taken over the supposed disrespectful imagery of goddesses, but there’s none over the actual social media abuse of a 17-year-old artist.”

The goddess series that the Mumbai-based artist is talking about was created last year and depicted a feminist pantheon that spanned cultures. Among others, was Kali, wearing a graphic t-shirt, with multiple piercings; the Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu was shown supporting the Free the Nipple Movement, and Egyptian deity Isis was depicted as a fashion blogger campaigning against body-shaming. The goddesses were re-imagined to challenge preconceived ideas about how a woman should behave, what she should look like and what her politics should be.

A self-trained artist, it was only in college that Paul began to use art to address issues close to her heart. The 18-year-old is now an Instagram star, with over 12,000 followers. She says, she is committed to using the platform to spread awareness about gender roles, body shaming and other issues in feminism, regardless of the brickbats. “Not always will a discussion about so-called ‘taboo’ issues such as menstruation and female masturbation be taken in the right sense, and that’s all the more reason to be talking about them,” she says.

Sarah Naqvi
Embroidered with blood-hued beads and flowers, the tampon that showed up on Sarah Naqvi’s Instagram page in December is a political as well as artistic statement. It is a plea from the 20-year-old textile design student at the National Institute of Design for the normalisation of menstruation and is one of the many works that Naqvi has created as she seeks to break the taboos surrounding all discourse on female body and sexuality. These creations, she says, rose out of sheer need and disappointment with popular perceptions. “There is nothing more pure and truthful than the skin we live and breathe in,” says Naqvi. The Aligarh-born, Mumbai-bred artist adds, “Every scar, wound, stretch mark and curve tells a story that bears witness to all the times you’ve laughed, lived and fallen. We’ve all called our bodies a temple at some point or the other, then why let the world break the walls down that you’ve built to protect, preserve and provide your own body. You are the only one who resides, everyone else is just a visitor.”

There is both beauty and power in Naqvi’s creations, whether it’s the spool of thread with a vertical, red-coloured slit or an illustration of breasts inside a cage-like bra. For most of the works, however, Naqvi has used embroidery, a carefully considered medium. “Embroidery is a versatile and ancient art form which, interestingly, has been termed as ‘women’s work’. So it only makes sense that people will relate with and understand this universal language,” she says.

Criticism does not bother her. Over the last few months, several young girls have reached out to Naqvi, having felt a connection with her work. “With every artwork that I make, if I’m able to make some girl speak her mind and be comfortable with her body, there’s nothing more rewarding than that,” she says.

Arushi Kathuria
My work has been reported on Instagram a lot of times, but that’s when you know it has affected people and generated a reaction,” says Arushi Kathuria.

A 2D animator at MTV by day and a feminist provocateur by night, the 25-year-old says that she was always a “class A nerd”. “In school, my nose was always in my books. I never bothered to think about feminism and sexuality,” she says.

That changed when Kathuria went to study animation film design at the National Institute of Design. “There was so much diversity in college in every way possible, so many people from different cultures and with different opinions. It makes you question things. Women were so much more open about topics of feminism and body politics. Even our faculty was open about it,” she says.

Her rejection of embarrassment about the body — especially the female body — and all its functions is manifested in the works that Kathuria posts on Instagram. Most of these are animated gifs, their ribaldry at once laugh-out-loud funny and pointedly shocking in how far they dare to venture into supposedly “gross” territories, whether it is to show a woman’s armpit hair grown long or to depict a woman lifting her skirt to shoot out laser beams. The artist says, “We used to draw a lot in college and it was very normal for us to draw provocative things or nudes. We didn’t really find them scandalous. There is no need to be shy or feel ashamed. Specially (about) menstruation, I really don’t understand what the big deal is. It’s a natural thing. Why the shame?”

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