Ruby Subramaniam was angry.
In early January, a local Facebook (FB) group threatened to spray paint on women deemed to be dressed inappropriately during Thaipusam events. To Ruby, a a 27-year-old local artist with a particular interest in culture and gender issues, it was yet another in a long line of attempts in Malaysia to stigmatise women and police their bodies. And frankly, she had had enough.
But anger gave birth to inspiration. If the mere sight of a woman’s body prompted threats of being spray-painted, Ruby thought, why shouldn’t she just paint on those very bodies instead? “At least I would be creating art,” she says.
So This Body Is Mine was born. For the photo series, Ruby worked with three local dancers and photographers to reclaim the female body, using it as a canvas for artwork. But far from being passive objects, the women she adorns with her brush are active participants in the process – with their bold gazes and strong poses, they enliven the art even as it constructs a narrative around them.
Ruby, having been an artist for about three years, isn’t one to confine herself to a particular medium. In the past, she has produced paintings, wall art, sketches, and kolams. Her influences range from the collages of Njideka Akunyili Crosby and the psychedelic paintings of Hannah Yata, to local artists Anurendra Jegadeva and Yante Ismail. Her own works, she says, are rooted in philosophy, and in making people question the norm.
Inspired by the Hindu concept of the tridevi, or three goddesses, This Body Is Mine focuses on three Hindu goddesses: Lakshmi, Saraswathi and Kali. Each of the three women featured embodies values associated with a specific goddess, through not just Ruby’s paintings on their skin, but also by their distinctive poses and the photographs’ framing.
Indeed, it is a coming together of three in more ways than one – it is fine art meets photography meets dance. And the results are captivating.
In the portraits inspired by Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and fortune, dancer Harshini Devi Retna sports the large eye of an owl on her back, the intensity of its stare matching her own. Sacred to Lakshmi, the owl is a reminder to keep one’s eyes open, and to constantly seek knowledge.
Blush-and-lilac lotuses and vivid green leaves spill over one shoulder down Harshini’s arm, an homage to the goddess’ favoured blooms. These are associated with beauty materialising even from difficult circumstances; Ruby and photographer Vinoth Raj Pillai further emphasised this theme by shooting Harshini in the back alleys of the Masjid Jamek area in Kuala Lumpur.
Ruby says her visualisation of the goddesses depends on the values they embody, specifically the ones she finds empowering to women today.
Political activist and dancer Nalina Nair, for instance, embodies the rage and terror of Kali, who is often associated with death and time. Ruby uses these aspects to symbolise anger as an agent of change, and as a representation of fierce feminine energy that is often viewed as intimidating.
In the photos by Vicknes Waran, Nalina is unabashedly in control. Wound in a red-black saree, a bright blue tiger seethes on her back while a grinning skull rides her arm; in one powerful shot, scarlet smoke coils out of her gaping mouth and outstretched tongue.
“We are often taught to look only at the aspects of these goddesses that fits the dominant narrative. But there are multiple values associated with them that feels very relevant, even today. For instance, if Kali walked down the street today, would anyone dare try intimidate her?” says Ruby.
She goes on to talk about Saraswathi, the goddess of knowledge and the arts.
“Beyond those aspects however, Saraswathi also symbolises grace and independence, a woman who does not need validation from a man.”
This is captured in Kenny Loh’s photos of dancer/choreographer Rathimalar Govindarajoo, who poses amidst the bustling roads of Brickfields. Draped in pristine white, her painted arm is a swan come to life, with translucent feathers flowing over her back.
The camera captures the contrast between the chaos of the backdrop and Rathimalar’s serenity. In some shots, passersby stare openly, yet she remains unruffled, elegant and confident in her own identity.
Ruby is using social media to share the photo series, and says the mixed reactions she initially received convinced her more than ever on the need for a project like this. The bulk of the negative criticism focused not on the series’ artistic merit, but on the women themselves; this included comments on their body sizes or shapes, their hair length, and the amount of skin shown.
“But the feedback from so many women has been really positive. It’s not even just about the Thaipusam incident anymore, it has grown to be about so many issues that women face daily, from body-shaming to moral policing to gender stereotyping. And all these women reaching out to me also fuels me and inspires me to take this project further,” says Ruby.
She hopes to eventually create an exhibition on This Body Is Mine. Various women have also contacted her with ideas. Some just want to be painted as well, and some have collaborations in mind.
For Ruby, it is a sign that she is doing work that matters.
“It is so easy to become negative these days. The news and social media are constantly filled with anger. But through this project, I realised I can take that anger and channel it toward something positive.”
This Body Is Mine can be viewed on Ruby Subramaniam’s FB page: www.facebook.com/rubysubramaniam.artist.