For 30 days, 30 women from various walks of life made their way to the quiet town of Kuang in Selangor. For this project held early last year, each of them headed to the Rimbun Dahan arts centre there to meet self-taught visual artist Ruby Subramaniam.
Surrounded by the peaceful greenery of Rimbun Dahan, Ruby and the women would talk, and then meditate together. And then Ruby would paint on them. Their conversations would be turned into stories, the women’s bodies serving as a canvas.
It was all part of Antidote: Uncovering Skin And Soul, a social impact project exploring women’s relationships with their bodies.
The project addresses female body politics, and global conversations about womanhood, including topics such as beauty, scars, sexuality, insecurities, motherhood, ageing, and divorce in a localised context, layered with Asian culture, religion and beliefs.
“Using the human body as a canvas is not a new concept, however for this project it was the right medium, a powerful statement from women who reclaimed their bodies from society, owning them boldly,” says Ruby, 30, in an interview in Petaling Jaya.
“The photographs wouldn’t have held the same tranquility and ferocity if I had painted it on a canvas, or any other material. It was the women who brought the images alive with their bold gazes and strong poses.”
This project is supported by the INXO Arts Fund and the Krishen Jit Astro Fund as well as photographer Mathubalan Gunasogaran of Bawah Pokok Films, who collaborated with Ruby on the photography and film elements.
Inspiration for Antidote came from another earlier work This Body Is Mine, which the KL-born Ruby worked on in 2017.
That project, a mixture of body painting, photography and performance art, was aimed at combating street harassment and the general Malaysian society’s attempt to stigmatise women and police their bodies. It was Ruby’s response to actions by a group who threatened to spray paint on the bodies of women they deemed to be dressed inappropriately during the Thaipusam celebration.
Her project This Body Is Mine consequently went viral and reached more than two million views across the world. This project was also exhibited in several group shows locally, and internationally, including shows in London and Paris.
It was also presented at Unesco’s World Humanities Conference in Liege, Belgium in 2017.
For the current project, Ruby sent out an open call in February 2018, asking interested participants intimate questions about experiences that shaped their values. She ended up receiving 70% more applications than she expected.
Ruby carried out the project during her 30-day South-East Asian Arts Residency with Rimbun Dahan last March.
Every morning, she would rise at 8am, beginning her day with a grounding meditation. She deliberately disengaged herself from social media. For the whole process, she would only interact with the participants of the project.
“I knew I was taking on something much bigger than me. I was listening to stories that had not happened to me, so there were chances I may not be able to empathise or relate to them. So I turned to spirituality, my roots in religion,” says Ruby.
“I asked for an energy that was greater than me, so I could go through these days. I didn’t want to spill over the stories that I heard, from one women to another, and end up putting it all on myself.”
The participants of her project came from a diverse group, with older women, women from marginalised communities, trans-women, plus-sized women and differently-abled women all represented. Many had harrowing stories to tell: these included experiences of abortion, eating disorders, domestic abuse, and more.
One participant even related finding videos of herself on porn websites.
Ruby would paint and Mathubalan would shoot for 30 days without a break, passing the point of exhaustion many times.
The artist related that one particularly difficult time came mid-way during the project, when a close friend questioned why she was doing this project.
“That really hurt me, because I thought, as a friend, this person would be able to understand where I was coming from. And I kept saying, kept asking myself, don’t you understand why I want to do this? I said it so many times, I don’t know when the tears started flowing from my eyes. I had to pause at that moment,” recalls Ruby.
Up to that point, Ruby hadn’t reconciled her true motives for this project. The artist had previously felt it was the right thing to do, a logical path to follow based on the themes of her previous art project.
“I think it was at that point I realised I was doing this for my mother. I was a very young girl when I saw her, fighting against her family who were saying things about her, fighting against what society expected of her. I was not eloquent enough to be able to stand up for her at that time.
“I think at that age, I did my best. But I wish I was able to do more. So I think in many ways, this project is a sort of redemption for me to connect with other women who need support.”
It was Ruby’s mother’s death anniversary recently. For this passionate artist, this project is a dedication to her.
“I hope all of the healing we’ve collectively done will also heal some of the scars she had,” says Ruby.
Antidote: Uncovering Skin And Soul’s will be released as a documentary. It is currently in the post-production stage, with a release date next year. For now, follow the project at www.skinandsoul.art.