In the wake of #MeToo movement, have female nudes gone out of fashion?
Not internationally. The female nude as a subject for art, be it in painting or photography, was outside the harsh scrutiny of #MeToo activists, who focused on the abusive behaviour of men in positions of power able to manipulate women sexually.
Sri Lanka did not experience even a fledgling #MeToo movement. It is supposed to have a fledgling tradition of photographing the nude female body for artistic or documentary purposes, going way back to the European photographers who travelled the island looking to capture the exotic – faces, monuments, ruins, landscapes and the human body, draped or undraped.
The first Sri Lankan photographer to celebrate the beauty of the nude human body could be Lionel Wendt, unless an undiscovered archival surprise proves otherwise. That he chose to portray both male and female bodies was an aesthetic decision dictated by the vagaries of his own artistic temperament. But, by and large, it is the nude female body rather than the male that has been captured eagerly by photographers since the medium was invented in the 19th century. The heterosexual bent of this photographic genre is paralleled in the fine arts, too, though there, subjects pertaining to classical Western mythology allowed European painters to depict the male body with an aesthetic perfection that linked it directly to classical Greek sculpture.
In this country today, the stigma attached to the nude male body extends to the female form as well, and no concessions are given for the sake of art. The colonial tradition of photographing the female nude, passed on to us via Lionel Wendt and capable successors such as Dr. Mithra Weerakoon till the 1960s, shrivelled and became almost non-existent by the 1980s as cultural puritanism became official dogma.
That it happens now and then is just a cultural curiosity which proves nothing. We are used to cultural curiosities.
For example, there is a female photographer who photographs the male nude in the Lionel Wendt tradition (though not in the same aesthetic). But all this happens outside the cultural mainstream. While the new generation of Lankan filmmakers relish in crude sex scenes perhaps as a backlash to the prevailing official puritanism, serious photographers often simply do not have the nerve to tackle the culturally taboo female nude as a worthy subject for their photography. The same is true of most artists, which makes our mainstream art look backward compared to its counterpart not just in the West but also in South East Asia, where a performance by a female artist working with her bare body in a private space will not get her arrested for indecent exposure by the police.
In this context, photographer Sanjaya Vithana has challenged the status quo with his exhibition ‘Gaya: A Photo Journey.’ Online 3D exhibition will continue till March 31. (Link can be found at the end of this article). He calls the nude human body one of the most beautiful things in the world. A visiting lecturer in photography at the University of Moratuwa, his photographs show an intimate understanding of textures and colours, and Gaya, dedicated to model Gayathri Jayamanna, is hence a celebration of the human body.
He insists that the photographs are the result of months of painstaking teamwork between him, the model and makeup artist Shimi Perera. We think of make up in terms of the face, not the body. But this collaboration reveals to what extent the world fashion photography depends on the skills of makeup artists.
One would have thought that finding a model willing to pose in the nude would have been difficult. But Sanjaya, who met Gayathri Jayamanna for the first time at the funeral of a fashion photographer, says that she herself came up with the idea.
A professional model, Gayathri insists that she’s very happy about her career decision. Though she is satisfied with her achievements in her sphere till now, she insists that this is just a start, and hopes to break new ground and achieve much more in future. Nor does she fear any public backlash, as reactions to her images on social media thus far have been very positive.
“The unfortunate situation we are in culturally is due to a lot of misunderstanding, some of it cultural,” she says. “For example, the correct terminology in Sinhala for portrayal in the nude is ‘nagna nirupanaya,’ which adds a whole new meaning to the subject.”
With Gaya, both photographer and model have set a new standard for Lankan photographers and models alike, for those who wish to think of the nude female body as a new aesthetic and a challenging subject. It is one of the most difficult subjects in the world to photograph is one is aiming at art. The exhibition may also help them to lose their fear of the cultural police.
The decision to hold a virtual 3D exhibition was taken after the proposed exhibit at the Lionel Wendt had to be postponed twice due to COVID-19.