Meet the women artists diversifying the nude
Bianca Nemelc, Monica Hernandez, Hiba Schahbaz and Nadia Waheed's paintings celebrate the body in all shapes, colors and sizes.
In the arts, there is a long lineage of painting non-white subjects in ways that highlight their antithesis to ideals of whiteness and its associated notions of beauty. Today, artists are changing that, with women of colour carving out a space for themselves in the canon of art history. i-D interviewed four artists who are painting themselves nude, and reclaiming not only the male gaze, but a place in which they are not fetishized, exoticized or objectified.
How does your heritage influence your work?
On my dad’s side, my grandma is Indonesian and my grandfather is Surinamese from South America. On my mother's side, I'm Dominican. Learning about my heritage informs my work and the palettes that I use to paint the women -- I always use a bunch of different shades of brown. It's kind of a way for me to pay homage to the different shades that are within the stories of me.
Your images depict larger than life women in the nude, why did you choose to do that?
It's very important for the figures I am painting to have a presence in whatever spaces they are existing. I think there is a power dynamic that shifts when you are viewing the female body at a scale that is much larger than yourself and you are forced to look around the whole canvas to digest what you are seeing. The body becomes monumental and not something that can be overlooked. In the world that I create for them, and they create for themselves, these figures are very much the masters of their domain so size is a very important way that I assert their importance and authority over the viewer.
How do you think the context of the female nude changes based on the gender and/or race of the artist?
Race and gender of the artist can play a huge role in deciding from which lens we choose to view the female form. We naturally pull from our individual experiences and a woman's body is heavily charged with nuance and complexity on it's own, so an artist has the power to engage so many different conversations. If you take a step back and look at history, the nude female form has been subjected to centuries of narratives that aren't necessarily reflective of her truth, so now, it's even more important to understand the power dynamic that is happening off the canvas, who is driving this story? What are their biases? What knowledge are they pulling from and what exactly is the story they are trying to tell?
Is there a way that women’s bodies can be drawn/painted/sculpted/photographed without them being seen as sexual?
I believe the female body is inherently sexual, and when I create work I am aware of that even if the bodies I paint aren't doing anything sexually explicit. At our core, we are sexual beings and I think it would be a shame to strip the body of that very powerful force because it is not bad or taboo -- we create those narratives. With that said, I think we will always see the sexual nature of the female form, and for some people that can be negative or uncomfortable depending on their personal experiences. But, it is the responsibility of the viewer to go beyond that, to dig deeper into the work and peel back that first layer to understand the more complex narratives around the work. There are so many visions and stories that are told through the body and to reduce it to just being sexual does a disservice to the viewer and the artist.
Western standards of beauty have been conditioned by thousands of years of history — is that something you have felt you've had to grapple with?
Painting has definitely helped me grow my understanding of what it means to take ownership of a narrative and how to shift that narrative within my work. There is an awareness that comes with painting brown figures that I am creating work for women who look like me, who have brown breasts and brown bodies as well, so there is an element of empowerment and responsibility that comes with it. Since I solely focus on the figure from the neck down and not the identity of the face, I'm forced to challenge how others digest the nude form especially when fetishism and objectification in relation to the bodies of brown women have existed for so long. So, for me, there is a personal artistic desire to take back that power and really highlight the beauty of brown figures like my own, in new ways.
When did you start painting?
I come from a creative family. My mum used to paint, she used to teach it where I was born in the Dominican Republic, so the idea of making art wasn't that far out of my world, but becoming an artist was -- we immigrated here in 2001 and it was, "you need to get a real job".
Are the women you paint self-portraits?
Not necessarily self-portraits because I tend to work off imagination, but I learnt how to paint myself first, so they kind of look like me. I'm interested in making a world that reflects me.
You've depicted nudity, menstruation, body hair — why have you chosen to do that?
I'm interested in the everyday, and also the things that people don't want to talk about. Painting is one of the most presentational things ever. It hangs on the wall, it also comes forward off the wall. They're meant to be hung and viewed in spaces, whether they are in a gallery, museum or someone's home, so they're meant to be looked at. I was thinking about the things that we generally try not to look at for whatever reason and what conversation that could start.
On your Instagram you also really embrace body hair.
I was consumed by my insecurities around body hair, about my acne, it was the only thought in my mind. I just got really tired. Then I started talking about it, and that helped me a lot. I found a sense of community. I became more open about it. I was like, let me release myself from this by just speaking out.
Pretty much all your images are set in domestic spaces, why is that?
Space dictates so much of our mental space, our general comfort, how we engage with each other. When we first moved [to New York] and we got our first apartment, there were five of us in a one bedroom. We went from growing up in the Dominican Republic where we had a backyard, we had our own house, we would drive to the beach. How that change of space completely changes how you engage with everyone. What is privacy? All the paintings that I put inside of my paintings give me the chance to have these little different portals into other worlds, whether its imagined: is there a little tropical scene outside, or is that a painting that's hanging on the wall? It's playful. Sometimes when the character looks into the mirror it's a picture of them but it's not painted, what can that then say about the way they see themselves?
Women are often seen as sexualised beings, why do you think that is?
Especially in America, we're highly sexualised when it comes to stuff like advertising, but we also don't have a healthy relationship to sex and the body. The body is more taboo, it's under wraps, you can't really talk about it. The body is something that is desired so badly but it's also not really shown or seen except as something highly sexualised, like pornography or to sell a product. Women haven't been in charge of a lot of ways in which their bodies are represented. Women now are changing the way in which these things are being shown and talked about. I don't necessarily want to paint clothes because that's a lot of work... but it's also just the body. Sometimes when I show my work people will tell me that it's a family place and there shouldn't be nudity, which is a crazy thing to think about.
How do you think the context of the female nude changes based on the race of the artist?
I don't know specifically about the nude, but I think whiteness has an inherent neutrality. Even if I didn't want my work to be about race or colour, it will always be seen through that lens. I've had experiences where people have said my work looks like that of the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, so a lot of brown figures. It doesn't. But what makes it worthwhile is when people understand it. I think the more specific you get the more you connect with people and I think that's really beautiful.
Your work is big and unapologetically beautiful. What does beauty mean to you?
I feel like beauty is so loaded right now in the Western world. It's something I come across a lot in my day to day life. A little bit of judgement towards my art. I guess coming from an Eastern culture and studying how to be a miniaturist -- everything to do with traditional Eastern culture, which surrounds women, is so infused with tradition, beauty and making everything super elaborate. When you move away from that you face the opposite, which is strip everything back to basics. Everything should be exactly as it is and there are no secret meanings. I feel like I've had to navigate both extremes and different parts of the world a little bit.
You paint nudes. Is that a difficult thing to do coming from Pakistan, a Muslim country?
I do not show my work in Pakistan. I did try to show one painting there last year and a magazine had picked up the show and chose five artists (it was a group show for all women). They shared a picture of me in my studio and within 15 minutes there was this huge uproar. I had just woke up and I had 300+ hate messages saying things like, "she should cut her hands off" and "this is pornography." The curator of the show had them remove it and had the review taken down. I guess living in New York I hadn't realised how wrong things could go so quickly, but I don't think the time is right to show there.
You lived in Pakistan until you came to university when you were almost 30, so those opinions must have always been around. What made you paint the nude?
I've been drawing her since I was a girl, even before I was fully developed as a girl, I was always drawing my body in my bedroom mirror. I wasn't doing it to piss my parents off, though they were, and still are very pissed. I'm from a super traditional family. But I was just doing it because I had to do it and I think part of it was because there was so much shame around being a woman and having a female body and this real kind of lack of agency and powerlessness about being a woman and I think a lot of it was just me trying to accept myself. I feel I struggled with that shame throughout my life. I think I've spent a lot of time giving myself therapy and coming to some level of self acceptance and awareness as a woman that it's ok, I have rights. I have a personality of my own.
How does it feel to make big portraits of women?
When you go large, you definitely can't hide what you do anymore. It's very easy to point to a three inch woman and be like, "But she's barely naked, you can't see anything what's the big deal?" But then you make a six foot tall woman, you're like I made this I'm going to have to stand by it. I'm going to take ownership over it. She kind of very much becomes a part of who I am at that point.
You've painted images from art history. Why have you chosen to do that?
Moving here I had to learn art history a little bit because my entire background was in miniature painting and Islamic art. To teach myself, I used to copy old masterpieces. One was the Odalisque, so to do that I sat like her and turned my head around and I sprained my neck because literally that position is so impossible. Like who was she, the rubber woman? I noticed that throughout art history, men were just painting women in a way that was appealing to them. It really had very little to do with how a woman herself would sit or how she would necessarily present herself or feel.
When did you start making art?
I’d say in my early 20’s, but for the entirety of my life I've used drawing as a tool to find solace or create a space of my own. I moved internationally a lot when I was growing up and drawing was one of the few consistent things I had besides family — looking back on it now I can see how vitally important it was to me and my development especially being exposed to stark cultural shifts every few years. In a constantly shifting world it was a critical and quiet space that belonged only to me.
Talk to me a little about the women that you paint?
I've drawn women forever, and to be completely honest I'm not sure exactly who they are. I know that they’re birthed from my experience existing between the East and West, they’re my questions on what “good woman” means. They’re reflections of myself, my societal conditioning, emotional baggage but simultaneously they’re totally and completely their own entities. They have their own autonomy and will that I follow over the process of the painting and while they are borne from me they are also wholly separate from me.
Have you ever shown your work in Pakistan?
No, I've never shown in Pakistan and I doubt I ever will. One or two people have suggested I give it a go but I don’t think it’s worth the inevitable and painful backlash by the desi community. It’s been made very clear to me that a lot of Pakistanis both here and abroad don’t hold me, my choices or my work in very high regard. There’s a fundamental cultural rejection I’ve experienced as a young woman trying to live decisively and for herself, for her ambitions and desires. While I was growing up if I felt I needed to do something to grow I would do it, even if it was something strictly forbidden or taboo, and I never lied about it because I saw lying about my actions as a fundamental rejection of myself and my needs as an autonomous being. Unfortunately, this led to moral and value judgements being made about my worth as a woman by the Pakistani community that I found very painful and invalidating, simply, I believe I am a good person but a lot of Pakistanis don’t. I want to be close to my culture, my heritage — my father is Kashmiri, my mother Pakistani, I want to stay close to my homeland but it’s hard when the only thing my homeland has done has been to reject me and shame me for my choices.
Why do you think the female nude is often sexualised?
That’s a really complicated question, but women have always been sexualised, it’s woven into the fabric of our society for women to be infantilised, objectified, demeaned, and reduced to our bodies and our servitude since the beginning of recorded history. I can’t begin to answer the entire question but when I paint a nude, I’m not painting her “nude” — I’m painting her as she is, as I am. That is her body, simultaneously holy and neutral territory, to do with as she pleases, as I please. We were made like this, we have nothing to be ashamed of. When I make the work I just think, that’s a human body: breasts, nipples, pubic hair, clitoris...it’s human, it’s me. I don’t believe there’s any sexual current running through my work, the majority of women don’t see it either but a lot of men I’ve spoken to do see them as sexually charged paintings. Pakistanis see them as wrong, offensive, whorish, not indicative of Pakistani culture or Pakistani women. I don’t think my work is particularly confronting but when the culture is so repressed that the word “vagina” is a bad word we can begin to understand how it could be seen that way.
Do you think the context of the female nude changes based on the race of the artist?
Yes. Artists of colour have to contend with the way that their race has been historically presented both in society as well as in the canon of art history. Societally bodies of colour have predominantly been exotisised, fetishised, objectified. We’ve not been given the room to be seen as we are and for who we are, the same way non-POC have been. There are layers of assumptions put on us that we have to contend with every day and the same can be said for when a nude is painted. When a POC paints a nude, all those assumptions are put on that coloured body. When a non-POC paints a nude, obviously the context is completely different, they’re contending with a different history. I think it’s really important to be mindful of the way your work is being seen by the world. For example I need to seriously consider why so many men find my work sexual; are they exotisising, fetishising my women? Or am I making subliminal choices to allow that to happen? Obviously it’s imperative to make the most honest work possible - but we have to be cognisant of what we’re doing in the painting and what people are taking away from it. As per usual, I’m filled with a lot of questions and unfortunately not that many answers, but yes, I believe the context changes. My history and experience as a South Asian woman is so different from a Latina or East Asian woman. There’s a lot of similarity and understanding between us but we’re not all the same in our stories and cultural experiences.