Thaipusam spray paint threat spawns 'painted goddesses'

Geraldine Tong | 6 March 2017
中文版Bahasa Malaysia

Anger was the first thing artist Ruby Subramaniam felt when she read a vigilante group’s threat to use aerosol spray paint on “inappropriately dressed” women at Thaipusam events.

Instead of stewing in her anger, the self-taught artist decided to do something about it.

She reached out to friends whom she knew, had also been vocal against the vigilante group and proposed an art project titled “This Body Is Mine”, where she painted women to symbolise Hindu goddesses instead.

“It started out in the beginning as something to poke fun (at the vigilante group).

“If you’re going to spray paint us, might as well I paint on women’s bodies because at least it will be prettier,” Ruby said to Malaysiakini in an interview at Talent Lounge in Damansara yesterday.

Of course she was angry when she first heard the news, the 28-year-old said.

As someone who has attended Thaipusam since young, she said she has seen and experienced many issues during the events.

Not only are there men who are drunk and playing really loud non-religious music, Ruby revealed that she was molested at Batu Caves during a Thaipusam event when she was in her teens.

“Women have been keeping quiet all these years, tolerating these things they have been doing to us, but suddenly now our skin disturbs you?” she asked.

But Ruby knew if she wanted to get her message across in a way that encouraged discourse instead of merely inviting brickbats, she had to do it in a subtle and artistic way.

Ruby and her collaborators shared the same objective, that is they wanted to see the culture be more accepting of the different roles that men and women play instead of focusing too much on the way women dress.

“If we are going to pray, let us focus on the praying, instead of focusing on the clothes,” she said.

Along with her friends, and several photographers, they began to plan what they were going to do.

They decided to base it around the three Hindu goddesses who Ruby described as the “foundation of all of it”.

“The creator (Saraswathy), the preserver (Lakshmi) and the destroyer (Kali), so I based ‘This Body Is Mine’ on that concept and then chose the values based on the hopes I have for younger women out there to embrace their bodies,” she said.

Positive response from women

First, they had to decide which goddesses Ruby was to draw and how she would convey the symbolism of the goddesses on her models.

She then released control to the models, all classical Indian dancers, who decided how they would portray the goddesses they were meant to embody.

Finally, the photographer captures the moments in the most aesthetically pleasing way.

The whole process, spanning the planning, three separate photoshoots and editing, lasted about 10 days, she said.

She began posting the photos on Feb 1, and has since received overwhelmingly positive response.

“A lot of women have come up to me, saying that this is something that they needed and they interpreted it on a personal level, not related to Thaipusam.

“It was like ‘If I see this model do this and be comfortable in her body, that makes me comfortable with mine too’.

“That was something really nice to hear, that a collaborative effort like this, a small idea, ended up comforting a lot of other women about their own body,” she said.

Ruby said this is not the first time her artwork had challenged social convention.

Describing herself as a feminist even from a young age, she said a lot of her work tries to get people to question themselves or the society.

“I draw women who are half nude and that makes a lot of people uncomfortable.

“I like that quote, ‘art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable,” she said.

Though she recalled that anger fueled her initial desire to start the “This Body Is Mine” project, she said her collaborators and her had a lot of fun during the process.

The first photoshoot was with Harshini Devi Retna, who was painted with an owl as a symbol of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, the preserver and Vinoth Raj Pillai as the photographer.

The photoshoot took place at Masjid Jamek, and Ruby commended Harshini’s bravery in bearing the gazes of the public at the crowded area during the photoshoot.

“At that point, you could see everyone staring. We kind of had a giggle about it, and it was interesting to see how the public was reacting to it,” Ruby said.

She said when they began putting up the pictures later, someone said to Harshini that “it was nice that you have taken something ugly and turned it into quite an empowering message”.

With Nalina Nair, who was painted with a tiger on her back to depict Kali the destroyer, she said the photoshoot was at Sungai Gabai, Hulu Langat, about a 40-minute drive from Kuala Lumpur city centre.

Unlike Masjid Jamek, Sungai Gabai was very quiet and the women, along with photographer Vicknes Waran, had ample space to utilise.

“Nalina, she was really into her role. She took her time to get into that role and really embodied that personality, which is why when you see the pictures, they are really strong and powerful,” Ruby said.

The two women bonded over their shared belief that women are often told off for speaking their minds, she said.

Nalina, she said, is active in politics and often gets told that she is speaking with too much emotion in her speeches, and should tone down.

“A male politician probably doesn’t get that,” she mused.

Empowering experience

The final photoshoot was held in Brickfields with G Rathimalar painted with a swan along her arm to symbolise Saraswathy, with Kenny Loh as the photographer.

As this was the third photoshoot, there was already some awareness about this project and some supporters turned up to watch the shoot.

Rathimalar also constantly updated news of the ongoing shoot on her social media, Ruby said, which sparked more conversation about the project.

“I had goosebumps throughout that entire photoshoot.

“She (Rathimalar) is just so graceful and so beautiful. Throughout the whole time in Brickfields, she was just dancing through the side of the streets despite all these people gawking at her.

“That is the exact true value that we wanted to create out of this thing, and that is, despite people looking at you and judging you, you are still graceful in your form and in your art,” she said.

When asked if the project would end with the conclusion of Thaipusam, she said she is interested in continuing it in the future.

“Thaipusam was one thing that triggered this project, but a lot of women are coming up to me saying this is really empowering. So I want it to grow into something else,” she said.

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