Art is often an automatically censored form of representation. There is something acceptable about viewing an unknown naked woman painted realistically. George Keyt, Lankatillake, Lionel Wendt and many other Sri Lankan artists have successfully represented the beauty of the human body in their work. Then contemporary art comes along and makes things a little more fun. It’s the ‘what you see, is not what you get’ attitude that presents a flipside to the traditional aesthetic. It disturbs you, it makes you think, it inspires heated debates and leaves you surrendered to looming questions that might eventually change the way you think. Good contemporary art is a little arrogant; it cunningly plays with a concept and leaves the ignorant, ignorant. Bring in former traditional representations of nudity and sexuality and it stands defeated as the decorative conquered by the mind.
As you must know, the internet is a resource of nudity. When I began researching nudity and sexuality in art, the line between information and pornography was beyond fine; a constant reminder that contemporary art plays with this change and uses it to it’s own advantage. The ‘Veil I,II,III’ by Pakistani artist, Rashid Rana, is a personal favorite that does just this. The pixelated image of women wearing the Burka is constructed using thousands of smaller pornographic images collected and assembled carefully. This photomontage uses erotica in the most subtly aggressive way possible, to conceptualize the underlying context that one must look a little closer to perceive. The viewer is forced to look beyond both images, thereby destroying the stereotypes that exist. On the surface this image would be considered offensive, but what Rana presents through his intelligently conceived pixelated images, is this discussion on the stereotypes that we ourselves subconsciously develop.
Jagath Weerasinghe, one of our established artists and a strong voice in the local art scene, often states that he wants to be known as the artist who introduced the ‘phallus’ into contemporary Sri Lankan art. This is indeed the case, but I do believe he is underplaying the role of his Celestial Underwear series and Apsaras, in a social context by focusing more on the male nude form and placing the woman on a pedestal. Young artists are increasingly afraid to paint naked form and they are much more comfortable to paint a male torso than the female. The social and cultural connotations here are strong and the trend is, in itself, an implication that opens the discussion of how sexuality is viewed by the Sri Lankan people.
Dumith Kulasekara, an emerging artist with immense talent and a comprehension of Freudian theories, braved the local scene by exaggerating what Weerasinghe attempted through the 90s movement. The women in his paintings carry the face of his wife, beautiful and somewhat alien. The man exudes vulgarity, often through mutilation and exaggeration. Kulasekara’s works have often been misinterpreted as erotic or obscene; however this observation in itself is the sensation the artist intends to create. Kulasekara not only refers to sexuality but also to his own personal experiences during the war. The question that confronts the viewer could therefore also be why society prefers to be prudish about images that are observed in front of the mirror every morning.
The nude form is unquestionably an appealing image. I remember the frustration I felt in art class when our model was clothed, purely because the lines of the human body flow in a way that is much more natural to sketch. Whether it be Michealangelo’s Statue of David, Botero’s Fat Lady or Keyt’s Gopi’s, the image of nudity evokes a sense of love, passion and a profound understanding that we are all human underneath our latest wardrobe trend. Contemporary art continues to mutilate this image to further arouse the intellectual mind and the fun lies in the extremes with which artists today use stereotypes of nudity and sexuality to make you think more than usual.
Again and again the fine line is twisted and if this has got you thinking then you already get it. There is no black and white in contemporary art or in sexuality. One may choose to deny it but stereotypes are boring and through art it remains a smoke and mirrors game.