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A little over a month ago, Pakhi Sen, a student at the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Bengaluru, started publishing a new series of work on the social media platform Instagram. The project, titled Body, is “an exploration of anatomy as shape and form”, she explained on the Instagram handle @pakhi.sen (2,085 followers), even as she requested women to send photographs they had taken of their bodies. Over the days that followed, the nudes that she posted made their presence felt, and not just in the folds and shadows and shapes of the bodies that Sen highlighted in the images. The works exuded an unarticulated sense of freedom, of women confident enough to pose in the nude for the camera, to send these photographs to an artist, to allow them to be subject to scrutiny as part of a public project.
Instagram has rules disallowing certain forms of nudity, including genitals, close-ups of buttocks and some images of female nipples. Sen—who got an immediate response from 25 women—used glitches, and other illustrative forms, to “work around the shape of the body” and to give her subjects anonymity, before publishing them. “The idea was to censor everything around the areas that are usually censored,” she says.
The daughter of artist Orijit Sen and designer Gurpreet Sidhu, who together also run the ethical design store People Tree in New Delhi and Goa, Sen has been experimenting with ceramics, painting, sculpture, video work and photography. In a recent Instagram photo series, she, in collaboration with art history student Samira Bose, recreated the canvases of Gustav Klimt and Amrita Sher-Gil, as well as Rajasthani miniatures.
Sen believes there’s a definite feminist approach to her art. “(In Body), there’s an aspect of the female psyche which I’m trying to tap into but I don’t want to put words to it because I don’t want to come across as somebody preaching at women to represent themselves in a specific way,” she says.
So, without putting it in so many words, the Body series ends up addressing a multitude of concerns, from those related to the body image and notions of beauty, to censorship, sexuality and desire. “I think where this project is sound is in terms of self-representation—these are girls sending images of their own bodies, taken by themselves, on their own terms. The problematic area with nude photography is the concept of an external ‘gaze’, and that doesn’t come into question here because it’s entirely self-motivated,” says Sen.
Instagram has also been the ground for a few other feminist art practices, of nudes devoid of the “external gaze”. Unlike Sen, who declares that she wants her project to “maintain a certain fluidity and remain subject to change without an imposition of thought”, @thenippleacttt (3,288 followers), a page created by Camila Gonzalez Corea, a Costa Rican art student at London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, actively projects itself as an act of feminist cyber activism.
A reaction to the social media platform’s nudity rules, especially the ban on certain images of female nipples, Corea’s series seeks to “trick the Instagram algorithm” used to detect what it deems an offensive image. In The Nipple Act, which started four months ago, Corea takes the images of breasts that women send to her and runs them through a program that uses an algorithm to shroud it “in a flurry of emojis”.
“The algorithm chooses whichever emoji comes closer in terms of colour to the pixels in the image, but it’s really funny what it sometimes chooses. For example, in many of the images, there are lots of devil emojis in the nipples themselves and I just find those sort of (coincidences) really funny,” says Corea on email. Corea’s collaborative project struck a chord, and she’s now posted 132 images of breasts sent to her by those following the project—all of which seem to have got by Instagram’s censors.
“When we talk specifically about nipples, we are talking about an organ which both males and females have, and I find it extremely unfair that males have the freedom to expose their nipples as they please without suffering any judgement, but females can’t. Here we are talking about a social construct which exclusively suppresses women,” she says.
Corea’s project, as well as another Instagram handle, @genderless_nipples (78,100 followers), have resonated widely with supporters of the Free the Nipple global campaign, which started in 2012 to protest this same gender discrimination. Another collaborative project that started in December, the handle @genderless_nipples posts extreme close-up photographs of both male and female nipples, sent by supporters, to make the point. Sure enough, soon after it started, Instagram removed a post that showed a male nipple. “Instagram, you can’t even tell the difference between male and female nipples; who could? So why bother banning female nipples if they can be so similar?” @genderless_nipples posted in triumph.
Corea, who started exploring feminist cyber activism as part of her master’s degree dissertation, says that in a world obsessed with social media, she sees it as a “new arena for us feminists to fight female emancipation”.
Even though The Nipple Act’s objective was to protest specific social constructs of obscenity, it also became a way for women to hold conversations about their body image. In this sense, it shares a similarity with Sen’s work. “So many people have confessed to me how they feel very insecure about their body or even apologized about the fact that their breasts are not ‘beautiful’ enough. I immediately write to them how this is a platform to shatter the nonsensical sexist body stereotypes which are making them feel that way and that they should never apologize for such things,” she says.
Instagram, Corea and Sen believe, has allowed them to test new concepts, and given their work far greater exposure, and a kind of collaboration, that they wouldn’t have been able to achieve otherwise. “This project is about working with girls from different places and contexts, I don’t think I could do it without social media,” says Sen.