Art has always been considered a hobby of the elite, so imagine what would happen if one day you saw a creatively drawn vagina pop onto your Instagram screen. While your reaction is justified, do not be surprised; you will find a lot more art related to menstruation and masturbation these days because artists are taking social media by storm.
Instead of resorting to the confinement of art galleries, these artists are breaking free from the conventional consumption of art to make you more aware about topics that have long been considered taboo. So, don’t shy away if you see a woman pleasure herself; it might scare the living daylights out of you because you have been avoiding the topic before, among friends.
Self-taught Delhi-based artist Namita Sunil had similar internal conflicts growing up but a lot changed in due course, and with that, her art. “There used to be days when I’d be shocked when I saw girls in bikinis but then I would realise that they are girls just like me – which helped in de-sexualising them and de-stigmatising the situation,” says the 19-year-old fashion design student of NIFT, Delhi.
These new-age artists portray female body parts and highlight the vagina through menstruation, masturbation and even pubic hair, without any inhibitions. Only the medium differs.
Ahmedabad-based 20-year-old artist Sarah Naqvi has two very interesting pieces around menstruation called ‘Embroidery on a Tampon’ and ‘The Stained Panty’ using different kinds of textiles. The art stemmed from the idea of television commercials depicting blood in the form of a blue gel making her instantly question, “What are we, Smurfs?” She was irritated by the fact that a natural process was being demonised and how it was arresting the growth of society and reflected its inability to adapt.
Sarah hasn’t had it easy with the audience. While initially, she got a lot of constructive feedback, she also received backlash which wasn’t easy to handle. On many occasions, she has even got nasty comments through anonymous messages on Instagram. Ironically, Instagram has also taken down her art for violation of community guidelines. “It’s so hypocritical how It’s okay to have highly sexualised and altered images of women all over the site, but a biological form of a woman’s body (sketch) is considered obscene!” says Naqvi.
Mumbai-based artist Priyanka Paul, who goes by the name of ‘ArtWhoring’ on Instagram, has a more direct approach to the subjects that matter. Apart from her art on pubic hair and sanitary napkins, the 18-year-old has recently released a zine (magazine) on menstruation, taking her art to the next stage. The zine is a basic compilation of her art on the subject coupled with poetry and satire while adding a comical twist to how people consider it a ‘scare’. “Today, if my art can convince a little girl to tell her mother that there’s nothing wrong with menstrual blood, that it is not ‘impure’, I think my art is serving some purpose”, says Priyanka, emphasising on the need for discussion.
The artist, through her various projects, has met many girls going to good colleges, whose mothers isolate them during their periods and do not allow them to even enter the kitchen; this surprised her, as she had never expected it to happen in an urban setting.
On the other hand, growing up in a conservative society, Sarah Naqvi, who is textile artist from National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, had already seen a lot of regressive mentality which made her blood boil because of the role that society has assigned to all of us (especially women) to fit in. Even though she is the rebellious kind, she was lucky to have supportive parents who were ready to accept the so-called consequences her actions would bring. So, Sarah went about creating her feminist art without qualms.
For more reasons than one, embroidery is tool of choice Sarah uses to create art that revolves around women empowerment and breaking the age-old beliefs. Embroidery is not only of her main areas of strength, it also helps her challenge notions of society that wielding a needle and thread is ‘women’s work’ as she is using precisely that to change perceptions about women. Sarah, explaining her art, inspiration, and process, says, “The topics I choose to work on are close to me and everyone who it connects to. Most of my art uses the medium to start a dialogue, whether it provokes, or just pleases.”
A student and a freelance model, Namita Sunil, moves beyond regular issues to create art about sexual freedom and normalising masturbation among women. Talking about social construct and people’s mindset about women masturbating, she says, “I wanted my art to be more of a relatable situation rather than a political/social statement. More instances of casual mentions of such topics help in de-stigmatising them.”
However, discussing such issues openly is still not a far-reaching idea because not many people, including women, are comfortable in talking about it. “An unhealthy misogyny is still prevalent in India, among women as well. It isn’t just limited to a particular age group; even millennials might have the same thought process.
“It all comes down to awareness and willingness to be open-minded,” says Namita.
Issues faced by women are not only related to periods or masturbation today, there are many who are criticised for having body hair and while most people are left ashamed, Mumbai-based illustrator Mehr Chatterjee has a rather funny take, with a GIF of a woman combing pubic hair. The illustrator with MTV, talking about the inspiration behind the GIF, says, “People give a lot of importance to styling the hair on their head but imagine people talking about styling pubic hair or even colouring it. We always tend to follow what is trending, without breaking away.” Her art seeks to highlight how society finds body hair on women a huge turn-off and criticises them rather than letting them make a choice for themselves.
Art is opening many areas of discussion regarding such topics but how instrumental is art with the help of social media to create awareness? Namita, who has only recently started using the tag ‘illustrator’, says, “Art is for the relatively privileged and it might not be the priority of the less privileged in society, which keeps them unaware.”
While Namita doesn’t have a set framework in mind, she hopes that a bigger, more accessible platform using a mix of both verbal and artistic expression, to be an excellent start. The concerned authorities, with the help of the platform, can create conversation in places like schools where children learn. The simultaneous learning about biological changes in their body along with social skills will make them more aware than before.
Sarah, on the other hand, speaks about the larger perspective by converting non-believers into believers. “It’s fairly easy to convey messages to someone who already understands these problems but it’s really remarkable if one can get through to that part of the population that has turned their heads away from these matters that they find shameful,” Sarah concludes. She hopes she can reach as many people with her art through her various concepts that create dialogue. Namita, on the other hand, hopes that her art can make people immediately say, "Hey, I can relate to that," so that they can start a discussion at least among themselves leading to better awareness.