Can Nudity Make a Political Statement?

I do not agree with the recent Arundhati Roy persona. Does it follow that I would support an artist who paints her in the nude? And if so, what would be my reasons?

Last year he painted M.F.Husain in the nude. His reason for doing so was to protest against his use of women as objects. Thus far, Husain has painted goddesses in such a manner, goddesses that are already on temple pillars and walls in precisely such a state of undress. Regarding the artist, The Telegraph rather succinctly said that he now seems to have shed his own logic.

So, is Pranava Prakash exploiting Ms. Roy? He has called his work ‘Goddess of Fifteen Minutes of Fame’. All the reports mention that the subject “caresses herself as she enjoys a threesome with the two blood thirsty figures of history, Mao and Osama bin Laden, and a voyeur-loving skull looks over their shoulder”.

This is supposedly a political statement. Fine. But the artist is too literal and therefore even his symbolism goes wrong. Why would she caress herself if this is the happy company she keeps? Obviously, they aren’t good enough. Mao goes back to reading the book, which is unintentionally hilarious because he wrote it so did not have to read it. Anyhow, his eyes look at the ‘camera’, in a manner, so is he looking for approbation? Laden is seated looking in the opposite direction, smiling.

The artist’s explanation: “Arundhati was seen supporting ruthless Naxalites in their war against innocent Indian citizens and then she was hobnobbing with merciless Kashmiri killers who were remorseless in their act.”

This is his point of view and one does not expect a larger context always. However, if the skull (showing a “fragmented part of Jammu and Kashmir”) is supposed to convey the dead, then why would it be voyeur-loving? It would want to return as a ghost to haunt those it considers responsible for its demise.

There are other symbols:

Hammer and sickle on Mao’s underwear – “used as an excuse for the large scale killing of dissidents”. Huh? Of dissidents or by dissidents? And the CPI (M) has an ideology, whether people agree with it or not, and does not need an excuse.

A mechanical zip pasted on the corner of Arundhati's lips – “depicting how far our intellectuals are controlled and governed by their masters”. Mao and Laden? Ignorant of history or afraid of mentioning names?

Coins all over the canvas – "a metaphor for all the glitz and glamour associated with being under the limelight all the time". This does not come across. They just look like perfectly-painted grey blobs and more like coins thrown by a whistling public at a circus.

Prakash is a tad too simplistic when he says:

"Arundhati represents all the intellectuals who are selfless promoters of all sorts of causes which can give them publicity. They are dancing to the tune of publicity as a hungry monkey dances to the tune of its master for a banana."

If that is the case why did he title the painting fifteen minutes of fame when he is out to make it last much, much longer? Besides, one would imagine that a person cognisant of metaphors would have access to at least some intellectual literature in various fields and therefore not use a blanket judgement and make an individual representative of them all.

We return to the question about political art. Irrespective of disagreements with both the artist and the subject, I think a painting such as this works in quite a contrary manner to that which is intended. He will be putting it up along with a few others at the Lalit Kala Akademy. Who visits art galleries? Usually those interested in art, the elite – financial and intellectual. So, what sort of intellectualism is being rubbished? If his works are bought then may one say that it is because the buyer agrees with his politics and therefore his brush is moving to some masters’ strokes, even if they are largely invisible to the public eye?

Almost all works of art, except perhaps landscapes and still life, can be considered political if they are viewed from a certain perspective. Nudes come with their own baggage, whether they are illustrative or demonstrative. To the credit of the artist, this painting is not salacious; he is almost coy about nudity.

There can and will be objections because the artist is not only courting controversy but the controversial. Will he be muzzled? That would be precious irony. For, although Mao was known to muzzle people and Laden does not need to, Ms. Roy is a spokesperson for free expression. She has in the past, though, complained about being misquoted. Those were her words, so she had a right over them. This work is not.

Does a person have a right over personal space in how they are depicted? Yes and no. There are opinion pieces about individuals, there are seminars and public meetings held. Have there not been words more cutting uttered on the subject? Don’t newspaper cartoons parody public figures? Why, then, should a work of art draw more attention?

That itself is a political statement. It gives cult status and is a reverse form of portraiture catering to a select group. Without realising it, the artist and subject share that magnetic zip.

(c) Farzana Versey

Published in Countercurrents

Note: Should any of you wish to look at a similar subject, this time from Pakistan where Benazir Bhutto has been shown on the lap of Zia ul Haq, then read my post Art, Politics and Mockery and the discussion there.


  1. There was so much I needed to hear back in 2003. There was so much the American media didn't say to me. As an American who just awoke from a deep sleep to find rampant fascism going on in the world.... not really the world, just home was my concern. Coming to the realization that my homeland had metastasized into a fascist state, I felt so alone. Then I found a speech given by Arundhati Roy in 2002 called, Come September. I immediately fell hard for this voice of reason. I don't know Arundhati Roy's politics in India, but her words rang true to me back in 2003. For this, I'll always have a soft spot for her. All my heroes seem to have chinks in their amour.

  2. Farzana,
    Two parts to this....
    The artistic freedom. Well, IMHO, the guy who painted this has every right to express it.
    That said, why do we want to extend even an iota of respectability to Prakash's painting by implying it a "political statement" ? Heck, even Bal Thackeray did better.
    To be sure, we have our own issues with Ms. Roy's positions debated several times on this own blog (with all our due differences). Do we really think the painting even remotely approaches - at any level - those discussions ?
    p.s. for Dion : Being a regular reader of several NYT columnists (Krugman, Frank Rich and Nick Kristoff top my list) I had an impression about them opining a dissent during the period. Another article - http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=2847 - indicates the dissenting opinions from within U.S. establishment. Trying to understand from you - how did the dissenting opinions get butressed ?

  3. Mahesh:

    Please tell me how Bal T did better.

    Will reply later to you and Dion.

  4. p.s. for Dion : Being a regular reader of several NYT columnists (Krugman, Frank Rich and Nick Kristoff top my list)

    Mahesh, I respect all three and read Krugman and Rich regularly these days. Rich just moved his desk over to New York Magazine. I'm shocked he'd give up such a prestigious position at the NY Times.

    Back in 2003 I knew nothing about politics (maybe I still don't) or the inter-workings of the media that molds my ethos. Before 9-11-01 I paid little attention to the news though I thought I did. In 2002 & 2003 I watched Fox News and had no idea the media would deceive the public. At least I didn't think they could get away with it. Once the Iraq invasion had gotten a couple of months in and there were no WMD found, a loud alarm went off inside me. It shook my foundation.

    I could no longer trust the US media. I felt betrayed by my country for waging a preemptive war based on lies. Then Ms. Roy came into my life. I'm not sure how I found her. Fate?

  5. Dion:

    I think what you connect with is valid for the reasons they do and the other aspects need not infringe on that.

    Regarding heroes with chinks in their armours: It happens only when you read/hear dissenting voices to their dissent.

  6. Mahesh:

    It isn't a question of granting respectability, for then there are many demagogue-like comments made that won't stand on one toe, let alone one foot.

    My interest is in exploring art - in this specific case nudity - to bare the particular ethos and see if it stands up to scrutiny. I have pretty much disagreed with the efficacy of the symbolism, but the fact that it is there for a purpose cannot be denied. Had the artist been well-known, we might have had a different opinion. And had the subject been portrayed as the Mona Lisa or Goddess Durga, then again we might have looked upon it more kindly.

    Incidentally, one of his newer paintings has M F Husain and Dawood Ibrahim in the same frame.

    I have already stated that almost all art is political. I have added a link in the post about another such discussion. Do take a look.

    As for freedom of expression, I think we will have to wait until it reaches the gallery and what the response is. As of now, Ms. Roy was asked for her version. She said she does not speak to the press.

    PS: Will you care to tell me about the Bal T reference?

  7. A fine balanced article. All art is political as you say. Came by your blog and have been reading through the range of subjects. As an aging frustrated artist myself the subjects pique my curiosity. Thank you.

    All good wishes

  8. Thanks, Ehlan. It does get curiouser and curiouser here.

  9. Farzana,
    My Bal T comment alluded to the stupidity of this particular artist. Specificlally, IMHO, it stooped to so low levels as Bal T. Actually, even lower. I don't count it as a political statement. But then these are my thoughts. We may be looking at things differently.
    p.s.: Sorry for a late response as I was battling my own workplace crises.

  10. Yes, Mahesh, we disagree. But had he painted Bal T...? Never mind.

    PS: No problem. Aur bhi gham hai zamaane mein...only hope yours isn't a gham at all.

  11. What an awful painting. And I mean that in terms of the aesthetics. yikes!

    Arundhati beti, mao and osama occupying the same page. poor susie roy.

  12. Anon:

    Had it been aesthetic, there would have been another outcry of using the female form.

    Raja Ravi Verma did calendar art and look where he is hung.


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