Saturday, 30 November 2013

Shunga art

The dream of the fisherman's wife, Hokusai (Google image)

Yesterday I visited the shunga art exhibition at the British Museum and also the Masterpieces of Chinese Painting at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
It was one of those days when I had some time off and two sets of friends were visiting town. So I spent the morning with the first set and we all decided to go to see the shunga exhibition. After lunch and after saying goodbye to these friends, I met my other friend, visiting London on business and finally able to leave work a little earlier. So we went again to see the shunga exhibition , as he also wanted to see it and then we went to the V&A, where, apart from seeing the Chinese paintings, we were also treated to a catwalk show. The V&A is open until 10 pm on a Friday and you can have a glass of wine, dance to music, go out into the magnificent courtyard, with a pond surrounded by an installation and view the magnificent building that is the V&A museum.

The V&A at night
But I digress. It is the shunga exhibition I wanted to talk about, because it really challenges our views of what is pornography.
Shunga: sex and humour in Japanese art 1600-1900 is an exhibition curated by Tim Clarke in partnership with several international scholars of Japanese art. The name shunga, the curators tell us,  means 'spring' and it refers to sexually explicit paintings, prints, and illustrated books with texts: "early modern Japan was certainly not a sex-paradise; however, the values promoted in shunga are generally positive towards sexual pleasure for all participants".
At various times shunga art was banned or censored but overall it continued to thrive until the 20th century. In contemporary times there are signs of a strong influence of shunga on manga.
Of course, in the early part of the 20th century shunga had an impact of western art through Japonisme and the exhibition has a few art works by Picasso, Toulouse -Lautrec  and Beardsley which show a strong affinity with shunga.
The first thing that strikes the visitor is the explicit views of both male and female genitalia, often rendered in unrealistic size. There are exquisite prints and silk scrolls depicting narratives, with couples shown in amorous embraces, and the whole scene is full of details, including the context, often with cherry blossoms and fabrics with complex patterns.
Once one gets used to the conventions of the style - big vulva and phalluses - which have no real counterpart in Western art, one also begins to appreciate that there is a real connectedness between the people involved in the act, a far cry from the objectification that characterises pornography as we know it. The colours are exquisite and the scenes are often accompanied by humorous dialogues between the men and women.
My favourite piece is the one depicting a woman dreaming of having intercourse with a giant octopus, by Hokusai. A few years ago I worked on my own rendition of it, thanks to photographer Terry Slater

I certainly thought that the visit to the British Museum was time well spent. The friend I went with the second time round, a competent amateur photographer, whose work has on occasion explored erotica, remarked that if we were to translate such images into photography most people would regard them as pornography. Yes and no. Photographers such as Nobuyoshi Araki seem to have imbued the spirit of shunga and I do not think his work is viewed as pornographic, though it does picture genitalia in a very explicit way.
Last year model and writer Roswell Ivory (currently engaged in fighting for a very worthy cause, read all about it in her blog) authored a piece for the art blog Univers d'Artistes which tackles the idea of genital photography. There was no mention of Japanese shunga nor Japanese photography in that excellent feature but I feel it complements this post.
I would love to hear from people who have seen the exhibition, about their reactions.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

A calendar for charity

Photographer: David Nuttall, model: myself

David Nuttall, a photographer I have known for some years and with whom I shot the above picture, recently got in touch to tell me about an amateur drama production by The Hartley Players of the famous  Calendar Girls. It run successfully for five nights. The girls felt inspired to produce their very own version of the calendar, shot by David and currently for sale in aid of the Elimination of Leukemia Fund.The models range in age from early 30s to 67 and none of them had ever done anything like this before. 
I do not have permission to post the pictures in my blog but I would strongly encourage you to get the calendar, for just a fiver. It is for a good cause. You can contact the Fund here and ask for a copy, they still have some, it has been a popular calendar.
I think it is a smashing idea. The images are tasteful and the ladies are truly great, all very confident and natural in front of the camera. Thank you David for letting me know. 

Monday, 18 November 2013

Interview in Image source

I have been interviewed by Image Source. You can see my interview here

Let me know what you think!

Friday, 8 November 2013

Nude as a colour

Photographer: Paul Stuart. Model : myself
It has come up a few times, so I am not saying anything new here, but I am sure you must be aware of the nuances of a word such as 'nude' in relation to colour.
In fashion 'nude' is used to denote shades ranging from champaign to beige. You may remember when Michelle Obama, the American First Lady, attended a state dinner in 2010 wearing a design by Naeem Khan, who described the dress as 'nude'. The Associated Press reported it as being 'flesh coloured' and of course this caused a stir. Whose flesh, exactly? Not Mrs Obama's. So the dress colour was changed to 'champaign'.
Why make a fuss over this? Because it is not a trivial matter. By saying 'nude' and meaning a colour that approximates the skin tone of white men and women, we are guilty of ethnocentrism and plain racism.
'Nude' should embrace different shades of beige, from light to dark, in order to match different skin tones.
Take 'nude' shoes for example. Christian Louboutin has recently introduced a new collection of 'nude' shoes that matches different skin tones. The only problem is that they are hardly affordable, as they begin at £400 - not everyone can pay so much for a pair of heels.

The Louboutin collection. Photo: Google images
Nail polish is next. Nude nail polish is now available in different skin tones. But nude tights or stockings are still very light coloured. They are meant to be invisible on your skin. That surely depends on the colour nuance of your own skin tone.
So no,  it's not just a matter of semantics. It does matter that 'nude' should not be exhausted by just one shade of light beige.
As some writers have pointed out, fashion designers ought to recognise the diversity of the wearers of their designs. It feels uncomfortable to many women of colour that there is no 'nude' that matches their skin tone, it's again to do with being regarded as invisible. That's why a campaign, "What's your Nude", was started to address precisely this lack of visibility of women of colour in fashion. Lingerie is another category of clothing that needs to pick up on different shades of nude - it has not yet.
I mean, what is a 'nude' bra?
What I am really questioning here is the assumption of neutrality of language. There is no such a thing.
As postcolonial writer and thinker Frantz Fanon said, "To speak a language is to take on a culture".

Comment by a reader
The following comment was sent to me by one of my blog readers, The DarkWolf:
"It's not trivial, nor is language neutral. The semantics of word choice reinforce "normalization" of ideas and underlying concepts.
For example, the distinction between "nude", "flesh" and "peach" are appreciable, not only due to the perception of "race" but also to the sexualization of the underlying concepts. Just as the Crayola company made an official statement that "Indian Red" was a reference to a clay-earth tone FROM India rather than a reference to North American native peoples (a downer for me, actually, as a half-Salish kid I loved the colour name!)
I do take your meaning though... When Michelle Obama wears a peach-toned dress it gets described as "flesh" or "nude"... hopefully that merely signifies a reporter oblivious to the connotations of race... However, I have yet to hear of a Caucasian woman in a light coffee coloured dress which gets described as "mulatto"... thankfully... "

Thank you The DarkWolf!

Monday, 4 November 2013

Real women and models

I am not writing as often as I used to, I guess every blogger goes through these phases. It's been a full week, and the highlight of it has been the Mirror Mirror conference at the London College of Fashion, where many people gathered to hear about current research in the field of ageing. I was delighted to have the opportunity to meet Ari Seth Cohen and also the Fabulous Fashionistas, the feisty ladies with an average age of eighty, who recently appeared in the Channel Four documentary as the stylish ladies they are, including the well known 'supermodel' Daphne Selfe, currently featured in Red.
I met interesting people and connected with them. I am also now very aware of a trend called 'frugal shopping' which is basically to do with shopping in charity shops to find vintage items and generally be aware of recycling - I fully endorse this, it speaks to me and my commitment to sustainability.
In my next posts I will explore all this new material, by and by.
But today I would like to talk about something that has been on my mind since I saw the recent campaign by Boots Number 7, which features 'real women'.

I love this campaign, don't get me wrong. But I am always baffled that there should be a distinction between 'real women' and models. I have written about this in other posts, often in passing, so I may be repeating myself, but I wanted to raise this issue once again.
Models are real women. Those who do fashion are usually very young and very tall, with some notable exceptions, Daphne Selfe being a case in point. Admittedly, many are not yet women, they are adolescent women (and men, there are also male models!) but there is nothing unreal about them.
Of course, I am aware of what the world of advertising is trying to do: the young fashion models are cast in the role of an ideal, whereas the 'real women' are chosen for certain advertising campaigns and are closer in looks to the women who are meant to buy the product.

Still from the Anavae "Anti-Faith" music video, model/dancer myself 

Model agencies have always distinguished between editorial models, the ones with a more edgy look, and commercial, the ones with a girl-next-door look. Now there is a category called 'real people', commercial models of both sexes who are even 'allowed' to show signs of ageing.
For novelty, some advertisers go for street casting, choosing models that have never appeared in a campaign before, so the fiction of the real woman can be sustained.
But the women and men who appear in these campaigns  are carefully selected to match certain criteria and some of them may even have modelled (or acted) before. Many, following the campaign, will be signed up by some agency.
Why am I taking issue with this? Well, to me this distinction is a double edged sword.It sounds great, but actually it insidiously perpetuates the status quo. First, as I have already said, models are real women and should be seen as such. They are real women who have embraced modelling as a profession. The 'real women' are also models.

Photo by Elina Pasok, Dove style campaign, model myself

Ultimately, I am taking issue with a definition of 'model' that seems to have wide currency: someone very young, very tall and very slender. I would like the definition of a model to be broadened, to embrace greater diversity on the catwalk as well as in advertising, demystifying the ideal of a child like woman and acknowledging the professionalism of all the women and men who model.
I have not discussed yet the role of celebrities in advertising campaigns, that is a different issue altogether and the topic for another post.
I will leave you with this to ponder: modelling is a profession and those who do it are real women and real men.