Rape photoshoot: When fetishism masquerades as ‘activism’

Last Updated: Mon, Aug 11, 2014 15:01 hrs

Last week, a fashion photoshoot by Raj Shetye, rather obviously ‘inspired’ by the Delhi bus rape of December 2012, was at the receiving end of universal condemnation.

Shetye felt obliged to claim that it had nothing to do with the bus rape, and was “just a depiction of the situation of women in our country”, iterating that his sister, mother and girlfriend were in as much danger as any other woman.

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Rather ridiculously, he also said that the clothes had been designed by the industry’s top guns, but they had not been credited because it was not a shoot for “commercial gain”. This, somehow, is supposed to make it all okay. This makes it a societal statement, not a fashion statement.

The cause of my discomfort is not simply the idea that someone decided to use such a horrific incident as the inspiration for a fashion photoshoot.

What troubles me is the idea that the reception may have been very different if it had not been an obvious fashion shoot, with people who were obviously models.

Let’s say Shetye had used college students, or slum dwellers, or middle-aged ‘real people’. Would it have been perceived as heinous, or would it have been perceived as a statement on society?

Let’s say Shetye had featured four female models assaulting a male model, instead of the other way round. How would it have been perceived?

Let’s even say the photographer had been a woman. How would it have been perceived?

A few years ago, French filmmaker Eléonore Pourriat made a video called ‘Oppressed Majority’, which went viral when she posted it on YouTube earlier this year. The video shows women jogging topless, peeing on the road, and sexually harassing men. It was almost universally appreciated.

To me, the fact that the role reversal included women in various stages of nudity brings in unnecessary shock value.

The fashion photoshoot in question raises two significant questions – one has to do with the purpose and definition of ‘art’; the other has to do with the acceptable forms of protest art.

The purpose of art these days seems to be that someone is making money from it, and someone is getting suckered by it. It has no definition. For decades now, ‘modern art’ has claimed to make some sort of vague statement, while essentially being fetishist.

Here is a person making a statement on the cruelty or kindness of society towards strangers by asking visitors to do whatever they want to her, as she sits on a chair, with bunches of roses, scissors, cans of paint, knives, matchsticks, cigarettes, ropes, whips and other assorted paraphernalia lined up.

Here are two people standing naked at the entrance to a museum, to figure out which one of them you choose to face when you brush past.

Here is a woman vomiting all over Lady Gaga in concert, as the latter exhorts us to appreciate “art in its purest form”.

Facebook and YouTube have been going ecstatic over two videos made by Tatia Pilieva, in which strangers are asked to kiss each other, and then undress each other, thereby sparking off some statement or discussion that is too profound for anyone who is not a performance artist to process.

As far back as the 1960s, Piero Manzoni sold cans of Merda D’Artista, or ‘Artist’s Shit’, a statement against capitalism perhaps. Ironically enough, these limited edition sealed cans, whose content cannot be determined with any certainty, have been selling for hundreds of thousands of Euros.

Recently, a performance artist, Milo Moiré, decided to lay paint-filled eggs on to canvas sheets. She stood nude, propped up by two chairs, over an empty canvas, and pushed out these eggs from her vagina. This was apparently a feminist statement.

I don’t understand it – was it about women being perceived as reproducers and nothing else? Was it about women being perceived as dirty because they menstruate? Or was it about women being seen as creators of extraordinary art from extraordinary places?

Art has become some sort of equivalent of The Emperor’s New Clothes, except that there is no child to point out that the emperor is naked.

It begs parody, because most of these performances look like satire themselves.

A friend once told me how he had wandered into the changing room at a Bangkok strip club by accident and he noticed a wall of lockers. Some were open, some were shut, some were locked.

The open ones had various contents – pieces of lingerie, and mobile phones, and comic books, and literature.

He told me that he thought about how someone could simply shift the entire wall of lockers to an art museum, and call it an installation.

This would be a display, making a statement on the objectification of women, the idea that the sensual could not be intelligent – that a stripper could not read Llosa, for instance – or well, any number of things.

The second idea – of the acceptable forms of protest art – is even more insidious. There have been objections to a fashion photoshoot.

But would anyone have objected to plays or literature or dance dramas or paintings based on the bus rape? I know for a fact that several plays have been highly acclaimed simply for ‘taking up’ the issue.

Nothing has spawned literature like sorrow and hardship – political dictatorship, religious fundamentalism, sexism, Communism, racism, whatever it is that troubles the majority of people.

While all of these are issues that must be tackled, should it be considered daring and wonderful to ‘tackle’ them in just any way that strikes our fancies? Or should we start using a stricter gauge?

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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage. She sells herself and the book on www.nandinikrishnan.com

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