Nude: female photographers explore nudity and the feminine gaze | Photography

“I’ve been accused of trying to homosexualize African men,” photographer Denisse Ariana Pérez told me as we discussed photos she’s showcasing in Fotografiska New York’s exhibit Nude, a worldwide selection of nude portraits as seen through the female gaze. Pérez specializes in photographing men, particularly Black African men, and she purposely works with her subjects to draw them out of dominant ideas of what men should be.

“I like the challenge of it,” said Pérez, “of confronting more traditional masculinity and in some way trying to bend it and question it, and to create a space for men to explore and go beyond what they have been allowed to.”

Pérez makes her captivating, emotion-laden images by inviting her subjects to interact with water, letting them connect with a powerful, elemental force of nature that helps them to strip off the facades of identity and ego and go inwards toward the core of who they really are.

“Water is an element that forces you to let go and embrace that letting go,” she said. “It’s the element that makes me connect to myself the most, I see it almost as a maternal element. I wanted to bring that to others, even if for just a brief moment.”

Pérez’s work is emblematic of Nude’s aim, which is to upset dominant ideas of the nude body in art by showcasing what a diverse group of talented female photographers construe as nude portraits.

“This show is kind of rare in our exhibition history,” Amanda Hajjar, director of exhibitions for Fotografiska New York, told me. “All of the artists in this show have this past of trying to turn the portrayal of the nude on its head. They’re all trying to do something different, and this is the outcome.”

Denisse Ariana Pérez – Taken in Uganda, 2019. Photograph: Denisse Ariana Pérez/Courtesy of the artist and Fotografiska

Bringing together 30 artists from 20 different countries who are shooting portraits all over the world, Nude offers a global perspective on the human form. Among other things, this broad cultural range lets the the exhibition wrestle with the question of how the meaning of a woman taking a nude portrait differs from society to society, as well as how the female gaze changes from one context to another.

For instance, the Swedish photographer Julia SH takes the museum as her setting, upsetting traditional western concepts of how that institution regards the female body. She does this by placing plus-sized women into striking, balletic poses on pedestals and in galleries that are more accustomed to displaying young, thinner women. As Hajjar noted, SH’s works are “nothing like what you would have seen in a museum before”. Hajjar added that, “We’re interested in dealing with the ‘nontraditional’ female body and what that looks like.”

While SH explores the nontraditional female body by putting larger women on pedestals, Joana Choumali does so through intricate, layered photographs of both real women and mannequins manufactured and displayed in her native Ivory Coast. These vivid, destabilized photos possess a fidgety energy, examining how the Awoulaba, or “beauty queen” mannequin propagates certain ideas of Black female beauty, contrasting it to the Taille fine, which adheres to westernized beauty standards. In the delicate interplay of reproduced forms Choumali combines stereotypes and reality to produce something that feels at once monstrous and without control, yet also familiar and mundane.

As those two artists would indicate, the range of subjects and artistic styles in Nude is large. Israeli Elinor Carucci cinematically depicts middle-age domesticity, while Brazilian Angélica Dass uses a sociological bent to document the true diversity of skin tones that are flattened under generic words like Black and white. The Chinese artist Yushi Li subverts the male gaze by using Tinder to find male subjects, whom she then photographs with a desirous lens. Although certain themes do emerge among subgroups of the photographers, these are not – as one might imagine – based in geography.

“It’s not like I can say the American artists all have the same aesthetic,” said Hajjar. “The photos in Nude don’t fit neatly in groups like that, which is really nice.”

A slender, nude young woman with long blonde hair sits  on the ground in front of a bright pink background, her legs bent at the knee and crossed at the ankle to conceal her genitalia. In one hand she holds out a pink flower toward the camera, in a way that conceals her breasts. In the other hand she holds a smartphone up in a way that conceals her face behind the flash light of her phone’s camera.
Arvida Byström – Selfie. Photograph: Arvida Byström/Courtesy of the artist and Fotografiska

In addition to bringing stylistic and cultural expansiveness, Nude also attempts to broaden the narrative around the artistic nude by incorporating transgender bodies – their presence in the show lends all of the exhibition’s photos a degree of ambiguity. With nude models stripped of many of the signifiers denoting queerness or heteronormativity, it can be hard to tell the trans from the cis, the queer from the straight. And while it is true that some of the individuals in Nude, such as those photographed by Japanese artist Momo Okabe, “look trans” due to their combinations of genitalia and secondary sex characteristics, most of the photos in Nude are not so easily read as anything other than human.

This raises the question of what exactly separates a trans body from a cis one and if the lines between the two are really as firm and fixed as current discourse presumes. As Okabe suggested to me, the demarcation depends more on “preconceived notions” about the LGBTQ+ community than anything innate about humanity, going on to conclude that “trans bodies to me do not differ from any other body.”

“I have come to the realization that all people are inherently strange and mysterious. I believe people are beginning to understand that everyone is queer,” said Okabe.

A person with short black hair stands against a wall, in a photo with a yellow-green filter applied. It is unclear with which gender, if any, this person identifies. Their slightly muscled arms are bent at the elbow with their hands behind their head, pulling their head slightly down and forward. The person is shirtless, with a bandage over one nipple. They wear olive-green pants held up by a belt, with the waistband of cheetah-print underwear showing above the waistline.
Momo Okabe – Untitled. Photograph: Momo Okabe/Courtesy of the artist and Fotografiska

As a collection of work, Nude reveals much of what is inherently strange and mysterious about bodies that may not normally appear to be worthy of sustained artistic attention. It does so through a female gaze that does not dominate or take but rather empathizes and asks for consent. A rich interplay of human connection underlies the photographs in Nude, a freeing of self born of a genuine desire to see who other people really are. This is what allows these women to find views of the everyday that do not look so normal.

“I see the female gaze as the incorporation of a lot of care into the photographing process,” Pérez told me, “a lot of very empathetic caring for the process and for the subjects and how they are portrayed.”

She recounted the making of one of her favorite photos, of two boys whom she happened to meet on the street one day in Senegal. “One of them told me, I’ve never done anything like this before, but I’ve learned so much today. He said that was a day he would never forget. We had created something, he felt included in the process.”

It’s that kind of closeness, coming out of a spirit of care and generosity, that one senses again and again in Nude and that makes this show such a revealing experience.

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2022/feb/08/nude-fotografiska-women-photographers-explore-nudity-female-gaze

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