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SEND N(U)DES: a workshop

I grew up in a house of women comfortable with their nakedness. Cloths (a memory from that other home, in Ghana) wrapped around waist. Under bare breasts. Sometimes not. Other times nothing, and everything (at least physical) laid bare.

In a house of women, I grew up conscious of skin. Bashful. Protective of my own so my mother and auntie would tease me for my preciousness (“what are you hiding that we haven’t seen before?”). Still, embarrassed, with a shame coloured by youth, I would avoid seeing the folds, fullness and creases of their naked bodies. This self-consciousness would be teased and questioned as I developed friendships with women at ease with their bodies unclothed. And later with partners as I embraced my body as a site of sensuality, where being seen, regarded, could be as sweet as being touched- vulnerability, in different forms, a prerequisite.

Berger writes in Ways of Seeing, “A woman must continually watch herself…she is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself”. It is an observation that leads to a discussion about the distinction between nudity and nakedness in art, notions of shame and the idea of a spectator. Reading through this chapter, I felt my guard come up against the idea that a woman’s being and identity was/is constructed around a male presence and a consciousness of his gaze. I also asked myself who this woman was, and who, crucially, she wasn’t or couldn’t be.

Yet while Berger’s assertion did bother me (and my fixation with it also), what I could recognise was the experience of having to shape one’s self against another’s gaze so much so that it leads to a hyper-consciousness and surveillance of one’s self. What I could also perceive, was that the gaze wasn’t exclusively male and thus patriarchal, but could also be racist, colonial, homo and transphobic, ableist and fatphobic.

I recalled my earlier relationship with the naked bodies of women in my family. With hindsight, I think maybe I was offended, perhaps also frustrated by their openness- in direct opposition to my desire not to draw too much attention to myself. My sister and I had been brought back to London from Accra and, with a certain clumsiness, I was working hard to mould myself into a sameness that would mute the otherness of being black, African and working class in my new environment.

I began to think about my relationship with nudity and how it was paired with a fear of vulnerability and of being seen. I wanted to go outside of myself and ask whose gaze I was conscious of. I wanted to settle into the idea that this fear of being seen was not so much an individual flaw, but a protective layer defending against perceived and real external threats. I wanted to ask: who is the spectator? Whose gaze/judgements/criticism am I afraid of, if not my own? Moreover, if I, we, accept the personal to be political, how does one’s body, conscious as it is of itself, take up space among others? How does the fear of vulnerability, that begins with the body, affect one’s intimate relationship first with themselves, and then with others?

Wanting to explore these questions and to do so in an informal and creative setting, I decided to use my time as a curatorial resident at be’kech to facilitate an art workshop that would be playful and provocative. I wanted to spark intimacy among strangers and, in doing so, lead us into a critical reflection. Thus, SEND N(U)DES was created. My original idea involved participants putting their number in a basket and taking one out. They would then send a nude of themselves to the number they picked and create a piece of artwork based on the nude they received.

Some important criticisms came up -primarily questions over safety and trust. There was also concern that the event would attract womxn already comfortable with their bodies, thus excluding those whom the event sought out. I think the most striking criticism came from someone who questioned my assumption that nudity represented (and could represent) a form of physical and metaphorical liberation. They highlighted the reality of those for whom physical nakedness in the presence of others was neither desirable nor remarkable, and challenged any assumption I might have had that my experience was universal and should be regarded as so.

Reflecting on these criticisms, I made some changes. I abandoned the idea of texting, and instead invited participants to bring a nude of themselves, in any format, that would be placed in an envelope for exchange. Still wanting to stay true to my own relationship with nudity and vulnerability, I encouraged participants to interpret a nude liberally- one that could exist outside the physical/bodily boundary specific to my own interpretation and push the limits of each individual’s comfort.

What emerged was a small group of womxn who came together and painted side by side. Punctuating the stroke of our brushes were conversations about our bodies and how they had been shaped by families, culture, trauma and healing. One among us brought up the fact that the following day was International Women’s Day Against Violence, and we marvelled at the coincidence. The conversation went in directions I myself hadn’t anticipated and highlighted for me the importance of community, of trusting that there are others wanting to hold conversation with you.  Nudes were exchanged, some were kept. So too were stories, made reverent by the vulnerability needed to share them.