Rupa Subramaniam Conveys Women’s Stories On Body and Digital Space
Review by Wai Lu Yin

Rupa Subramaniam

In 2017, Visual artist Rupa Subramaniam started her journey with “This Body is Mine”, a collaborative body painting and photography project, featuring classical Indian Baratnatyam dancers and photographers. This project was a protest against body policing and street-harassment. That’s where I discovered her project, which went viral on the Internet, and had the opportunity to interview her for Culture Trip, subsequently becoming friends.

Fast forward to this year, when I had a chat with Rupa Supramaniam to discuss her recent project, “Skin and Soul”, a continuation of “This Body is Mine”.

The birth of “Skin and Soul”

In 2018, Rupa was accepted for a residency at Rimbun Dahan, where she began work on “Skin and Soul”. This project showcases a modern-day artistic ritual, using body paint to reclaim the female body. The visuals on the women's bodies, including their backs and faces, are based on their own stories, with quotes such as "my body, my choice" and "women supporting women". The project provides a safe space that centralises concerns around Malaysian women’s empowerment.

Before starting “Skin and Soul”, she realised that she was trying too hard to control the project’s creative direction. Feeling like “Skin and Soul” was ready to morph, she surrendered all her control to the participants, so they could decide on the subject matter for her body paint art. “The project is beyond me,” Rupa says. “I’m letting the project become what it needs to be as time changes, and I mature.”

Photographer Mathu and documentary filmmaker Thina joined later, taking on the project as a means to expand their portfolios. Mathu wanted to challenge himself as a photographer, while Thina was seeking a strong narrative that would spark conversations. Together, the “Skin and Soul” project grew as a creative collage web-documentary project.

Having men stand up for women’s rights

Rupa is determined to create a safe space to talk about the representation of women and their relationships with their bodies and selves. “Where else are people discussing this?” she points out. “We live in a country where women’s bodies are treated as objects and a commodity. I want to reclaim our bodies for ourselves.”

As Mathu and Thina got more involved in “Skin and Soul”, both of them became stronger advocates for feminism - which was exactly what Rupa hoped for. “I’m proud that Mathu and Thina’s views on women’s issues in Malaysia expanded tremendously, and they are more acutely aware of the facts and ongoing problems in Malaysia,” she shares.

For Rupa, the first episode, available on the website, is their strongest as it focuses on how badly men tend to treat women. This episode attracted a male audience, moving them to reflect on their actions - or inaction. The stories shared were responses to the questions that came from her own lived experience. “It is about the collective story, not a singular narrative,” she adds.

The creative process of bringing stories to life

Rupa shares her vastly different experiences working with Mathu while shooting in Rimbun Dahan, and with Thina, for post-production.

With Mathu, she found herself in sync with him, even if they didn’t discuss ideas beforehand. They went with their instinct, which she says “was a beautiful creative experience to feel such alignment”. Their days started at 9am with meditation, followed by preparation by reading through the participants’ responses. She would then paint on the women’s bodies while listening to their stories. Mathu would scout new locations to shoot within the fourteen acres of Rimbun Dahan. Rupa says she learned a lot about photography lighting from him by acting as his assistant and helping with his gear.

“It was a mythical and supernatural experience, as Mathu and I both were experiencing multiple deja-vu’s throughout this project,” she adds.

Thina was heavily involved with making strategic discussions from the start, such as where they wanted the project to go and what impact they wanted to achieve. They worked independently of each other: while Rupa worked on grants, Thina carefully studied and listened to every interview (30 interviews of 45 - 90 minutes each), crafting a script that was an amalgamation of the most pertinent parts. He categorised it according to three different themes – Judgemental, Battle and Difference – and followed that up with the editing. Due to the MCO in 2020, Thina had limited material to work with, so his research was internet-based.

They decided to go against all odds and turn it into a web-documentary series instead of sending “Skin and Soul” for film festival awards, the latter of which would have granted the team a wider and more “glamorous” reach. Rupa says the reason behind this was that “this project needs to be heard in the right environment and the conversation needs to continue, and not be a one-off discussion at a film festival”.

One of the challenges they faced was fixing the audio, which had excessive background noise. Due to different interview locations, these noises drowned out the vocals. They got around this by tweaking and editing the audio as much as possible, without ruining its originality and character.

Another challenge was getting funding for “Skin and Soul” because it had no no commercial value, which would have pulled major brands for support. The team has since exhausted all the local arts grants that they had previously received for it. To continue, Rupa is appealing to the public.

“I am now asking the public to support me so we can continue producing more videos to bring awareness to these issues faced by Malaysian women,” she says.

Rupa is currently running a crowdfunding campaign on “Skin and Soul”’s “Buy Me A Coffee” page. The first 100 people to donate will receive a limited edition art print, exclusive content, personal reflections and will have a say in future episodes.

Adapting in the digital space

The team has been living and breathing in the digital realm, so this is exactly where they want “Skin and Soul” to be. Fortunately for them, the pandemic has made the Malaysian art industry pay more attention to the digital space. “Two years ago, it would have been dismissed as a “cute” initiative,” she adds.

As a digital strategist, she studies trends, and she found an alarming lack of women receiving important health, safety and basic rights information online. “Currently, only 0.1% of these searches lead to viable solutions,” she shares, “So the aim is to centralise and aggregate all research to our website and help mobilise more efforts.”

Thina and Rupa look at the videos’ view count performance to make sure they keep optimising their content. They consider every mili-second of the video, figuring out when and why people are dropping out in an effort to improve.

“Our aim is not to get a big number,” Rupa points out. “We want to achieve grassroots impact, especially by creating more male allies, and to make profound changes in our audiences.”

Rupa also hosts “Jamu Circle”, a virtual space for the audience to gather and discuss how the videos made them feel. “This allows us to be more responsible and compassionate as creators,” she says.

In five years, Rupa hopes that there will be fewer dismissive conversations and more strategic innovation on women’s rights and safety based on grassroots observation and data, and racially-inclusive policies.

Rupa is not alone in her bid to build safe spaces for women. She is reaching out to give people the opportunity to grow and have their voices heard. Together with like-minded and talented people, like Mathu and Thina, she believes that being compassionate, trusting and supporting each other with compassion will overcome barriers and help them reach their goals as an individual and as part of the community. As a friend and a fellow creative, I am grateful to Rupa for giving me the opportunity to learn from her and be part of this journey together.

All images are provided by Rupa Subramaniam.

Watch the first episode of the “Skin and Soul” web-documentary series on their website. Support her ongoing project by donating to "Skin and Soul"'s “Buy Me a Coffee” page. Rupa is also running “Banana Leaf”, a platform that supports Malaysian Indian artists and creatives.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly the author's own and do not reflect those of CENDANA. CENDANA reserves the right to be excluded from any liabilities, losses, damages, defaults, and/or intellectual property infringements caused by the views and opinions expressed by the author in this article at all times, during or after publication, whether on this website or any other platforms hosted by CENDANA or if said opinions/views are republished on third party platforms.

Wai Lu Yin is a participant of the CENDANA - ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021.

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