BWW Interview: Tinu Verghis On Going From Model To Performing Artist Tackling Social And Gender Injustice
Model Tinu Verghis ruled the runway in India for 15 years before she ventured into performing arts. During her illustrious career as a model she had to her credit many important assignments such as being on the cover of Vogue when the magazine forayed into featuring dark skinned models. Recently, the model participated at South East Asia's famed art fair Art Stage 2018 in Singapore.
She appeared at an event titled -- The Undiscovered Country. In a jaw-dropping performance, the model through the act of piercing herself with a needle and thread reflects on mortality.
BWW spoke to the former supermodel who reflects upon her life and works and how performing arts is a medium of address social and gender injustice.
You left a very successful career as a supermodel to pursue arts. Tell us what prompted you towards it?
I worked as a fashion model for fifteen years. I was 19 years old when I decided to pursue modelling. I was doing my Bachelors in Business Management at that point. I travelled a lot as a model and which gave me ample time to read extensively and had partners from different cultures. Every day I learned something new. Being with new people and reading new stories was opening new avenues for me. I learned to recognize racism, classism, and sexism and I found ways to question them. I didn't grow up with too much of a singular culture nor gender specific baggage. I grew up in a boarding school and the space gave me room to grow into recognising and accepting the multifaceted cultural melting pot of women from all around India and the neighbouring countries. I was not expected to study, get married, make children the common repertoire that most girls were drilled into.
I grew to be an anti-establishment person. I was against even the most sacred of institutions-marriage. I was with my partner for ten years before we were forced into marriage by the Singapore government who wouldn't allow me to study as an expectant mom. Modelling was a transformational experience. I met crazy creators. The shows and after-show events always had a mix of designers, artists, musicians, writers etc. It was an eclectic mix. After weeding out the people trying to get in my pants, I could always find people who inspired me. I acquired my life experiences on this trajectory. I left modeling because I wanted to address the issues I faced as a woman, as an Indian and as a model. My art performances are about the body/my body. The visuality of my body still evokes my past. I didn't really leave the objectified body behind; I merely took control over my body. As a third world/colored woman artist, and a retired fashion model, I am interested in using the body as an enactment of the self. I am questioning if using my explicitly sexualized and embodied subjectivity will break down the distinction between subject and object.
2. Your expressions are a lot about performing arts. Tell us in detail about it.
The ideal art form I found I like, is the most anarchic of them all, Performance Art. Talking through the body is the most political art form for me. Unlike the established forms, Performance art is permissive, and is an open-ended medium with endless variables. The Patriarchal regime has fundamentally objectified and alienated the woman's body from self. The Woman's space, within that regime, is an enclosure in which she feels herself positioned and by which she is confined, it is not a field in which her bodily intentionality can be freely realized. Historical/canonical ideas around the representations have centered around women as objects. But the strength of the female body is the ability to form a language that can express directly against the system that is dominated by men. Women have the potential to create subversion of the patriarchal language from within, but in revolt against the psychoanalytical model of subject construction in which desire is articulated as exclusively male. Linking the public and private domain and by baring the ways they are ideologically bound; becomes the centrality of feminist politics. By giving women voice in the gendered arena of the public sphere, it disrupts the male/female dichotomy within the mainstream politics.
3. Talk to us about your performance in The Undiscovered Country during Artstage Singapore recently:
The performance was a collaboration with the Malaysian/Indian artist Dr. Rajinder Singh. It was the first time that Artstage Singapore held a performance art space at their event.Dr. Rajinder Singh is an artist and researcher who holds an enduring interest in South Asian magico-religious belief systems and the shape and space that they deny us. His practice is dedicated to the vulnerability of the body in pain, hidden behind the gestures and movements of worship and the grace of dance. Through his multifaceted practice Rajinder explores the variety of ways the human body unfolds at the intersections of the world of the otherworldly and the dynamics of global modernity. The act of stitching challenges the dualities that underpin the dominant visualization of the body as solid and impermeable. Skin is penetrable on the surface and it allows access between inside and outside. I have tried to explore the political effectivity of female masochism and if the body's authentic presence is assured by the experience of pain. I am also questioning if my masochistic corporeal displays can be seen as an intersubjective contingency and thereby claim immanence of the self and my subjectivity in the patriarchal discourse.
5. Talk to us about your award winning art: Under My Skin, and your other recent video art projects if any
In the live performance titled "Under My Skin", I stand in front of the audience with the paste of rice on my body and ask the viewer to peel it off me. I collect the peeled skin, I fry it, and I serve it back to them to eat, thereby inviting the viewer into the abject. An objectified body in the visual media, as in advertisements, magazines and movies, offer a voyeuristic experience to the viewer. As a passive consumer the viewer is not held accountable for the consumption of the objectified image. Through performance art, I offer my body to a group of people and each of them have a choice to partake in the performance or otherwise. By consuming my body hair, dirt and dry skin stuck on the rice paste, I let the viewer ingest, digest and defecate me. They have willingly participated in a metaphorical cannibalism.I also try to bring the elements of culture and domesticity into my performances. There are multiple layers to my performance/video work- Under My Skin. The rice I use on my body is the rice I cultivate in my farm in Goa, India. We are constantly under threat from the government to lose our land to urbanization. In our village, we have to constantly fend off government official who come to survey our lands in order for them to usurp the land under different guises. Cultivating the land is a difficult matter, due to lack of labor effective methods and a sheer lack of government interests in supporting the local farmers coupled with the lack of interest by the younger generation. My physical labor on the agricultural field, against all odds, makes my body as the site of resistance.For a more recent work, 'Padatha Painkili' ( A bird that won't sing), I stay confined in a cardboard box and I am eating myself out of the box using only my mouth. I was subjecting my body through extreme physical states and thereby testing the body's limit. It took me over 5 hours to bite/and eat the box, to get out off it. I had used a water resistant shipping cardboard box for the performance.
The box metaphor is universal. It allows the viewers to enter my work, through their own lived experiences. Rather than constructing a theory of hegemonic oppression under women as a unitary category, I am interested in highlighting multiple, overlapping and discrete oppressions.
In film theory, the cinematic image provides a clear paradigm for the working of fetishism in the patriarchal culture. The mechanisms of fetishism are rooted in Freudian models, hinging on the fear of castration in males. In cinema, the woman is turned into a fetish, so that she becomes reassuring rather than dangerous. In images/and cinema, the male look operates as the controlling factor, but as a female performance artist, I hold the element of surprise, where I have the unprecedented control of my own image. The works are meant to re-examine cultural standards and viewer's own sexuality.
For the work, "Padatha Painkili": I have presented a 5 hours durational performance as a 77 min film. The work was chosen for the biennale edition of Women Cinemakers 2018, in Berlin.
My performances are meant to intervene into the process of constructing the viewing subject through the disruption of the male gaze. The context of performance art, denies the accepted path of voyeurism, which subverts the male gaze and the fetishism of the female body. For a live performance artwork, the performer and the spectator occupy the same physical/temporal space. Making it more difficult the distancing needed for safe fantasizing. On the conventions of narrative form, successful voyeurism depends on predictable outcomes, which presumably guarantees safety in looking. By totally abandoning and disrupting conventional narrative, my performance thwarts the illusion of distance and exposes the male spectator.
What are some of the projects keeping you busy at the moment
I am doing a community project at the Sunflower Learning Centre. The centre was initiated by model Tamara Moss who retired recently. We are creating a mural work with the kids at the centre. I am also making a film on the art/act of crying- the universal image of suffering. Critiquing the image of women as the bearers of suffering and grief, through a research on the women professional mourners and Pablo Picasso's work The Weeping Woman, 1937.