Two photographs published by artists of themselves have generated a great deal of controversy recently. The geographic and cultural distance between the two artists is worlds apart, but their response to repression through a photograph and it’s distribution through the Internet is remarkable. Photography and social media provided a unifying venue that transcended regional and cultural boundaries. Aliaa Magda Elmahdy (مذكرات ثائرة.), an Egyptian art student and Ai Weiwei (Ai Weiwei investigated over nude art | Art and design | The Guardian) published portraits of themselves unclothed. Both artists revealed their bodies in photographs as statements against political and cultural repression; Elmahdy tells her society to”rid yourselves of your sexual hangups before you direct your humiliation and chauvinism and dare to try to deny me my freedom of expression”, Ai Weiwei uses his image, “One Tiger Eight Breasts”, to assert that nudity is not equivalent to pornography.
Although nudity and activism are common themes the images are aesthetically very different. Ai Weiwei sits comfortably in what appears to be an artist’s studio with white walls and concrete floor, smiling, surrounded by four also nude women, some laughing others serious, warm and soft studio light wrapping the group. Ai Weiwei is the focal point of the composition and his gaze engages the camera directly. It’s an arrangement reminiscent of a figure drawing class, as if the models were captured during a break – the moment is informal and light-hearted. By comparison Aliaa Magda Elmahdy’s self-portrait is rather starkly lit by a point-and-shoot camera flash, the direct contrasty light reveals every detail, but flattens the space and volume of her body. The image is primarily in black and white with a ribbon in her hair and her shoes highlighted in intense red. She also wears thigh-high stockings and is standing in a straightforward way, as if she were posing for a figure drawing session, gazing above and past the waist-high camera position.
Ai Weiwei’s image has a long Western tradition behind it, it references a historical thread of paintings of groups, artists pictured with their models, and visual study of the figure. Given Ai Weiwei’s sophistication as an artist, is is unlikely that this is an accident. The image is controversial in China simply because the cultural values imposed by the government view nudity as immoral…. and they are not alone – there are many other countries and conservatives in the U.S. that have a shared perspective on the body.
Aliaa Magda Elmahdy skirts around some sharp edges with an image whose reference is much more contemporary. This image has social media written all over it – looks like it could be posted in a photo album at dating website…except that it has been aestheticized in post-production.
The color has been removed from the image minus the color accents in the ribbon and shoes. It appears that Elmahdy is looking at herself pose in a mirror behind the camera, because she stares past the camera at something – her attention and gaze are focused. The haunting aspect of this image is that it lies somewhere between innocence and seduction; the pose and gaze are neutral – without expression – but the adornment of the stockings, shoes, and ribbons imply otherwise. The image takes on more meaning and danger for the artist given the context of her culture in which women revealing their bodies is violently repressed. Her photograph in the context of Egyptian culture is about the repression of expression and the narrowly defined role of women, but it is also about herself – it invites the viewer to look – the image seems to say “here I am, this is me, this is the secret my clothes cover each day – it is a frank and forthright image.
In the United States the consequences for both artists publishing nude images of themselves would be only personal in nature – the media would have never noticed and the lack of sexual depiction makes the images tame. It is the context of where the images came from – who created them and why – that makes them controversial and attention-grabbing, not their content. Both artists took on considerable risk in publishing these images; Ai Weiwei could be charged with publishing pornography and imprisoned, Aliaa Magda Elmahdy faces public humiliation, shunning, or much worse….
The power of an individual photograph to provoke strong reactions has been verified with the controversy surrounding these images. In one culture they are near-harmless, in another, revolutionary. The proliferation of low cost cameras, the worldwide reach of the Internet, and the global community participating in social media gives these images voice and significance.