The censorship – however temporary – of Rupi Kaur’s strikingly beautiful and authentic image lays bare how deeply our Western culture has internalized the wagging heteronormative finger aka preferences of the misogynist male gaze, and how the Western dominant hegemonic foe of artistic censorship becomes so embedded and normalized into the websites that were initially heralded as differential spaces for freedom of expression.
Kaur is an artist who is interrogating what makes her uncomfortable, what she works with as her own embodied experience through which she perceives, lives, moves, and creates in the world. By placing an authentic representation of her body and its real, lived experience into an online social space, she has expressed herself in creating both a multiplicity of empowerment and a representational space for the blood of all women, just as many great artists have done before her. As Jason Farman suggests, “The virtual is not the opposite of the real; instead it is a component of experiencing the real. The virtual serves as a way to understand the real and as a form of actualization that serves to layer and multiply and experience of that which is already realized” (22). I feel her swollen agony, the pulses of nausea that ravage her from the back of her throat down to her knees, the twisted cramping of muscles that often render half of the world’s population horizontal in order to just navigate the social and private spaces of each day as a woman.
Is it that Kaur’s image embodies so many cultural taboos in its pose and colours that we would prefer not to acknowledge its authenticity as signifier of reality? Is Kaur’s pain and blood so unbearable to witness – or is it that many would prefer not to be reminded of such bodily workings, while numbed to, say, images of war? Have we really regressed into a post-millenial form of porn-shaven puritanism that an artistic exploration into what has become encoded into our culture as engendered taboo, stigma, and pain is not an appropriate subject for viewing in a public online space? As another classmate posited, if this photograph were a snapshot of a painting or drawing hung in an art gallery, with its representation of reality one step removed and recontextualized, would it be garnering such support or divisive discussion? I find that Kaur’s photo encompasses all of these questionings.
Kaur’s photo claims its embodied space, as a culturally- and a sensory-inscribed body, both material and virtual, on Instagram, Tumblr, and now on many other sites since the controversy began to break (Farman, 33). To paraphrase Terri Senft, I find Kaur’s work compelling as a re-frame of her desire to gain back some of her lost agency in this surveillance-networked age (Senft, 28). In doing so, designed or not, Kaur’s photo has also seized on the power to incite discussion – which, to my mind, is what socially challenging art should inspire.
Farman, Jason. “Embodiment and the Mobile Interface”. Mobile Interface Theory. London: Routledge. 2012. (16-34)
Lefebvre, Henri. “The Production of Space”. The People, Place and Space Reader. Eds. Jen Jack Giesing, William Mangold, Cindi Katz, Setha Low, Susan Saegert. New York: Routledge. 2014. (289-293)
Senft, Theresa. “Chapter One”. Camgirls: Celebrity and Community in the Age of Social Networks. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2008. (15-31)