Malaysian Artist Ruby Subramaniam Wants Women to Embrace Their Bodies

Ruby Subramaniam © Kenny Loh
Ruby Subramaniam © Kenny Loh
Malaysian artists’ work is becoming well known around the globe. Each artist has diverse techniques and stories to tell that liven up the Malaysian art scene. Ruby Subramaniam is one of these artists. She brings stories and trends to life through her art, including her highly recognized body art series. She developed ‘This Body Is Mine’ to empower women. Culture Trip chatted with the artist about her art and travel journey.

What is your background and what made you decide to become an artist?

I loved the arts, but I was 16 when I thought it wasn’t going to make me money. So I studied mass communication, a compromise allowing me to still work in a creative field. I did fairly well as a digital strategist, winning a few gold titles in Malaysian Media Awards during my time in the media industry.

I started questioning the whole corporate culture when my mother passed away. She was my only family, and it was a difficult time for me. I didn’t know how to grieve. I lost all hope.

Making art healed me and gave me a sense of purpose. So I recklessly quit my career and pursued the path of becoming an artist. Because, why not?

Traveling in Brazil and Rio de Janeiro © Imrich Gold

You’ve been traveling around the world a lot. What inspires you to travel?

When I first left my hometown, Kuala Lumpur, I didn’t have anything holding me back—no family baggage, no responsibilities. God, I was so lonely then!

But when I was out there travelling, I learned more about myself. I also realised that my situation gave me liberation. Bitter and painful yes, but at some point, I learned that I could be a victim of my situation or choose to rise from it. When the perspective changed, the adventures became fuel to keep me going.

What is your favourite country?

Hands down, Brazil! You must experience the Carnival at least once in your lifetime, ideally when you’re still single. The young and old dance all day, all night, for an entire week; it’s a crazy atmosphere, and I loved every bit of it.

Where would you like to visit next?

Nepal, Kenya, Columbia, but I could go on… but, everywhere is on my list.

Dancer Nalina Nair was painted as Kali, the fierce element of the Goddess Parvati, one of the Tridevi Goddesses © Vicknes Waran

How did your ‘This Body Is Mine’ art series come about? Why does this series highlight women’s empowerment and culture?

A group of Malaysian Indian men warned Hindu women to expect getting sprayed with aerosol paint should they be ‘inappropriately dressed’ at the Thaipusam event. So as an act of protest, I figured, I’ll paint on these women’s bodies.

#ThisBodyIsMine was created, as a collaborative effort with photographers and classical Indian dancers to battle moral-policing on women’s bodies. It was about women owning their bodies.

Giving a contemporary artistic spin to the elements present in each of the Tridevi Hindu goddesses, I hoped that more people would understand the role of Shakti—feminine power—in Indian culture and to inspire women to be confident enough to make their own decisions and demand to have equal rights to participate in social, religious and public activities.

Dancer Harshini was painted as the Hindu Goddess, Lakshmi, one of the Tridevi Goddesses © Vinoth Raj Pillai

What is the significance of the body working as a canvas?

It was reclaiming the human body literally as the title holds, ‘This Body is MINE’.

The images wouldn’t have held the same ferocity if I had painted it on a blank white canvas. It was the dancers who brought the images alive, with their bold gazes and strong poses, adding the dance narrative as another layer.

Secondly, I wanted to challenge the ideal body types and skin colour perpetuated by media, especially fashion advertising. These were everyday women like you and me, comfortable in their skin.

And there was something romantic in the idea of decay, the impermanence of the artwork. It takes me some 4–5 hours to paint, but it dissolves in half that time, due to movement, rain and perspiration. The artwork can no longer be created the exact same way, which is why the photographer plays such an important role to capture the moment, again morphing the already two-dimensional art into a different form.

Collaboration with Freedom Film Fest to defend Lena Hendry © Vicknes Waran

Can you describe the artistic techniques you used for this series?

As an artist, I had to learn how colours worked on different skin tones and how the motives I wanted to paint looked on various body shapes. The body is a dynamic canvas and a slight change in perspective alters how the image looks. Tattoo artists of course would have more in-depth knowledge, but it was a first for me, and I was merely experimenting because I’ve never painted on bodies before. Honestly, I attempted something I had no idea how to do, and lucky for me, it worked out.

But the distinct difference of this series is that you can’t categorize it into any art form. It is visual arts meets dance performance, meets photography. It was really the collaborative effort that brought magic into the final results.

You received great feedback from people around the world for your amazing body art series. How do you feel about that?

Haha, none of us involved in the project was expecting it. It’s more like, I’m thankful we didn’t get assaulted by religious fanatics! Although now, it has created a little fear that my best work is behind me.

Art Battle Malaysia 2017 © Maduran Raj

What other art projects that you are involved in?

It’s been a busy year, so quite a few!

I run a show called Art Battle Malaysia, where 12 artists paint against a 20-minute time constraint, and you get to vote for your favourite artist. It’s electrifying with all the paint flying around!

Besides that, I’ve recently finished my residency with Suatukala, teaching 80 children across Langkawi Island for three months. Now I’m looking forward to my next residency in Rimbun Dahan in 2018.

Other times, you might find me painting in festivals, shopping malls, little art markets, sometimes by the streets or the beach, wherever I get a chance to get my hands dirty with paint!

What inspires you to create your art?

I thought this question would be easier to answer now that I’ve been doing arts for a few years but honestly, I don’t know. The inspiration comes when it does.

Theatre actor Phraveen Arikiah was painted as Ganesha Chaturthi, the elephant head god © Nazir Sufari and Gabriela Jerjes

What is the future of the art scene in Malaysia?

There’s huge potential for Malaysia. But merely having potential is not going to be enough; we need to start achieving.

If it means that artists have to take on a more pro-active bottom-up approach to seek private funding, grants or corporate sponsors, then we have to equip ourselves with the right skill sets, for example, marketing, networking, pitching.

As artists, I believe the only way to improve the scene is to keep improving oneself and our circle of influence. Whatever the excuse is, hustle it out, and we’ll be there soon enough.