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Feminism / Relationships

My Ex Turned My Nudes Into an Art Exhibit — Without My Consent

"I saw some drawings that I knew were of me; I saw people peeping through tiny holes in wooden boxes and listening to something — I still don’t know what — through headphones; and I even saw people buying some pink panties branded with the exhibit’s title, reminiscent of the type I used to wear when we were dating."

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Written by Carina Capitine.

Art by Hélios Lulamae Carle.

When I first found out on Twitter that an ex-boyfriend was debuting an “art exhibition” that had me as the muse, I was flattered. I thought being his muse was a form of praise and admiration and I was happy that, contrasting the jarring experience of many other women, my nudes had not ended up on a revenge porn site. But seeing illustrations of my nudes exposed without my consent in a public exhibit that was described as a “peep-show” made me change my opinion.

The exhibit premiered in my hometown, but I was away at graduate school and could not attend. Instead I caught glimpses of the launch event on social media, watching people’s Instagram stories and reading their reactions on Twitter. I saw some drawings that I knew were of me; I saw people peeping through tiny holes in wooden boxes and listening to something — I still don’t know what — through headphones; and I even saw people buying some pink panties branded with the exhibit’s title, reminiscent of the type I used to wear when we were dating.

The visual components of the exposition were undeniably objectifying.

Although at first I lacked the vocabulary to express what exactly about his work was not sitting well with me, through therapy and the help of friends I was able to recognize how shitty my ex was for organizing a public art display of private past moments — and even inviting my family to the premiere — but neglecting to talk to me beforehand.

Upon carefully examining my ex-boyfriend’s art show based on other feminist analysis of art and media works, I was surprised to see how easily it fit what’s known as the objectifying criteria in artwork that portrays the female nude. I also saw how what he called “part of a love story” was in fact an erotic representation of the violence women are subject to, and a contribution to the sexual hierarchy that empowers men over women by presenting female passivity and lack of autonomy as sexually attractive.

The visual components of the exposition were undeniably objectifying, based on A. W. Eaton’s list of various forms through which a visual artwork can objectify women in “What’s Wrong with the (Female) Nude? A Feminist Perspective on Art and Pornography.” Analyzing the series of 16 black and white illustrations, portraying naked or partially unclothed women in what he described as an “artistic point of view on the natural sensuality and desirability of the female alone time,” the illustrations foreground erogenous zones; portray disembodied and faceless women, stripped of any trace of individuality; eroticize passivity, powerlessness, and lack of autonomy; offer gratuitous nudity; and portray women in passive poses of availability and surrender.

Objectifying components also existed in the narrative aspects of the exhibit, which was entitled “Sunday NOOD,” with NOOD (read “nude”) standing as an acronym for “New Object of Desire.” A literal interpretation of the title reveals the objectifying lens through which the series was framed, and despite the effort to romanticize his interaction as a male artist with a female subject (me, his muse), the title lays bare the authentic position of “object to be sexually desired.”

In addition, by inviting outsiders to peep into the alone time of the woman in his work and creating an expectation of sensuality and desirability, he not only makes the woman in his art subject to the diegetic gaze, one that follows her even in her most private times (such as lying naked in bed or in the bath), but also encourages the internalization of the male gaze and the adoption of exhausting self-surveilling behaviors that make women feel like we must always be desirable for men, even during our “alone time.”

Although at first I lacked the vocabulary to express what exactly about his work was not sitting well with me, through therapy and the help of friends I was able to recognize how shitty my ex was for organizing a public art display of private past moments — and even inviting my family to the premiere — but neglecting to talk to me beforehand.

Heterosexual male artists may at times display nonnormative gender behaviors (for example, by expressing vulnerability and intimacy), but a closer analysis exposes these expressions as uncandid. In this case, despite the efforts to cover the exhibit in a layer of emotional intimacy by presenting the art exhibition as a result of the process of dealing with a difficult breakup, he still failed to save the portrayal of naked women in his work from serving the seemingly exclusive intention of sexually arousing the audience.

The art show was bursting with references and invitations for the audience to literally and figuratively engage in voyeurism, a form of image-based sexual abuse instituted in the lack of consent to being observed for sexual gratification. (This article can further explain.) Thus, through his work, my ex-boyfriend embodied the role of a “pimp,” offering me, his voiceless and agency-less ex-girlfriend — presented in my most private, intimate and personal moments — to be consumed by his audience.

As a woman, I am typically denied the possibility of exploring my sexuality freely and shamed for expressing any type of sexuality that is not maternal or for man’s enjoyment. Yet, my ex is granted not only the opportunity to exist as a sexual being devoid of any negative connotation, but also the entitlement to the female body and sexual narrative — so much that he is comfortable with instrumentalizing and monetizing it for the sake of dealing with his own emotions and personal “growth.”

In an era where empowerment and positivity messages that encourage us to love our bodies, express our sexualities freely, and take ownership of our narratives have gained much space on social media and the arts, I am committed to creating the images and narratives that are true to me.

I also believe that it is important that we stay vigilant and aware of the content we engage with and support, and the role that it might have in reinforcing the oppressive systems we are trying to free ourselves from.


About the Author

Carina Capitine is a Mozambican communications professional, currently in the final semester of her MA degree in Communication and Development in the US.
Carina is currently researching and experimenting with the use of methodologies that center the subjectivity, context, and experiences of marginalized groups; mainly through the use of participatory arts-based research methods and storytelling.

Follow on IG: @ccapitine | Follow on Twitter: @ccapitine


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