This international Women’s Day, artist Ruby Subramaniam is celebrating women in an unconventional way. Ruby will be launching ANTIDOTE: Uncovering Skin and Soul, a powerful collection of photographs that embody her conversations with 30 Malaysian women from all backgrounds.

Artist Ruby Subramaniam. Image credit: Visithra Manikam

Ruby speaks to Varnam about ANTIDOTE, the project that she has been working on for the past year.

The stories of women translated into art on their bodies

“I’ve always been pushing for the voices of women to be heard,” Art just happens to be Ruby’s passion turned weapon to push for her cause.

ANTIDOTE is a virtual art exhibition that addresses global conversations on womanhood, in a localized Malaysian context, layered with societal demands, cultural beliefs and traditions. The project is a result of Ruby’s honest conversations with the 30 women. Their stories were translated into art, and their bodies, the canvas.

Supported by  INXO Arts Fund and the Krishen Jit ASTRO Fund, ANTIDOTE was performed and documented during Ruby’s month-long art residency with Rimbun Dahan.

“Painting on a woman’s body is a romantic idea of decay for me,” Ruby shares that painting on skin is not the same as painting on a canvas. “I am painting the woman’s story, she has her curves, her pigments, her unique skin tone, and her eyes. There’s always a deeper layer of emotion in her eyes.”

Many lives, many stories

Ruby’s project is truly inclusive and will include people who identify as women from marginalized communities, such as older women, differently abled women, transwomen and plus size women.

Each woman had her own story to tell. Some had grim experiences – abortion, domestic abuse, suicidal tendencies, eating disorders, even raw accounts of remembering being raped as a child. One participant anonymously spoke about how she found videos of herself in porn websites. She tells Ruby, “He recorded the video and published it. He did it without my consent. It is still being watched today, without my permission.”

ANTIDOTE is a way these women can share their stories and experiences. So that women looking at these pictures know that they are not alone. And this will hopefully spark conversations about dealing with these experiences.

A virtual art exhibition

ANTIDOTE will be a virtual art exhibition. “The website will be a home for all the stories, there will also be reactions to these stories, in the form of prose, poetry and music. It is going to be a host of artistic responses to the pictures,” the artist reveals. With the help of Barni Rajah, Ruby has laid out her art on the website for public viewing, beginning 8th March 2019.

Having quit her job as a digital marketeer to pursue art full time, Ruby opens up on why she was not keen on solely social media to promote ANTIDOTE, “We always host things on social media and it comes and goes so quickly! Putting everything on a website gives a level of seriousness to the message, and also collates everything to one place.”

As for a brick and mortar exhibition, Ruby tells us, “If i have an exhibition in Kuala Lumpur, I am only accessible to people in the city and its surroundings, and only for that week or two. With a website, it transcends the boundaries of time and geography,”

The female body as a canvas

“Two years ago as Thaipusam neared, a group of people threatened the female devotees with spray paint if their saree blouses were too revealing,” Ruby recalls.

We all remember this incident. What’s worse was the temple committee’s response. “The temple committee literally came up with some guidelines on which saree blouses can be worn for worship,” Ruby was bewildered by this reply. “The temple committee took these guys seriously, and began singing there we-are-trying-to-protect-you song!” Like most of the female temple devotees, Ruby was livid. “I figured, I might as well paint on these women, it will surely be prettier!”

Using the human body as a canvas is not a new concept. For this project however, it was the right medium. It is a daring statement from Malaysian women to reclaim their bodies from our society, owning them boldly.

“It is just about being observant of the issues that women face on a daily basis. Guys seem to get away with it easy,” Nevertheless, Ruby is aware that men suffer from body issues too, “Of course men go through it too. And if a male artist wants to work on a similar project featuring men, I’m all for that!”

Ruby tells us that this project was a team effort. “ANTIDOTE is not just my work. It is a culmination of a woman’s story that I have painted on her, her gaze into the camera, and the lens of the photographer taking the picture,” The project is truly layered, according to Ruby.

This collection of work has made possible thanks to BawahPokok’s founder, Mathubalan Gunasogaran. Accompanying her throughout the month, Mathu was responsible to take photographs and record the videos for documentation. He was there with his heart on his lenses and became Ruby’s pillar of strength when emotions got too heavy

A wake up call for the artist herself

ANTIDOTE was quite a journey for Ruby. “I was painting women every day for a month, and these were really long hours. I was only seeing women, and speaking to women. It came to a point where I had to have a reality check. Am I practicing and preaching the same thing?”

“It is easy to say that I am body positive, because those are just words. But how do you feel when you look into the mirror?” Ruby shares that ultimately, it was about finding a balance. “I realized that I am a lot more than my skin, but I still want to take care of my body, with movements that I actually enjoy. It’s not a punishing train of thought,”

The ripple effect of ANTIDOTE

“I explored the women’s responses and gathered wisdom to help each other to navigate and counteract this modern day problem. I believe this project on its own, is not able to capture all the challenges that women face and solve them.” But Ruby is optimistic about the ripple effect of ANTIDOTE. “It is humbly hoped that it will trigger more dialogues to find solutions, and attempt to reduce the gender gap.”

Ruby is currently working on a documentary, the next step for ANTIDOTE.

“There’s no deadline to the project,” Ruby shares, her voice tinged with excitement. “I would love to visit the rural villages of Sabah and Sarawak and talk to the women there.The stories and experiences of the mak ciks, the kakaks and the adiks there need to be heard too,”

On behalf of women from every corner of Malaysia, this writer thanks Ruby for letting the often shushed voices of women be heard through her art.

ANTIDOTE: Uncovering Skin and Soul launches today. Be sure to check it out at www.skinandsoul.art. All images are credits of Ruby Subramaniam and her team.

Keep up with Ruby’s art at her website, or on her social media handles.