Tinu Verghis moves from model to artist tackling gender and social injustices


Model Tinu Verghis ran the runway in India for 15 years before entering the performing arts. During her illustrious modeling career, she has had many important assignments under her belt such as the cover of Vogue when the magazine embarked on showcasing dark-skinned models. Recently, the model participated in the famous Southeast Asian art fair Art Stage 2018 in Singapore.

She appeared at an event titled – The Undiscovered Country. In a breathtaking performance, the model through the act of piercing herself with a needle and thread reflects on mortality.

BWW spoke to the former model who reflects on her life and work and how the performing arts are a way to fight social and gender injustice.

Yesou left a very successful career as a model to pursue the arts. Tell us what drove you there?

I worked as a model for fifteen years. I was 19 when I decided to become a model. I was doing my bachelor’s degree in business management at that time. I have traveled a lot as a model and it gave me plenty of time to read a lot and I have had partners from different cultures. Every day I was learning something new. Being with new people and reading new stories opened up new avenues for me. I learned to recognize racism, classism and sexism and found ways to challenge them. I didn’t grow up with too much of a singular culture or gender specific background. I grew up in a boarding school and the space gave me the opportunity to recognize and accept the multi-faceted cultural melting pot of women across India and neighboring countries. I wasn’t supposed to study, get married, make children the common repertoire most girls were drawn into.

I grew up to be an anti-establishment person. I was against even the most sacred of institutions: marriage. I was with my partner for ten years before we were forced into marriage by the Singapore government which did not allow me to study as a mother-to-be. Modeling has been a transformational experience. I have met some crazy creators. The shows and events after the show always had a mix of designers, artists, musicians, writers, etc. It was an eclectic mix. After eliminating the people who were trying to get into my pants, I could still find people who inspired me. I acquired my life experiences on this trajectory. I quit modeling because I wanted to address the issues I faced as a woman, as an Indian, and as a model. My artistic performances are about the body / my body. The visuality of my body still evokes my past. I didn’t really leave the objectified body behind me; I just took control of my body. As a third world artist / woman of color and retired model, I am interested in the use of the body as a staging of oneself. I wonder if the use of my explicitly sexualized and embodied subjectivity will break the distinction between subject and object.

2. Your expressions speak a lot about the performing arts. Tell us about it in detail.

The ideal art form that I have found that I love is the most lawless of all, performance art. Speaking through the body is for me the most political art. Unlike established forms, performance art is permissive and is a medium open to infinite variables. The patriarchal regime has fundamentally objectified and alienated the female body from itself. The space of the Woman, within this regime, is an enclosure in which she feels positioned and by which she is confined, it is not a field in which her bodily intentionality can be realized freely. The historical / canonical ideas around the representations have centered on women as objects. But the strength of the female body is the ability to form language that can speak directly against the male dominated system. Women have the potential to create the subversion of patriarchal language from within, but in revolt against the psychoanalytic model of subject construction in which desire is articulated as exclusively masculine. Linking the public and private realms and exposing the ways in which they are ideologically linked; becomes the center of feminist politics. By giving a voice to women in the gender arena of the public sphere, it disrupts the male / female dichotomy within mainstream politics.

3. Tell us about your performance in The Undiscovered Country during Artstage Singapore recently:

The performance was a collaboration with Malaysian / Indian artist Dr. Rajinder Singh. It was the first time that Artstage Singapore had organized a performance art space at its event. Rajinder Singh is an artist and researcher who has always been interested in the magico-religious belief systems of South Asia and the form and space they deny us. Her practice is dedicated to the vulnerability of the body in pain, hidden behind the gestures and movements of adoration and the grace of dance. Through his multifaceted practice, Rajinder explores the variety of ways in which the human body unfolds at the intersections of the afterlife and the dynamics of global modernity. The act of sewing challenges the dualities that underlie the dominant visualization of the body as solid and impermeable. The skin is penetrable on the surface and allows access between the interior and the exterior. I have tried to explore the political effectiveness of female masochism and whether the authentic presence of the body is assured by the experience of pain. I also wonder if my masochistic bodily manifestations can be seen as an intersubjective contingency and thus claim the immanence of me and my subjectivity in patriarchal discourse.

5. Tell us about your award-winning art: Under My Skin, and your other recent video art projects, if any.

In the live performance titled “Under My Skin”, I stand in front of the audience with the rice paste on my body and ask the viewer to peel it off me. I collect the peeled skin, I fry it, and I serve it to them to eat, thus inviting the spectator into the abject. A body objectified in visual media, such as in advertisements, magazines and films, offers a voyeuristic experience to the viewer. As a passive consumer, the viewer is not held responsible for the consumption of the objectified image. Through the art of performance, I offer my body to a group of people and each of them has the choice of whether or not to participate in the performance. By consuming my body hair, dirt and dry skin stuck to the rice paste, I let the viewer ingest, digest and defecate. They voluntarily participated in metaphorical cannibalism. I also try to bring elements of culture and domesticity into my performances. There are several layers in my performance / video work – Under My Skin. The rice that I use on my body is the rice that I grow on my farm in Goa, India. We are constantly threatened by the government with losing our land due to urbanization. In our village, we have to constantly push back the government officials who come to survey our lands so that they usurp the land in different forms. Cultivating the land is a difficult issue, due to the lack of efficient methods for the workforce and a flagrant lack of government interest in supporting local farmers, coupled with lack of interest from the younger generation. My physical work in the agricultural field, against all odds, makes my body a place of resistance. For a more recent work, ‘Padatha Painkili’ (A bird that will not sing), I remain confined in a box I eat myself out of the box using only my mouth. I subjected my body to extreme physical states and thus tested the limit of the body. It took me over 5 hours to bite / eat the box, to get out of it. I had used a water resistant shipping cardboard box for performance.

The metaphor of the box is universal. It allows viewers to enter into my work, through their own lived experiences. Rather than constructing a theory of hegemonic oppression under women as a unitary category, I am interested in highlighting multiple, superimposed and discrete oppressions.

In film theory, the cinematic image provides a clear paradigm for the functioning of fetishism in patriarchal culture. The mechanisms of fetishism are rooted in Freudian models, revolving around the fear of castration in males. In the cinema, the woman is transformed into a fetish, so that she becomes more reassuring than dangerous. In images / and cinema, the male gaze operates as a controlling factor, but as a female performer I hold the element of surprise, where I have unprecedented control over my own image. The works aim to reexamine cultural norms and the viewer’s own sexuality.

For the work “Padatha Painkili”: I presented a performance lasting 5 hours in the form of a 77 min film. The work was chosen for the biennial edition of Women Cinemakers 2018, in Berlin.

My performances are supposed to intervene in the process of construction of the subject to be looked at through the disturbance of the male gaze. The context of performance art denies the accepted path of voyeurism, which subverts the male gaze and the fetishism of the female body. For a live performance work, the performer and the viewer occupy the same physical / temporal space. Making it harder for the distancing needed to safely fantasize. On the conventions of the narrative form, the success of voyeurism depends on predictable results, which probably guarantees the safety of the gaze. By completely abandoning and shaking up conventional storytelling, my performance thwarts the illusion of distance and exposes the male viewer.

What are the projects that occupy you at the moment

I do a community project at the Sunflower Learning Center. The center was started by model Tamara Moss who recently retired. We create a mural with the children of the center. I’m also making a film about the art / act of crying – the universal image of suffering. Critique of the image of women as carriers of suffering and sorrow, through research on professional bereaved women and the work of Pablo Picasso La pleureuse, 1937.

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