I think that topless Iban woman who regularly delivered fresh fruits to my family in Kuching had something to do with it.
There she goes, jaunting up our garden path in all her natural bounciness! She had huge breasts that hung low... probably the lovelies had not seen material support since, what, puberty? Forest folks like her didn't indulge in fabric support (and maybe still don't). And she had such wonderful copper-tinted skin that sunlight would glint off it making my recall of her look even more sepia and dream-like. That's how I recall things these days: in sepia tones and at times, Gaussian Blur.
From that encounter, I realised that we human beings had been hiding behind clothes all along. So I did what most kids hit with an epiphany at that young age would do: I rebelled. I, of course, went overboard to make a point. I walked around as much as I could without my trousers!
I was three years old so no police were called in to arrest me for indecent exposure. Most people thought I was cute. And if that day was my birthday, they would even use my little pecker to pick up numbers. Luckily no one struck any prize and won, else my thumb-sized of an appendage would have been extremely busy... Put on a pedestal even!
No boy or guy should grow up thinking his willie has such awesome power. It's never good for a guy to think he has THAT much influence! It's enough for a guy to be blessed with Morning Flag Pole Syndrome or MFPS, or what working women all call "morning di seow" (morning disturbance), all dressed up ready to leave when the hubby wants his honeymoon all over again!
Ok, so I had an understanding of nudes when I was a little kid.
Trying to draw them was another matter. If you were Chinese, you just didn't. You would be caned for being "ham sup" or sleazy. Worse, you could be labelled a "sik long" or sex maniac.
Understandably, I had to suppress my desire at that early age to draw naked figures. I dared not even try to do it in the privacy of my own good self least one of many siblings should uncover my artwork and tattle-tale.
I would then observe and try to draw in my mind, which was a success every time! I at times marveled at my own faithful reproductions. Ridiculous, really!
But my mind-nude drawings would at times create misunderstandings. Kindly aunties would wander over and say, "My, what huge cute eyes you have!"
They didn't know I was underessing them all the time.
But it all got rather tiring after a while. I then decided the best way to draw nudes was to focus on animal bodies. Dogs, cats, fish.
Then came a spider. It was tough, full of apprehension. Would it keep still? Would it sprint at me? The session would eventually end with one of us running away. Or at one time, I had to kill my 'model' as it got really close and personal.
I think artists killing models was not new even then, but still, it was traumatic. And after the spider was smashed, its beautiful body outline lost all symmetry. So sad it was.
Snails. I then decided to draw snails, which were excellent subjects given their penchant for loitering and their 'I've got the whole day' attitude.
But snails with their hard shells were not what I was after. I liked the body form, the soft curves. Up till then I was only fascinated with the female form. The flowing hair, the high cheekbones, the svelte waist, the slim ankles, etc.
A kid with a keen mind can see a lot.
Then Incek Osman turned up.
He was a fisherman who brought us fish. He too was top naked like that Iban woman. But oh, what lean muscles he had!
Up till then, my male human body template had been my dad's on his weekends shirt off. And he wasn't exactly Adonis; not even close. He had a slight beer belly.... A body like any other middle-aged man content with after dinner naps and TV on the sofa.
So I was surprised to learn that there were such things as muscle and sinew.
My young mind went into overdrive.
When Incek Osman came near, I had to poke him to make sure. Hmm, hard flesh.
Incek Osman laughed. "Eh, lit-tah boy," he would say each time he saw me, clicking his tongue at the 'little'. Afterwards, he would speak in Malay with my mom.
From that day on, I started looking at men, the end template of which I would grow up into. Of course, I didn't know anything about the relationship between solid body and exercise, just that the natives were all leaner than the angmohs who worked with my dad.
Perhaps they didn't have enough to eat, or that they ever only ate fish and not meatier stuff like pork.
I also started scouring for pictures of people and bodies, which was difficult given the place we lived in It was on the outskirts of Kuching town. The only books I could reference were some religious text that my brother brought back from his Sunday school. Not much help there; only semi-nudes like Jesus on his cross and slaves working in the grain fields.
But my interest in drawing nudes (and people or animals) soon waned after we started catching butterflies and moths to put into picture frames. In unspoilt Kuching then, butterflies were a dime a dozen. All kinds, you name it. They were different in size, wing pattern and color. There were also huge insects like the stick insect, horn beetle or the noisy cicada.
These days, we balk at catching any butterfly so rare they are. But back then, the situation was very different. We could do it day after day and there was still no shortage of them to frame up. But of course, back then, the climate and environment were both so different from today's. Such delicate creatures thrived then!
When I got to primary school, I had very interesting art and craft lessons. We not only drew and painted, but we sewed, embroidered, knitted and crotcheted. We also made miniature furniture, weaved mats and created stuffed animals.
Then one day, we were taught portraiture. Memories of my early childhood interest in nudes resurfaced.
Would I dare draw something?
By then my 12-year old self had learnt and seen much.
At 6, I had seen my dad's stash of naughty playing cards he had brought back from Vietnam, no doubt meant for those lonely GIs over there fighting an unfamiliar war so far from home. They showed guys and gals posing in the nude. Nothing alarming there except they all had salon-done hair. The ladies would be wearng flaming red lipstick and six-inch heels. If I have to take my clothes off, my hair and footwear would be the least I am worried about.
At 9, I had watched Sex and The Animals in the cinema and seen all manner of bestial intercourse (within their own species, of course). Some coital unions were alarming, some sweet, and some, wholly ingenious!
At 12, I had stolen glances at a couple making love in their bed, tenants of our room for rent. They were a young but odd couple that did not follow the usual routine of normal folks. They spent most of the day in bed and went out only occasionally at night. My mom thought they took drugs and terminated their lease not long after. They did look rather unhealthy. Even their lovemaking was unenergetic. (You cannot blame a boy for spying when he comes home from school and hear strange noises!)
That year, I also saw a woman give birth. It was played out in glorious technicolor video right next to the main entrance of the old National Museum - the one with the whale bone hanging over its main staircase inside. In the video, the camera was right smack where the baby would emerge, pubes and all. I don't know why the museum would choose to showcase something like that and to the public some more. Was it to encourage them to have more babies? Or scare them? Some men get traumatised watching a video like that. "Watching my wife's pubes become deformed like that was like watching my favourite pub burn down!" a famous male singer once said.
So, when protraiture came around during art lesson during primary school, I was kind of jaded and lost my eye for the body beautiful. Mind you, sexual connotation hadn't come into the picture as yet. My male hormones hadn't kicked in. The human body was still the mirror of the one I had, all innocent and underdeveloped. I saw it as that, what the good Earth gave. Or what mom managed to bake in her 'oven'.
My return to appreciating nudes would be much later when I took an interest in photography and started looking at pics that were stylish and highly technical.
But in those days, people's attitude with nudes were still pretty conservative, no doubt influenced by religious and puritan biases. They often failed to separate the cultural and social elements from a nude work of art.
A nude photo or art celebrates more than just the body beautiful. It's about what goes on in our heads and hearts at our most vulnerable and private moments. We've all been there in the bathroom, tap full on, water running down our backs trying to make sense of the world or trying to make an important life decision.
I don't think anyone can be anymore naked and exposed than that.
With clothes back on, we lose that nudist honesty about ourselves. Clothes, in a sense, become our body's mask once more.
Nope, I don't think I have any more ambitions to draw or photograph nudes. One, getting anyone to pose nude still presents a challenge. Two, it is a highly technical art requiring special equipment and setup (talking about photography here). Three, I'm more interested in buildings and architecture.
Interestingly, buildings when bare look unfinished, abandoned. When we are bare, we are ready to start anew. Or simply, take me as I am.
Next story: A Monster To Live With
|Ren Hang - China's provocateur photographer and poet. RIP 28 Feb 2017. Some of his less X-rated works below. |
Last photo (sundial) my own humor piece. ;-)