Towards the end of 2015, Mili Sethia, a Mumbai based graphic designer, found herself in the midst of a strange wager with her former boss. She was jokingly instructed to paint a barely covered Shakti Kapoor, reminiscent of his 90’s photoshoot, with nothing but a blue sarong covering his modesty. In return she would get a minibar, or what she now calls a ‘milibar’. The end result was nothing short of glorious: a fantastic piece of art with a certified ‘macho’ man unapologetically owning his body and sexuality in all it’s bare chested glory.
Mili had been playing around with the idea of ‘Seeing the world through rainbow tinted glasses’ for a while when she decided to turn her concept into a full blown collection called ‘Esqueer’ that would shed light on queer issues, gender ambiguity, and male body perceptions. By painting the most heterosexual cis males of Bollywood in a gender ambiguous light, Sethia stresses on the importance of manipulating your belief system to fuel your imagination. “These young men are reclaiming their rights to less indoctrinated lives. A lot of people look at it and articulate that ‘Whoa…aaaaugh’ kind of reaction. Some come close, they laugh and delight and gape. People do recognise these stars – Ranjit, Shakti, Sunny and Akshay – people have some relationship with these images or the films in their mind. When I add a new symbolic layer, it makes them think, I hope,” Sethia told Agents Of Ishq.
In this brazen display of anti toxic masculinity, Mili emphasizes the unusual poses and expressions that exude vulnerability and sensuality. Her art celebrates the male body in a rainbow colored hue, a far cry from the limitations imposed on men by society. She points out that the objective of these paintings isn’t to say that Shakti Kapoor or Amir Khan are gay. It isn’t a commentary on their sexuality at all. The queer undertones in her paintings allude to male body perceptions and how they change over time. It’s about men owning their sensitive sides and caring about how they are viewed. It breaks down the toxic gender based ideas of what it means to be masculine. What would it be like to live in a world where everyone was free to express their sexuality without inhibitions or restrictions of any kind? It would be a lot like this. In a world where colors would be just that; Pink would have no connotations of femininity or blue of masculinity.
Another very important objective of Sethia’s work was to turn the infamous ‘male gaze’ back on men. What exactly is the ‘male gaze’? It’s the thorough objectification of women in many everyday scenarios. The male gaze is how cis hetero men see women and further propagate their views through art, music, films, and pop culture. “Maybe it had something to do with the fact that the majority of art we see in the world today involves female muses as seen through the Male Gaze. Besides, the overwhelming majority of the artists I was exposed to while growing up have been men – this meant that the paintings I have exalted contained sexualised women subjects – which at least led to body image issues, if nothing else,” Sethia told Agents Of Ishq. She wanted to celebrate the male body without having to restrict her art to one genre. The paintings can be erotic if you want them to be, or they could just be men being themselves - the most vulnerable, liberated versions of themselves. The power to make this distinction lies with the viewer and not the subject.
Mili started painting portraits of people, and their pooches, during one of her exhibitions. She recalls a few incidents where men would refuse to be painted in Pink. The idea that a color on canvas can somehow undermine your masculinity is so absurd and nonsensical that it being so deeply ingrained in our minds should be shocking to every single one of us. It reinforces the patriarchal ideas of gender binary and all that it implies. In order to counter this, Mili, true to her signature style, uses her rainbow palette to paint in psychedelic colours, going wild with hair and eye colours. There’s more to every person than meets the eye, and while we cannot quite see this aura around a walking, breathing person, it’s easy to make it come alive on canvas. As Sethia always says, “What can’t be seen can be drawn.”
At Let Me Paint That For You, you can let your imagination run wild and get yourself a painting of anything you want, be it a feminist icon or your dog wearing a rainbow coloured cape, she truly will paint it all.
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