NUDE ART MODELING
is her passion and profession. Devi, of South Indian origin, born and bred in America chose this niche form of art that may seem taboo to most people who claim ‘modesty’ is what good girls abide by. Yet labels are too mainstream and irrelevant, specially for Devi. Her form of art is not only an attempt to liberate her own self but also inspire other women with a similar curvy physique to embrace their bodies and own their sexuality. Her signature imagery either amalgamates her own curves with somber landscape or juxtaposes them against sharp natural backdrops.
In this exclusive interview with BeBadass this highly intelligent artist talks sexual agency, porn, her fibromyalgia, body positivity and of course nudity.
What drew you towards nude art? How did it all start and how many years has it been since you became a nude art model?
Well, it all just sorta happened slowly over time, there’s not really a super dramatic storyline. It’s been about 6 years and I was about 26 when I started; art photography was my partner’s hobby, so eventually we starting working as a team, shooting nudes in landscape settings. By that time, I didn’t consider nudity to be a big of deal and the idea of people seeing me in that state wasn’t really something I feared. I’d been doing yoga quite a bit, so that was probably part of what led me to be fascinated by the mysterious sensuality of the body, its abstractions, and the infinite ways to capture them by working with posing and light.
I didn’t personally have a serious art background or anything, but I’ve always been creative, and it just kinda made sense to me, to experiment with the human form, particularly while out enjoying nature. I started sharing our work on various social media and networking platforms, and pretty soon I was being contacted for other art modeling gigs. Next thing you know, it was a one of my main sources of income.
How have you evolved personally and professionally in these years?
I didn’t really take what I was doing very seriously when I first started, but now that it’s been a few years, I’ve grown immensely in my body awareness, confidence, and expressiveness. Although I don’t have any formal training in any of these fields, I think of myself as a performer of sorts, who blends movement, meditation, acting, and improvisational dance into my own art form. To keep things interesting, I have to keep challenging myself, so I’ve pursued learning as much about art as I can in the last few years, and I’m always analyzing the work of those I admire, past and present.
What does your workday look like? Is it easy or hard? Is it your full time job?
When I first started modeling, I was also working as a massage therapist, so I did both jobs part-time. When I started developing symptoms of fibromyalgia and chronic pain, I quit massage, so for a couple of years I was quite busy just modeling full-time.
For the last year and a half or so I’ve also worked part-time as a caseworker at a nonprofit for adults with mental illness, so I’ve had to slow down with modeling a bit - but for a long time, I was traveling often, just booking as much I could in new locations.
Art modeling can be pretty time consuming as far as finding gigs, promoting, and marketing, so I spend hours a day just sending and answering emails and scheduling. Compared to working under a boss at a high stress, 40 hour-a-week office job, I’d say it’s pretty low key, but I also don’t have a lot of spare time as a freelancer because I have to continually look for new opportunities. The most important thing for me is that my job isn’t mundane; I need a lot of stimulation. I’m always exploring new creative avenues, getting to know new people, and traveling to places I’ve never been.
What’s the best & worst part about it?
One of the best things is that I’ve had the opportunity to make a living through self-expression and creativity, which is not something I necessarily imagined for myself, at all, when I was younger.
When I graduated college, my plan was either to go to law school or pursue journalism. I’ve always been very analytical and intellectually curious, and though I’ve also had visual, crafty streak since childhood, I never really considered myself as an artist of any sort. For various reasons in my 20s (it’s a long story, but let’s just say the 2008 financial crisis, heartbreak, and a few abusive partners had a lot to do with it) my life took a different turn, and I took the path less taken.
I guess the worst part about it is that because of the crappy way that society works, I probably can’t make a living doing this for the rest of my career. The fact that I may not forever be marketable to the male gaze in a capitalistic world definitely isn’t going to stop me from creating my art and sharing it with the world, but it may mean that I won’t be able to depend on it for a steady flow of income. Which is fine - I wanna do lots of other things with my life, too!
Why ‘Devi’? Is Devi your alter ego?
I’m not sure if there’s an easy explanation for that. I started with the name Dakini, and for complicated reasons that are too tedious to get into, I changed it to Devi a few years ago, which I thought was similar enough, and would be an easy transition.
So why Dakini/Devi?
Well, I’m Indian, so I wasn’t gonna pick some whitewashed sounding name. And I think it fits. As Devi, I represent the divine feminine, a powerful, dynamic, mysterious essence. Try as you might, you can’t put her in a box. She can be full of both whimsical sensuality and stoic introspection simultaneously. Society projects all kinds of stupid things on her, like, say, that she’s got to be either be a nurturing, all-sacrificing mother-figure or a lost, damaged “slut,” out to destroy the world. Some see her as a femme fatale, a manslayer to be feared - a dangerous force that society feels it must control at all costs. Or maybe she’s actually a sage - an enlightened, challenging woman, who because of her immense strength and goddess like qualities, we fail to realize is only human in the end, with her own needs, passions, and desires.
If Devi is the nude model, who is Sonia?
I’ll just list some stuff, that seems easiest.
I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, and my parents were born in Kerala. I have ADHD, mostly the kind where I lack common sense, and get super absorbed in philosophical, nerdy crap that interests me, while I pay absolutely no attention to my immediate surroundings; thankfully, I’ve caused only one minor car accident in my life so far. My sister used to call me a “killer lesbian” to taunt me when I was a little, and perhaps she was on to something, as I’ve always been a bit of a queer kid.
Where do you see yourself professionally in the next 5 years?
I’m kinda trying to figure that out as we speak.
I work in mental health at the moment, so the plan is the pursue that further, which will likely involve applying to graduate school soon, and subsequently, a career in public policy or social work. But maybe I’ll start writing or blogging more, get distracted, or stumble upon some other career path. As a stereotypical millennial, I’m still not totally ready to be an adult, commit, or make important life decisions for myself. So, who knows?
We know how judgmental social media can be, but what has been the sweetest/nicest thing someone said to you on social media?
Well, I’ve gotten a lot of really encouraging and flattering messages that are super appreciated, so it’s hard to say! But the one that stands out in my mind from more recently was from a male follower, who messaged me to tell me that his wife had a very similar body type to mine, and that after she saw my modeling, it made her feel more much comfortable and confident about having bigger curves.
As someone who grew up never seeing images of women in the media who looked anything like me, and who hated having a body that was different, it felt great to hear that.
What’s your take on sexual agency?
Women all over the world have been sent the message that both our bodies and our sexuality do not really belong to us. Society pumps us full of fear and shame from the time we are little girls, in order to reinforce patriarchy’s rules and keep us under control. It can be tough to transcend because so much is engrained and requires a conscious unlearning. I think art nude modeling is part of my own practice, and a way for me to unabashedly let the world know that I alone own my body and I’m going to explore, enjoy and utilize it as I please.
What would you say to someone who thinks you are objectifying your own self?
People get into shallow debates about whether something a woman does is either degrading or empowering (a question, by the way, we never really have to ask men, at least in terms of this subject matter) which creates a somewhat meaningless dichotomy, I think, because the issues are complex and not black or white.
Of course, in a patriarchal, capitalist world, it’s always important for us to question ourselves, in any given situation, who really has the power, in the end? Is it the male-dominated system, that can exploit, dehumanize and strip us of agency, discarding us once we no longer serve their needs? Or can we work within that system and do what we can to survive, while consciously subverting the status quo, in an effort to tear down the toxic aspects of it? Although I may conform to dominant ideals in some ways, in other ways, I’m proud to be disrupting the terms with which a woman is allowed to express herself in the world - by not being the hairless, meticulously slim and toned, light-skinned, sexually-passive, quiet, and unchallenging object of desire that we are expected to be.
Finally, there’s nothing fundamentally degrading or objectifying about the body it its natural state, despite the negative meanings that modern societies have ascribed to nudity, and I don’t think that the hypersexulization of the bare female form (and not the male form) is the destiny of humankind. Refining our views of nudity, modesty, and bare skin in order to expand our choices, is part of our liberation as women, I think -- removing the fears and stigmas attached to the female body is as important, and goes hand in hand, with respecting our sexual agency.
How do you explain to someone the differences between porn and nude art?
Well, I think the common view is that the point of art is to convey something visually interesting, emotionally moving, or aesthetic, while porn’s function is simply to sexually arouse. But these are fuzzy concepts and there’s plenty of overlap; art can be erotic, while porn can be artistic, and some stuff is probably difficult to categorize because it’s somewhere in between. In a certain way, I don’t think there’s really a meaningful difference, when you consider that almost anything can be porn, and almost anything can be art, and it’s all in the eye of the beholder.
Do intentions and context matter? Sure, but at the end of the day, I don’t get to control the reactions that my viewers, in the privacy of their own home (some who come from cultures very different than my own) have to my content, and if we erase value judgements from the equation, perhaps it doesn’t really matter how people label things. I’ve heard of folks that actually get off on videos of people sneezing. Ok, fine, if you want something less weird – some people get off on topless men, rather than topless women. Is that porn? Or consider that plenty of people have foot fetishes -- if I posted an image online of my newly manicured feet in skimpy sandals and someone pleasured themselves to it, regardless of my intentions, would that make it porn? Seems ridiculous, but trust me, it’s happened.
The bottom line is, I don’t intend to make porn, nor do I think we should be conditioned to automatically equate bare skin with sex -- and while I do think that it’s important for people to understand this –maybe, to some viewers, my work is purely, inextricably erotic and that’s all they are able to get from it. Fine, whatever. A person from a more sexually-repressive, or maybe religious background, who lives in a society where a nude image only has one possible meaning, might react to my work in ways I wouldn’t have predicted or desired.
Nonetheless, what is important, to me, as a content creator, is being treated with the dignity that everyone deserves. It’s not ok make assumptions about what I am consenting to; the fact that I’m nude (or wearing a bikini, or whatever) in no way means that therefore, I am personally open to sexually explicit comments or solicitations from strangers who view my work. I think that no matter what we do, art or porn, our boundaries and desires as human beings are always important, and we always have a right to basic respect. Of course, the same goes for any interactions we have in person—the amount of clothing we wear or don’t wear should never mean we are “asking for it.”
Do you think there is discrimination on all platforms when it comes to male nudity and female nudity?
It’s definitely a problem!
The super unequal proportion of images of nude women floating around, compared to men, is not a good thing at all, and I really look forward to seeing this change over time as we destroy the larger sexist systems that have created this disparity, and that make it seem like it’s just the default reality that will always be. Men deserve to be simultaneously admired and scrutinized, just like us! In my own photography projects, I make it a point to shoot as many men as I can, because obviously, the male form has been an intriguing subject matter in art since the beginning of time, and it’s sexy too, duh!
Are you body positive? Do you get insecure about your body as well?
Let’s just say, I still suck in my gut in photos -- I usually can’t bring myself to just let it all hang out! I’m still on my own journey, and though the fears are there, I think body positivity is an integral part of what I do. I’m not saying everyone has to be in totally love with their body all the time, but being able to accept it, and explore its sensuality, no matter what your size, shape, age, or gender -- whether you’re able bodied, dark or light skinned-- is something everyone deserves. Healing is something we have work towards continually, as a matter of well-being and mental health, it just doesn’t happen overnight.
Do you work hard to keep your body in shape?
Well, I wouldn’t say I work hard to look “in shape.” As someone with fibromyalgia, I work hard to stay healthy and pain-free, which involves taking good care of myself, getting lots of sleep, exercise, meditation, and movement. It’s not my goal to the present the world with some stereotypical version of aesthetic perfection and fitness; there are plenty of folks already doing that, and as an artist, I’d rather challenge and redefine perceptions of beauty than add to the barrage of “aspirational” selfies. My body is what it is, and it will be interesting to see how it changes over time.
What do you want/hope women to feel when they see your pictures?
The cool thing about art is that different people will get different things out of it, and there’s no fixed meaning. Some women may see my more abstract nudes as a testament to a female form that isn’t necessarily sexualized -- evidence that the point of nudity doesn’t have to be about appealing to the erotic or even mainstream ideals of beauty. The nude form is an interesting, strange, dynamic subject without all of that-- it’s a portrait of a unique spirit, a precious human creature in its natural state.
On the other hand, others might see something else entirely. Those looking at my more glamourous portraits and boudoir style images might notice a sensual, self-possessed woman who understands that sexual repression isn’t healthy, and who isn’t afraid to express different sides of herself to an adult audience -- because her body, and sexuality, was meant to be celebrated -- not shamed, hidden away, and negatively obsessed over.
How would you describe a Badass woman?
I think a badass woman knows that a healthy ego is not something to apologize for. But she doesn’t step on other women to get ahead, and understands that solidarity is ultimately what makes us all stronger. A badass woman is brave enough to live her truth and support others as they live their truths. She knows that education and knowledge, while vitally important -- if not combined with empathy, love, and connectedness-- are empty.
What would you like advise young girls who struggle to accept their own bodies every single day, let alone reveal them to the world.
At the risk of sounding cliché, remember that your body is a miraculous gift; you deserve to feel fully alive while inhabiting it, and that thin outer layer, the way it looks on the outside, doesn’t define your essence. Your distinctive, intangible grace and potent female energy is much deeper, more enduring, and expansive; cultivate that, and let it sparkle and shine. So, don’t forget to frolic around in your panties, sing out loud, tickle your funny bone, and eat stuff that tastes delicious no matter what it makes your tummy look like. If putting on lipstick feels fun and therapeutic, do it. Get a luxurious massage that releases all that pent-up stress. Wear clothes that fit like they were made just for you. While I’m not advocating consumerism as the solution to filling our voids, do splurge on a fancy lingerie set every so often if it makes you feel confident! Embrace what makes you different, your quirks and so-called “flaws,” because “perfection” really is soulless and boring, and your body is work of art. I do think, while it’s easier said than done -- if you stay conscious, practice self-care and continually work to reject the lie that your body isn’t enough -- the shackles start to loosen over time.