Life-Drawing & Body Work


Nila Gupta discusses their role in developing an equity of relationship within life drawing sessions for queer people of colour within an online environment.

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
(Audre Lorde, A Burst of Light)
I started running in-person life drawing sessions in at QTIBIPoC (queer, trans, intersex, Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) spaces a few years ago. The aim was to allow QTIBPOC to experience different ways of looking, being looked at. Life drawing is taught in a lot of A level /art education settings and generally the divide between the model and artists is absolute. I wanted to challenge that, especially within a context of a Western art tradition where Dark bodies are to be looked at/ consumed and Light bodies do the looking and drawing and thinking.
I also wanted to challenge myself: I hadn’t drawn/made art in about 20 years: I’m very clear that I’m a ‘beginner’ and that both drawing and modelling are very challenging for me.
So: I put 2 rules in place:
1 Everyone draws, but you don’t have to show your work.
2 Everybody models but you can be as clothed or naked as you like.
Thus, the group collaborates to produce a different kind of space for looking/ being looked at, and for drawing/making art. A way to experience our bodies differently, in an explicitly consensual context, and to learn what being given permission to look hard at someone is like. So, no tourists or voyeurs.
The first ‘in real life’ version was in the context of a QTIBIPoC festival in Berlin five years ago. It was a beautiful space: novice artists and models shared space with experienced professionals in both areas. For many of us it was the first time we’d been in a BIPoC only life drawing/art space.

During lockdown I’ve begun, with a co-facilitator, to run an online version of the workshop. We’ve run it for QTIBIPoCs, and for QTIBIPoC crip/mad-only groups, which has been particularly exciting.

This has expanded what we can do, and my co-facilitator begins the workshop with a simple body exercise: asking people to focus on a part of our bodies we generally don’t like. Inviting us to try and develop a caring/understanding relationship to it.

This begins the process recasting our relationship to our own/others BIPoC bodies. We then move onto life drawing and I model first, to demonstrate.
We change around, until the time is done, and invite others to model and draw. In this online context, we don’t insist that everyone models and draws, but we encourage it. We emphasise that we find both parts of the workshop challenging, and probably always will.

The response has been fantastic – a body based exercise in recasting our relations to our own bodies, and learning about strong consensual looking at others’ bodies. People are amazed that they can draw (everyone can) and model (everyone can). People have spoken movingly about how powerful it is, as QTIBIPoC, and especially for those of us who are also crips/ mad, to experence how our peers and fam see us. Others see our beauty, power, joy in ways that are sometimes shockingly different to our norms. Our reviled bodies and souls, seen through the prism of our peers, are beautiful, powerful, inspiring.

After each session people excitedly exchange pictures and details, share in producing a moment outside of our daily oppressive lives, outside of lockdown. At the end, people often want to stay, to hold that space, and I find that too.

I value every participant, and it’s wonderful to know the effect on others is so powerful and positive. Im excited to bring the workshops back into face-to-face spaces, but they’ll be additional to, not instead of, the online experience. I’ve collaborated with people across continents and down the road, and the power of the emotional, artistic, creative connection is keeping me going through some very hard times.

One of my artistic inspirations often says: ‘art-making is magical, powerful, and beautiful. And anyone can do it’. And I feel this every time a group of QTIBPoC takes a leap of faith with us, and pushes themselves to be vulnerable, to look and to make marks; to connect.

SO: where next?
We’re keen to do a lot more work with crip/mad QTIBPoC: we live in a firestorm of phobic, violent hyper-visibility which somehow coexists with invisibility, medical racism, psychiatric and asylum detention. Care and collaboration and creativity combine to provide a powerful alternate space for us. I’m keen also to do more sessions with specific marginal groups, to co-create space for the most maligned parts of us to come out to play: I’ve run one kink/fetish QTIBPoC life drawing session; it’s one of the most joyous things I’ve ever done. A bunch of perverts revelling in our power and life force.

Of course, I’d also like to be able to run ‘in real life’ workshops again, but they will be so informed by the way we’ve done it over zoom during lockdown. The next IRL workshops will have a food/drink element: modelling and drawing are more taxing than most people expect, and sharing food is another short cut to connection.

Another context I’m considering is physical activity drawing: eg setting up in an aerials/trapeze studio, or collaborating with a pole dancing studio, a pro Domme, , QTIBPoC sex workers… I’d like to run sessions at raves and free parties, in sober spaces, outside (I dream of running a session on a warm beach somewhere in the Global South – if you can make this happen post lockdown – get in touch!)

A side issue, but something that’s been very instructive, is working with organisers to produce the sessions: as an education in power relations, it’s pretty striking. We notice the groups (always qtibpoc /bipoc) who only approach us once they’ve sourced funds, who offer a serious professional rate, take on the organising and publicity work. We notice the groups (always white) who try and get more for less, who ignore clearly stated limits, and push two Brown Crips on benefits to offer more than we want to. We hold our boundaries fiercely, but it’s always disappointing that we have to with people who seem to regard themselves as peers, but have no compunction about trying to bargain, guilt more out of us.

But, the final impressions of this work – which is only just starting, and I am looking forward to being able to do for as long as I can hold a pencil – are physical and spiritual and emotional. Spending 20 minutes describing the gorgeous curve of someone’s belly in pastels. Obsessing over how the light hits someones dark brown skin and glimmers with a light that you’ll never find when drawing white people. Showing and sharing the simple and profound and democratic power of drawing, looking, feeling and loving.

It’s not often I quote a pale male, but when I think of the spaces we’ve built, and will build in the future, I come back to this again and again: (EM Forster)
“Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.” height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”