Culture, ethnicity, spirituality and ecology are contemporary artist Vimal Kumar’s primary themes of exploration. He is a recent graduate of the Nanyang Technological University’s School of Art, Design, and Media and has been making small ripples around the Singapore art scene with showings of his work at events such as A Weekend Affair, and also at the ADM Grad Show 2019. Vimal is primarily a painter – using oil, gouache, and ink – but he also incorporates digital media such as photography and digital painting in his practice.
This photography series is an ongoing exploration of key themes that recur in Vimal’s practice. Water Bodies depicts three transgender women as goddesses who rule over bodies of water in Asia. The women are poised and dignified. A backlit glow illuminates their divine auras. Their bodies are posed on altars, accompanied by offerings, which serve to underscore their importance and power. The goddesses here bear resemblance to the Chinese Sea Goddess (Mazu), the Indian River Goddess (Ganga), and the Indonesian Sea Goddess (Nyai Roro Kidul). Through the use of trans-women as his models and muses, Vimal urges the viewer to question their preconceived notions (if any) about well-known religious symbols and deities. Is what you see always what you get? Or could the idea of the ‘divine,’ be something which has been carefully constructed and promulgated by man-made structures of power and hierarchy?
The series explores the role of gender and nature in spirituality. In many cultures, the deities of water, fertility, and nature are depicted as female. This particular series is a continuation of Vimal’s ongoing exploration of water and the personification of water deities as women. In works from a previous series, Ganga and Kaveri, the rivers Ganges and Kaveri were also represented as female deities. In the age of #metoo, the works are a timely reminder that, for centuries, women have been depicted as both powerful and divine. In the Hindu pantheon, for example, goddesses are considered equals in power and status to male gods. The personification of power and cosmic energy, Shakti, is often represented by a female figure. Tara, a divine figure in Buddhism, has been depicted as a female Bodhisattva in both Mahayana Buddhism and Vajrayana Buddhism.
The particular usage of transgender women poses further questions for the viewer – why do we understand certain divine energies or traits as being ‘feminine’ as opposed to ‘masculine’? Where did these divisions originate from? In a country where the LGBTQIA+ community is faced with social discrimination and legal barriers, Vimal’s representations of divine beings as trans-women seems boldly provocative. His choice of water deities is, perhaps, deliberate – the fluidity of water calls to mind the gender fluidity that Vimal’s models emulate and possess through their transgender experience. Vimal however, explains that his work was not meant to spark conflict or create tension. Rather, he sees his practice as a way to learn more about himself – culturally, ethnically, and spiritually, while negotiating the queer space as an ally to transgender people.
Water Bodies also highlights the similarities in the Chinese, Javanese, and Hindu traditions of representation of a deity who offers protection and safety while traversing rivers and seas. The way the deities are posed, the use of lamps or candles, fruits and flowers as offerings and the way these are laid out on the respective altars highlight the similarities between the different cultures and their customs of worship.
For Vimal’s models, all personal friends of his, the act of posing for this series provided an opportunity to explore their personal notions of femininity. As the world becomes increasingly aware (and, hopefully, accepting) of expressions of individuality in terms of politics, ideas, spirituality, and sexuality, Vimal’s representation of the divine feminine through these transgender models is a bold attempt to challenge prevailing norms and to capture the zeitgeist of our time. Water Bodies invites us to look within and then step forward with Vimal, as he sparks the imagination and invites a self-reflexive consideration of our world and our notions of femininity and divinity.