Photo-artist Shibu Arakkal uses physical images of skin to tell a graphic, socio-political story, finds Nicole Dastur

How often have you actually observed the skin on your feet? Or any other part of your body? Looked at it, re-structured it in your mind? Not too often, right? In fact, not even once in your life?

Photo-artist Shibu Arakkal’s ongoing exhibition ‘Skin’ seems simple on the outset, but a closer look at the images and a deeper understanding of them reveals much more. The black and white images of various body parts – the focus, of course, being skin – are not complex to look at, but are indeed multifarious to understand. “Skin covers all of us, it is something we all have. Yet, it is the very same thing that divides us. On one level, the colour of our skin is so superficial, yet, on another, it is something that is embedded so deep in our society. We can love it or hate it, but we can’t ignore it,” says Shibu.

No, Shibu has not gone around India or the world shooting people with different colours and texturs. On the contrary, he has got his message across sitting right at home, for his subjects are none other than his wife and his grandmother – the two extremes as far as ‘skin’ is concerned, says Shibu. “I don’t know if I have a message for the viewer, but I have lots of questions,” he corrects, “But then, I am an abstractionist at heart. My images may not look abstract, but they are abstract in thought and interpretation. “So is that his style in this show too? “The works are minimalist with strong spiritual overtones; graphic, simple, yet hard-hitting.”

The landscape of the body as seen through Shibu’s black and white lens opens up the mind’s eye, and makes you take a second look. A deeper gaze at something you thought you knew so well. And that’s the kind of reaction Shibu wanted from the audience. “When I opened the exhibition in Bangalore, I found people standing in front of the photographs and staring at their own skin. Our notions of beauty are restricted to our socio-political upbringing. We consider just the face, hands, breasts, buttocks and legs to be sensuous. But what about the rest of the body? If looked at in a different light, even the feet can be objects of beauty! Every part of the human body has a character of its own,” states Shibu, whose images bring to life the essence of skin, its pores, wrinkles, imperfections and the sensation of touch. Shibu has often been described as one who has the heart of a painter and the mind of a photographer. “Because art in any form, is still art. A painting or a photograph has to connect with the receiver at some level, for it to be called art; the meaning is irrelevant,” feels Shibu, content with the fact that photography is now gaining acceptance as an art form. “Photography is a more approachable art form for the common man, as compared to painting and sculpting. There is a certain connection the viewer shares with photographs that is lacking in paintings; the common man has used a camera but hasn’t always held a paintbrush. We often criticize photographs, but how often do we voice our opinions on art? Photography should not be looked upon as elitist, that would defeat its purpose. It is, after all, the most realistic, relatable art form,” concludes Shibu.

Nicole Dastur
Shibu Arakkal doesn’t just think in black and white, but in forms and shapes, says art critic Reema Moudgil in Arakkal’s website. He is also known to have a “the heart of a painter and the mind of a photographer’ as his mentor Rafique Sayyed says of him .Arakkal’s black and white photo graphs on display at Gallery Beyond are proof to these comments. Arakkal goes beyond the obvious influences of his mentor in terms of lighting, composition, form and texture. He is fascinated by how the human body parts behave in front of his Canon 2.8 series lenses. His subjects don’t even know which part of their anatomy is being focused upon.

“I chose to shoot my wife Sabah and my granny Katherine for this entire series. I decided to focus on people I knew well so that I could related to them better and know exactly what I was looking for,” said Arakkal introducing his exhibition.

Close-ups of less-featured body parts like the hand, forehead, torso, neck and the spine interest Arakkal more than buttocks, breasts or legs. He focuses on skin patches that are taken for granted like those on the back of the forehand, on the forehead and the skin of an aged neck. For this exhibition which is on till September 28, he has been shooting skin for nearly eight months.

He’s fond of multiplying his images and watching its graphic interplay using Photoshop. “I’m totally for photographs being manipulated by software,” he emphasizes. Two images are blended to create a new ‘whole’ image that is quasi realistic; even poetic. “The idea came to me when I thought of it as our ‘packaging’, so to speak. We get judged by it, it is as personal to me as it is political,” says Arakkal in conclusion.

Francis D’Sa
Beauty’s possibly skin-deep, but for Shibu Arakkal, it’s all black and white, says Jaideep Sen

In the 15 years that he’s been clicking pictures, with about seven solo shows across Bangalore (where he’s based), Mumbai and New Delhi, and over 30 group shows that have taken his works as far as Italy and Romania, never once has Shibu Arakkal trained his lenses on a human subject, “I’ve never shot a human subject at all, for any series, until now,” the photographer admitted. “That’s only because I felt the subject was so loaded, and has such baggage that I felt, unless there’s something really original to contribute, I didn’t want to attempt it at all.”
For his new show in town titled Skin, Arakkal said he’d begun work two years back, and the idea was a natural progression from his last project. Abstract Notions, in which he’s been “looking at curves – the shape and form in terms of design, and in day-to-day life”. As a result, he’d found himself “shooting all these objects that incorporate the female hip form – the classic curve”. Arakkal explained that he’d deliberately left out the female form of women, in an attempt to explore the idea of beauty in just the curved shape.
“I’ve consciously tried to redefine what our notions of beauty are,” Explained Arakkal, ‘because I’m fascinated with the common norms of beauty. When you talk about beauty, most parts of the body are ignored. Because you’re talking about the face, the breasts, the buttocks, may be the hands… and to a certain extent, the female navel, but that’s about it. What happens to all those nooks and cervices of the human body?”

In Skin, while Arakkal finally gets down to human subjects, albeit only superficially, it’s that “common notion of beauty” that he’s still looking to break down-in pictures that do, at times, tend to look like the result of a palm or cheek pressed against the screen of a photocopying machine, given that the series only has grainy black and white pictures. “The way I looked at skin, it has so much of a graphic quality, and starkness… I decided to stick to black and white as I would’ve found it very difficult to capture that sense in colour. I also thought it allowed me to retain a poetic feel.” Arakkal added that his initial thoughts were, in fact, all about colour. “Then I realized that even in shooting black-and-whites, I can actually make the differentiation between fair and dark skin. Sure, that doesn’t mean in terms of the exact shade of a person’s skin.”

Before you think it, Arakkal adds that the series was little more than an extremely personal essay, and that it harbours no intention of making a political statement, or any appeal for global peace. Personal to the extent that he shot only two models for the series-his wife Sabah, and 80-year-old grandmother Katherine. That isn’t to say Arakkal wanted to play it all safe, as he admitted to altering certain images. “There’s a picture of a female belly without the navel – that was [the result of] just visual curiosity, about what that would look like. I realized, taking that part out was making a powerful statement, in that human procreation has so much to do with that one little spot.”

The intention, added the photographer, was “to push the limit beyond what people call acceptable… I wanted to in some sense play god.”

Jaideep Sen
BANGALORE: Photo-artist Shibu Arakkal’s “Skin” hopes to explore the landscape of the body through the language of silence.

The photo-art exhibition “Skin” comes out of a two-year engagement with the subject, and presents Mr. Arakkal’s connection with the skin – in its forms, textures, colours and shades.

The images, according to Giridhar Khasnis, art critic and curator of “Skin”, “bring to life the essence of skin, its pores, patterns, fissures and the sensation of touch”.

He believes that its inconsistencies and imperfections enter the realm of Mr. Arakkal’s visual narrative and “take a poetic resolve”.

Over the last two decades, Mr. Arakkal has worked on several series of photographs, which according to Mr. Khasnis have urged Mr. Arakkal “to create a personal universe”.

“His sharp eye, instinct and insight have continually unraveled hidden spaces within historical monuments and travel sites, as importantly, it has captured the significance of ordinary objects in an uncommon way,” said Mr. Khasnis.

Other exhibitions

Before “Skin”, Mr. Arakkal showed in an exhibition titled “Off the shadow” in 2001, and in “Been There” in 2005, a collage of images were presented as a travel story of near and far-flung lands.

In the series on “Abstract Notions”, in 2007, he captured the real and surreal views of everday objects, highlighting their lyrical presence. “Skin” will be on from April 16 to April 22 at the Welcomart Gallery in ITC Windsor.

So for Shibu, forms and textures become important features. “Just like leaves and trees, I captured the starkness of the human skin. I choose black and white because I wanted to add a poetic touch.”

He has tried to capture the strength of his grandmother, who, as a young widow brought up five children and managed household chores. “I call her wrinkles battle scars, as there is a story in her skin.” He also finds the idea of a body without a belly button fascinating, going back to the Adam and Eve myth. “The pictures are loaded with implications, with the idea of ‘what if.” Shibu feels that he is whimsical, and not apologetic. His images strive to capture unconventional posters and parts of the human body. “I want to push beyond what is considered natural and respectable.” And that’s where cultural, sexual and social connotations find their way in. “I like capturing hands and feet. Hands because they signify hard work, gestures, sign language and touch, And feet for they are meant to be hidden and considered disrespectful, when they carry the weight of your body and who you are all your life.” So, in “Skin” through snapshots that are sometimes mirror images, Shibu intends to portray and contradict accepted idea of beauty that is only defined through the face, hands, chest and back. “I wanted to project parts of the body in ways, that I find beautiful.”


Copyright 2000-2008 The Hindu
(“Skin”, was curated by GIridhar Khasnis at WelcomArt Gallery, ITC Windsor till April 22, 2009.)

Photographer Shibu Arakkal speaks to Sumaa Tekur about his new photography show, Skin, which opens in the city on April 15

Human skin is fascinating – the uneven texture, the shapely contours, the nerves swelling up just a bit, its dimples and depressions, not to mention the debate its colour has stirred up for centuries. City-based photographer Shibu Arakkal has now taken the human skin out of the unceasing colour debate and moved on to show the world intensely zoomed-in images of the outer covering of the human body.

Titled Skin, it is an exploration if the social, political and cultural aspects of human skin. The show opens in the city on April 15. Sunday DNA was treated to a sneak preview of the photographs while engaging Arakkal in a discussion on the human skin.

“There are numerous skin types from black to brown to pale pink to white. I had to choose what I want to project in my show, and I chose young, fair skin – my wife’s – and wrinkled, dark skin – my grandmother’s,” he says. From hands to the belly to the neck and feet, Arakkal has trained his lenses on the human body in a way that would prompt the viewer to minutely examine his own skin.

“That’s one of the intentions of this work. The other is to draw our attention to the most ignored parts of the human skin,” he says. “The accepted norms of beauty conveniently ignore more than 60-70% of the human body. Like we have conventionally been conditioned to, we look at the face, the eyes, the hair, the breasts and the buttocks. We’ve been taught that the armpits and the nape of the neck are dirty.”

A flip through the images in Skin indicate that Arakkal is fascinated with hands. “They are sexual, they denote hardwork, we use them to form symbols and signs and they represent touch,” he says. Same goes for the soles of the feet. “Most cultures consider it disrespectful to show them out in the open. They are seen as something best hidden away. For me, they are hugely philosophical. I see them as that which carries our burden through life,” says Arakkal.

Popular culture has always defined beauty. Human skin has also been conveniently boxed into preconceived ideas of beautiful or not. Arakkal set out to shoot for Skin with an intention to re-discover the re-define beautiful skin while questioning the existing idea of beauty. But having zoomed in on human body parts like the hands, face, the navel and feet, Arakkal has not radically shaken up the existing notion of beauty. “It’s a vast subject and I had to make a choice,” he says.

Among the many body parts, there is also the belly, but without the navel. “When I started work on this project, I decided to push the limits and so constantly ask the question, ‘what if?’ It reflects through the entire theme. In this photograph, I removed the navel from the belly to see if the belly would then look as beautiful,” he says.

For Arakkal fans, this show will not disappoint. With his signature mirror-imaging style, black and white photographs in their raw beauty and with loads of negative space in each frame, this is classic Arakkal at work. “Yes, but this might be the last time I use mirror-imaging. I’m now ready to move on and have found other styles that excite me more,” he says. As for the negative space, he believes it is as essential to a frame as air is to life. The more you have of it, the more scope you give the viewer to take home their own interpretations. “I use negative space almost in competing with the subject and holding its own,” he says.

Having focused on the socio-political constructs of human skin, what makes Arakkal’s show even more interesting is that the thinking, introspecting and constantly reflecting artist in him flows through with much ease in his photographs. It took him 15 years of being behind the lens to capture human skin on camera. “The human body has been the subject of many artists. I only took to this topic when I was absolutely sure that I had something new to tell,” he says. And something new, he does tell. Almost to the pont of making one want to put the back of their hands through extreme pore examination – the texture, the elasticity, the lines, warts and all.

Again, in typically Arakkal style, his works are all untitled because he does not want to drive someone down the alley. “Let them interpret the for themselves. It’s amazing how many different explanations people come up with, without your intending it in first place. The purpose of art is then truly served,” he says.

Those familiar with his body of work will notice that Skin is a continuation of his previous work, Abstract Notions, where he asked the question, why do we get turned on by the curve and not the line? In some ways, he even answers those questions here.

Shibu ArakkalSkin – Reviews