Online nudity is a paradox. Porn is everywhere and easily accessible, while artistic or activist context often ends up censored. For female bodies — and especially queer, disabled, fat or other marginalised bodies — erasure often appears in the form of social judgement, or “community guidelines”, which see even faintly exposed nipples deleted from Instagram.
Collaborative project Videochat: Send Nudes by Olya Avstreyh and Jenya Milyukos highlights the connection between body autonomy and creativity in the work of female artists.
The idea was straightforward: for two weeks, the artists would video call each other, take off their clothes, draw each other, and talk. “The project was intended to be partly a game, partly a therapy session. We outlined the main rules and terms, but didn’t define what the final result might be. Each day, we would pick a different location and pose. In the end, we mixed photography with painting and digital elements to create our own style of collage,” the artists explain.
The collaboration took place during the Covid-19 pandemic, when various cities across the globe went through different stages of the lockdown. With most people confined to their homes, video chats became the new norm — which also raised questions over just how achievable true intimacy and connection were via a screen. For Avstreyh and Milyukos — based in Moscow and Crimea at the time — this question was crucial, as was the place of the female body in Russia’s political context. The case of artist and queer activist Yulia Tsvetkova, facing six years in jail for her body positive drawings weighed heavily on their minds. In support of Tsvetkova, hundreds of feminists, body positivity activists, and creatives posted nudes on Instagram with the hashtag #mybodyisnotpornography. Many of the posts were taken down by Instagram, but finding freedom in a climate of governmental and corporate hostility remained at the heart of the project.
“I have been painting full-time since 2018, focusing on the intersection of femininity and technology, the way consumer culture shapes the perception of our bodies, and how we choose to present ourselves to the world in the digital era,” Avstreyh says. During her recovery from Covid-19 in May, the artist studied the work of Tracey Emin and her body exploration. “This obsession liberated me in many ways,” she says. “I did a huge series dedicated to my body afterwards, but in a very raw manner. My collaboration with Jenya, in a way, has redefined me as an artist. Since it was based on the principal of therapy, I feel like a lot of my suppressed fears, both as an artist and a person, have been healed.”
To Milyukos, accepting her body came much more naturally, but it was the openness and connection with her collaborator which was challenging at first. Milyukos is also very aware of the body’s political potential. “In the past, I used to appeal to the subject of the body, but used it rather provocatively to challenge the audience. Society is often very negative towards the naked body, condemning it as immoral and judging those people who expose it for ‘selling themselves’. It always irritated me. I wanted to do everything to change this preconception. For me, it was a process of educating my viewers,” she explains.
In its final form, Videochat: Send Nudes is composed of collages which incorporate photos, paintings, and fragments of chat messages. It’s carefully curated, yet candid and playful. Most importantly, it places naked female body in a lived environment and day-to-day context, and shows the artists being comfortable in their own skin: something which is difficult to achieve in an atmosphere of censorship and objectification. Their bodies are vulnerable, beautiful, real — and part of their self-expression and creativity.
“We received so many positive messages of support when we released the project,” the artists remember. “So it was completely shocking when Instagram started deleting posts which featured our art one by one from both of our accounts. It was a battle that lasted two days: Instagram banned at least 10 posts for breaching nudity and sexual activity guidelines. And that really opens up a whole conversation about the double standards and puritanism of this platform and complete control over female narrative, let alone the fact that it’s simply art censorship. “The female body is not pornography” is still a motto we have to prove.”