|Mirabai Writes a Tale, by Tim Holmes, crayon wash|
Case in point: This Easter I began getting what has turned into a flood of letters about an image of a painting that has been on my website for many years. It depicts Mirabai, a 15th century Indian mystic who, like the Buddha, was born into privaledge but rejected a life of luxury and blindness to live as a devotee alone and poor in the wilds. But Mirabai is said to have rejected another traditional imposition: clothes. She wandered naked thoughout the countryside, singing her songs of praise to her dark mountain god, Girdhara.
The letters call me to task for depicting her naked, which they see as denigrating their Hindu saint. I reply by first of all recounting Mirabai's history. (She's the one who took off her clothes, not me.) But what's more, their underlying point is never expressed directly– that nudity equals exploitation. This is an idea that comes from the exploitation of the flesh by commercial forces, (among others hurrying to this cannibalistic feast!) not one that's inherent to nakedness. [This is what my Body Psalms project attempts to address].
But it's very hard to point this out. For people who are alarmed, their own fear looms much larger than reality, making even a reasoned exposition of facts inflammatory. Women around the world have sometimes used the power of their naked bodies– much greater than mens'– to call attention to serious issues when all else fails. That's why the Nigerian tradition of women's body protest is so powerful. It's not about sex, it's about respect! This is a tool that speaks beyond fears and accusations, snagging everyone. When you encounter a naked mother standing before you in silent protest, you are in the presence of real power!