When you see a picture of a naked woman, how does that make you feel? Ashamed? Shocked? Aroused? Does any of that make the woman in the picture any less worthy because she’s nude? A beautiful woman in her natural state is not weak or corrupted. And in the eyes of painter Nepjune Sirirath Chumyen, her nudity is powerful. Her body is a challenge to men who would hold women back and a celebration of the human form.
Chumyen started painting nudes three years ago as a way to question longstanding social and religious values. “I’m not interested in ancient traditions or the views of women that come along with them,” she says. “Traditional Thai culture is too patriarchal. Like most societies, women are taught to be polite and shy. That we should just follow men and cover our bodies.” Clearly, she’s not having any of that.
The women in her oil paintings proudly display their bodies, arching their back so their breasts subtly thrust forward or their sloping necklines are exposed. Their gaze is comfortable and knowing. “The human body is a miracle of nature. I don’t want to cover that beauty with anything,” she says. They’re surrounded by valuable jewels and ornaments and lay on luxurious bedding next to powerful predators and ancient sculptures. It’s a clear iconography of human instinct, thirst, and greed; of greatness and courage; of prestige and grandeur. All through the lens of a woman. “Nudity is not shameful. Women can be leaders. We have the right to our own bodies and the right to dress or act however we want without judgment.”
Chumyen used to paint figures based on friends or women in magazines but says people often mistook them for self-portraits. “I’m not sure why, maybe because I put my inner self into the paintings? But it made me think, why not paint self-portraits? If I’m going to talk about how women can be courageous and determined, why not start with myself? So I climbed out of my safe space and totally exposed myself in the hopes of being a voice for women as a whole.”