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Hailing from Kerala, supermodel Tinu Verghis modelled for fifteen years before joining Lasalle College of Arts for undergraduate and postgraduate studies, so she could pursue art as a channel to address systemic injustice, social and gender inequalities. Her body of work was so thought provoking and stark in its portrayal, that her video art 'Under My Skin' won her President's Award at The International Biennale of Contemporary Art [Italy] and 'The Winston Oh Travel' Research Award [Singapore]. In conversation with her.


Tinu you left modeling at the peak of your career and switched tracks to art. What was your thought process?


Leaving modeling was not a decision I made overnight. It was a slow culmination of frustration that came from multiple levels of dehumanisation. The best part of being a model was the chance to travel the world and meet different people and experience different cultures and I realized that I could have more than I thought I could have. I wanted to see change so I turned to my greatest strength, my radical self. So, I started a models' union, cut off my hair, pierced my chin, told every asshole to fuck-off. The system was ready for change in how they were dealing with female bodies but we didn't yet have the critical mass of women with agency to let the change permeate. Fear of the people in power, and unawareness of the power within, kept most colleagues from optimising the 'now'. The fashion industry is blatant about the body, the body as an object. I was a part of the concretisation of the body as an object. I didn't want to continue to perpetuate it.


You joined LASALLE College of the Arts to pursue art as a channel to address systemic injustice and social- gender inequalities. Why this theme in particular? Does it come from an incident in your life?


The memories of being an Indian woman is a lifetime of inequalities. Very early in life I had normalised the abuse of power men had on me. Whether it was at home, in the street, in the police station, in studios, anywhere for that matter. Made to watch exposed penises in studios, men masturbating on the road in front of me, cops licking their lips when you divulge your profession, holding many a penis of cousins before I was even enrolled in school. How do I fight it? By myself?!! I chanced on Art as a form of expression… I read everything I could find on the medium and did a cannonball jump into it. There was no time to waste pondering on the pros and cons!!


Do also share examples of your work that addresses systemic injustice and social- gender inequalities and what you achieved through the same.


As a model, I was reduced to my appearances. My body was a tool to an objectifier's purpose. Through performance art, I now use my body to repulse the viewer. For the work-'Under My Skin'-I apply a paste of rice (rice that I cultivate in Goa) on my body. I ask the viewer peel the rice skin off me, and then I fry the skin and serve it back to the viewer to eat it. Thereby the participant ingests a piece of me [body hair, dried skin, dirt that is stuck on the rice paste when it's peeled off me]. I also mutilate my body by immersing myself in a tub full of liquid paraffin wax. I peel away the white wax from my dark brown skin to shed away the colonial whiteness that has hindered my life. Leaving behind burned skin. Last year, I sealed myself in a really small cardboard box for over five hours in the fetal position. Using just my saliva and teeth, I ate through the box to come out. The exit through the small hole in the box was like rebirth. The film is titled-'A bird that won't sing’; it has been shortlisted for the 'New York State Film Festival.'


What are your influences?


I want to know what it feels like to be a free woman. Every time I think I'm finally free, I apply for a visa to a predominantly white country. I walk in with my Indian passport and ask for a visa. Right there, the system puts me back in my place. I'm asked to prove without a shard of doubt that I'm worthy to apply for a tourist visa. I'm asked to produce property papers, house tax receipts, electricity bill, birth certificate, tax receipts of three years, bank statements of six months, marriage certificate apostilled by the external affairs' office, husband's passport, mother-  father- sisters whereabouts, credit card copies, share certificates, postal savings, certificates of education, etc. It's a thick booklet I need to produce for a tourist visa. The system strips me of my dignity just like that!!


You will be participant at South East Asia's Premiere Art Fair, Art Stage 2018 in Singapore. Do share details about your performance art there and its deeper connotations.


I use the act of stitching my body with a needle and thread to trigger the abject in the viewer. The repulsion— the excitement— the idea of watching a female body self mutilating. Aspects of the work is meant to break deep-rooted ideas of how the female body, in the Indian context, should be devoid of agency. I'm collaborating with artist Dr. Rajinder Singh. He uses religion— worship— death— in his work and I've incorporated some of his elements into this piece of work.


What are your expectations from Art Stage 2018?


No expectations. My son, who fell asleep at my performance space, was thought to be an installation. There were people gathering to watch him sleep. It was a bit mental!!


What's next?

Keep practicing….


Where do you see yourself a few years ahead?


I am un-schooling my son. The idea is to travel the world with him. Work with women and kids in community projects, like the work I did with children in Bhopal. I did a mural using embroidery mirrors with the mothers and kids at the Chingari Trust in Bhopal.  I want us to meet new people and empower ourselves and others in the process.

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