Women, Party Politics, and the Power of the Naked Body

Thousands of headlines in multiple languages touting some kind of formulation of “100 Naked Women Protest the RNC” circled the globe around the start of the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. On the eve of the convention on Sunday, July 17th, 130 of the 1,800 women who volunteered to participate in the art installation “Everything She Says Means Everything,” joined together to bare it all on a private lawn across from the convention site. The “women art warriors,” as they were called, were armed with nothing but large disc-shaped mirrors, which they raised as shields toward the Quicken Loans Arena, reflecting the convention center, urban landscape, and sky. The action was organized by New York based artist Spencer Tunick, well known for staging and photographing large-scale installations of naked subjects. Tunick began planning the action in protest of the RNC back in 2013. According to the project’s website, Tunick’s political installation sought “to make art with what may be the most controversial subject in this presidential race, a woman’s body” and to reflect both the idea of a “sacred feminine” at one with nature and anger against the Republican Party’s rhetoric of hate targeting women and minorities.

Critics of Tunick’s work, and other works like his, dismiss his popularity as sensationalism, “the ultimate media catnip,” and exploiting of women’s bodies, a critique that is, as Vice reporter Allie Conti commented, “as old as art itself.” It’s all true. And, yet, does that mean it is unsuccessful or empty? Artists and activists have long used nudity for social and political ends. Nudity shocks us, evoking feelings of shame, embarrassment, fear, anger, confusion, joy, desire, and laughter. And, at that moment, nudity makes us look. The question is what exactly do we see?

Tunick’s public, aesthetic challenge to the RNC spotlighted women’s bodies as a key battleground of the 2016 election, raising multiple and various issues, many of which exceeded his own intent. The women who participated in the performance were diverse, ranging widely in body shape, race/ethnicity, and age (18-72), as well as in reasons for volunteering. Some participants sought to protest specific issues related to the Republican Party’s policies and attitudes towards women and minorities; some to challenge a media obsessed culture’s infatuation with body image; some to express a link between women and nature in order to protest the oppression and silencing of both; and some to confront personal and social forms of alienation both from others and one’s own body. As one participant put it, after a series of sexual assaults, “I don’t want to feel ashamed anymore…[I] want to stand up and not be afraid to own my own body.” The transformation of shame or fear into pride, strength, and unity both with others and nature was one of the most oft-repeated sentiments. 65 year-old Marsha Besuner Klausner, who admits to being “actually very modest,” never attending a synagogue or church without her head and arms covered, volunteered in order to say “I’m here, I’m strong and I’m not afraid.” Harmony Moon participated because, she said, “I’m a trans woman and we’re not supposed to like our bodies and I don’t like that.”

Tunick’s nude aesthetic action merged two significant uses of nudity: the feminist art movement and nude public action. The feminist art movement of the 1960s and 1970s introduced social and political issues to the art world and drew on the nude genre in every art form – painting, sculpture, photography, installation, text, video, music, and performance. ‘The nude’ became a tool enabling artists to explore, educate, represent, and disrupt the art world, especially around issues of objectification, desire, vulnerability, and violence. Artists have continued to explore the intricacies and intimacies of bodies – from democratizing representations of beauty to undermining them altogether. Artists like Mary Dufy, Awol Erizku, Jennifer Miller, and Fiona Foley pose nude bodies in the frame of the traditional nude in order to emphasize alternative ideals of beauty, as well as to expose the cultural and political rejection of women in the traditional genre. Artists like Linda Dement, Cindy Sherman, and the cyberfeminist art collective VNS Matrix frame bodies in all their realism in order to represent the abjection of bodies, both the grotesqueness we associate with bodies and the rejection of women in a social and political system that socially and symbolically associates women with bodies.

Nudity has long been a popular tactic for protest.  There is hardly a “first” recorded action, though the legend of Lady Godiva’s naked horseback ride to protest her husband’s harsh taxes on the peasantry weighs heavily in cultural memory.  Globally, activists have used nudity as a protest strategy for a variety of causes. Groups like the radical feminist protest group FEMEN have used it to challenge sexual exploitation, political oppression, violence against women, and religious fundamentalism, and to promote lesbian and gay rights and reproductive justice. Ecoactivists like PETA, La Tigressa, and Baring Witness have used it to demand worker’s rights, animal rights, farmer’s rights, indigenous rights, and even sometimes just the right to be naked, like the recent #FreetheNipple movement. Lactivists breastfeed in public to protest cultural stigmas surrounding women’s bodies. Students have held naked sit-ins to attain an affordable education. Countless others have used it to protest war, industrial pollution, deforestation, climate change, genetic engineering, neocolonialism, and corporate globalization.

Nude actions are often difficult to understand without their connections to gender and sexuality, and these actions, intentionally or not, tend to utilize the nude form precisely for this link. Nude actions emphasize the body, and the body is culturally and historically associated with women, who are often characterized as being closer to and thereby having privileged access to nature.  The naked female body is already saturated with meaning, much of it bound up in the antagonism between distinctions like culture and nature, reason and passion, and of course, mind and body. These dichotomies have been widely criticized by academics and activists for their association of women and ethnic minorities with the subordinate term, as in claims that women are closer to nature or African-American men are sexual predators. These categories have also been criticized by environmentalists and socialists shaping our political and economic institutions, most evident in the privileging of extraction over conservation and profit over people. Modern western culture is built from the belief that the purpose of man is to conquer and improve nature.  Our material world and its fleshy bodies are coins in the machinery of “advancement.”

Nude actions, especially nude ecoactions, powerfully demonstrate the links between global corporatism, the subjugation of women and minorities, and the destruction of the environment. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the groups that have historically drawn on nudity as a tactic are women, people of color, indigenous peoples, and the poor – groups that otherwise lack a public platform for dissent. The shock of the naked body inserted into the public sphere is immediately physically arresting, but precisely because of the culturally produced links between women, people of color, and nature, the action takes on deeper symbolic meanings, drawing attention to the connection between the subjugation of the category of the feminine and the West’s feminized others, and in turn, material existence itself.  However, discussions surrounding nude actions in protest often evade these critical assessments of the nude form, as was the case with Tunick’s installation, which drew meaning too heavily from the reductive and essentialist notion of the sacred feminine.

According to the Tunick, the participants sought “to express the belief that we will rely upon the strength, intuition and wisdom of progressive and enlightened women to find our place in nature and to regain the balance within it.” Tunick’s romanticization of the link between and consequences of the relationship between women and nature lacks the critical perspective of other nude actions. Moreover, as a staged focus on the RNC, the installation affirms a more progressive position on women, social justice, and the environment that, because of its context and the author’s stated aims, implicitly invoked the Democratic party as somehow getting it all right. Fortunately, as any art critic will attest, the artist does not control the meaning of the work.  The issues, concerns, and meanings elicited by the act, when put in context, far exceed U.S.-American party politics, a system in which both parties, despite rhetoric to the contrary, are guilty of sexism, systemic racism, global exploitation, and environmental destruction.

One of the most powerful and widely known nude actions began on July 8, 2002, when over 600 women from the Niger Delta’s Itsekiri tribe laid siege to Chevron/Texaco’s Escravos terminal where they remained for ten days enacting a regional superstition known as the “curse of nakedness.” This action came as a last resort when the company ignored correspondence outlining the objections of the community. The “curse of nakedness” is an old, yet prevailing, tactic across the African continent, taking on various differences and subtle changes in meaning across tribal groups, but all commonly tout the curse as the ultimate form of shaming and social ostracization. Only in the most extreme circumstances does a woman, particularly an elderly woman, expose herself to a man in protest—whether he is her kin or not. To deploy nakedness is to demand action or die trying, as an exposed woman is at serious peril of being assaulted or even killed.

The women that started this action had many demands, including: the creation of a tripartite coalition, made up of multinational and state representatives, as well as women of the Delta region to work together in solving the problems produced by oil exploration; the re-classification of local contract staff into permanent staff; the employment of at least one person from each of the five area villages per year; one house each for tribal elders; monthly allowances for elderly persons; a commitment to developing infrastructure in the region; cleaning up oil and gas pollution; and the establishment of local income-generating schemes that benefits the local, indigenous population. The most serious demand, though, was that the corporate giant leave the region and allow it to return to a subsistence-based and “life-producing” economy, as opposed to the “death economy” produced by unchecked multinational oil corporations.

Prior to colonization, indigenous Nigerians practiced a subsistence-based and trade economy. But, as a British colony, farmers, typically women, that had once subsisted off of their own land were forced to grow cash crops for export instead, predominantly palm oil, rubber, timber, and cotton. Even after Nigeria was established as an independent nation in 1960, efforts for revitalizing local production and trade were never recovered, partly because oil exploration had begun in the region beginning in the late 1930’s. By 1963, Mobil, Texaco, Gulf (now Chevron), and several other multinational corporations had been allotted offshore blocs for resource extraction. Tons of research studies, including ones conducted by the International Monetary Fund, concluded that oil exploration has not had positive effects on the region. Despite the numerous promises made by multinational corporations to develop infrastructure and employment and to clean up the heavily polluted soil, air, and water, the Niger Delta region has experienced nothing but further environmental degradation, poverty, hunger, and violence.

Within days of the first action, the number of Nigerian women engaged in protest swelled into the thousands as women from other tribes across the Delta region blocked six other Chevron flow stations, one group even paddling a giant canoe to occupy the Chevron production platform in the middle of the oilfield. Over the course of the next year, their actions inspired an array of other actions committed by young people and even men of the community, including many labor strikes in the oil industry.

The women’s action was received globally as a courageous and effective attack on the flow of global capital and its deleterious effects on labor rights and the environment, ultimately leading to similar actions worldwide that continue today. Anti-petro activists in Latin America and the U.K. joined the movement with a consumption strike, coinciding with the 2003 production strike organized by Nigerian men in the Delta. In the United States, anti-war activists Baring Witness began photographing and publishing large-scale installations of naked bodies positioned to spell out peaceful messages to protest the pending invasion of Iraq.  Sherry Glaser founded “Breasts Not Bombs” to protest the cultural hypocrisy that stigmatizes a topless woman in public but defends the American war machine. Soon after, tens of thousands of other men and women across the globe began to emulate their tactic for art and activism.

The actions taken by Nigerian women in 2002 and 2003 are expressly feminist in their privileging of labor and life over capital and subsistence and conservation over extraction. Their actions reveal clear links between the expansion of neoliberal capital, environmental destruction, militarism, and the feminization of poverty.

The Nigerian “Curse of Nakedness” action and many of those it has inspired around the globe are exemplary for demonstrating to the world the interconnections among sexism, racism, classism, nationalism, first-worldism, and environmental destruction inherent in neoliberal practices, far exceeding the U.S.-based party politics invoked in Tunick’s action. Tunick’s contextualizing of “Everything She Says Means Everything” (in word and location) at the RNC missed an opportunity to exceed ideology and intervene in a discourse intent on affirming the status quo. Thankfully, however, those “women art warriors” who stood up and bared it all for so many diverse reasons reached out and by evoking and embodying the feelings of shame, embarrassment, fear, anger, confusion, joy, desire, and laughter inherent in nude actions, joined a feminist and an environmentalist tradition of action with much larger ramifications. Such is the power of the body.

Stacy Keltner is Professor of Philosophy and Coordinator of Gender and Women’s Studies at Kennesaw State University. Ashley McFarland is Program Coordinator of the M.A. in American Studies and Instructor of Gender and Women’s Studies at Kennesaw State University. Stacy and Ashley are co-authoring a book entitled Nude Awakening, which focuses on the use nakedness as a political form of action.