In conversation with: Tinu Verghis on finding her voice


07 November 2018

Art Stage Singapore 2019 is just around the corner and as the flagship art show of Southeast Asia, drawing footfalls in the five-digit range, there is high anticipation for this blockbuster event that promises to overwhelm senses, enrich minds, expand conversation, and celebrate diversity in the arts.

MA Fine Arts alumna Tinu Verghis, who was a participant at the fair's 2018 edition, recalled her experience as being "quite insane". Her performance The Undiscovered Country, a collaborative work with Dublin-based artist Rajinder Singh, involved Tinu piercing and stitching up her own flesh with a needle and thread to reflect upon mortality and female agency.

While the horror and thrill of watching someone self-mutilate should keep viewers engrossed, Tinu remembered several audience members being much more fascinated with her son who had fallen asleep at her performance space. "They were gathering around him, thinking he was part of an installation," she laughed.

Since graduating from LASALLE's MA Fine Arts programme in late 2017, Art Stage Singapore was Tinu's first major showing and though she went in with no expectations, many curators and dealers were interested to hear her point of view.

Under My Skin (left) and A bird that won't sing (right)

Left: Under My Skin (2015) is a performance piece beginning with Tinu inviting audience members to peel off the rice paste stuck to her body. She then fries it, and serves it back to the audience to eat (body hair, dried skin and all). By ingesting a part of Tinu, the audience has willingly partaken in a metaphorical cannibalism and is no longer a passive consumer of the objectified body.

Right: A bird that won't sing (2017) is a durational performance captured on film. It begins with Tinu contorting and confining her tall frame into a small cardboard box. Her goal is to eat her way out of the box, and it took her a total of 5 hours to escape. In choosing to submit herself to such a task, in having control over her own body, Tinu is denying the accepted path of voyeurism and fetishism of the female body in film theory.

Anchoring her practice as a way to address systemic injustice and gender inequalities, Tinu's art has received wide acclaim. Under My Skin was awarded the President's Award at the Biennale Internazionale d'Arte Contemporanea di Firenze (Florence Biennale), and graduation work A bird that won't sing was selected to feature within Women Cinemakers' 2018 biennale edition. When asked to distill the main inspiration behind her practice, freedom was her answer - freedom from being objectified; freedom from oppression.

"I turn those inevitable feelings I have accumulated from working as a fashion model and in being a third world Indian woman into art, and find solace in the process of making them tangible," Tinu shared.

Her artistic vocabulary, that is able to concretise thought into action and transform words impossible to pen into expression, was honed through her five years at LASALLE, where she pursued both her undergraduate and postgraduate studies. Beyond the College's facilities and studio setting that supported open experimentation and rigorous conceptualisation, the multiple avenues to learn from established, thought-provoking artists were also critical in the formalisation of her artist identity.

Tinu with MA Fine Arts peer and faculty

Tinu, extreme left, with the rest of her MA Fine Arts peers and faculty.

When news first broke about Tinu's retirement from the fashion sphere, the press lamented the loss of one of India's top models (she has walked the runways in Milan and Paris for the likes of Christian Lacroix, Gucci and DKNY).

Though she paints herself as a woman to herald change, Tinu understands the realism of the situation, acknowledging that systemic injustices are difficult to deal with art alone and would require great courage from a mass of like-minded women.

Nevertheless, she is determined to scale this upward battle, using her practice to challenge preconceived ideas about cultural standards and unpack misogynist ideas tied to the female body. Presently, she is in the midst of researching the reality of professional mourners in Rajasthan, and translating their experiences into art.

Cover: Tinu at her graduation showcase, Maybe, with the rest of the MA Fine Arts class of 2017. View the full album.