– The photo series Cats and Boobs by Xeniya Balsara
*Read the Finnish article here / Lue suomenkielinen artikkeli aiheesta täällä: https://mediapossehelsinki.fi/kuka-pelkaa-paljasta-rintaa/
I went to see the Cats and Boobs exhibition by Xeniya Balsara upon Helsinki Pride Week. It consisted of naked breasts (boobs familiarly) and cats as the name suggested.
What an interesting photo series! Indeed, the brilliant combination of two generously attractive and eye-catching objects. Cat owners of different ages, from different social groups and having various life situations pose in the photos with their pets.The focus in the pictures is mainly on the cats, while the models (and boobs) remain in the background, sometimes very unclear.
Photos are fresh, bright and have mastered colorful details. As a moving and non-instructable target, cats are not the easiest to photograph but Xeniya has been successful in her job. It has certainly demanded patience and time both from the models and the photographer. Xeniya told us that making of her own picture with her cat Mussia Kissia took about two hours.
The idea of the series was born a couple of years ago. Human body has always been fascinating but there should be something else in the photos. At this point cats came on the scene. Making their portraitsseemed an interesting challenge. What if you combine nudity and cats?
Xeniya started searching for models in photo and cat groups on Facebook. The attitude to the project was confusing and biased. The posts brought many unexpected comments. The photographer received a lot of encouraging feedback but also surprisingly negative comments.
Negative feedback came almost exclusively from men, Xeniya says. In one comment, it was even assumed that Xeniya was not a female photographer looking for models but actually a man looking for sex. The project was called sexist and chauvinistic.
The photographer still has no idea why specifically men questioned the project while the majority of women were very supportive.
In the US cat groups Xeniya’s project got more hostile reaction. She was ordered to keep cats and boobs separate from one another, she was accused of being immoral, and the project was called awful. The photographer was also banned from several groups altogether. In an effort to ask for arguments of hateful comments Xeniya only received more hate speech. Despite numerous attempts there was no constructive discussion.
However, Xeniya managed to get new models for the Cats and Boobs project. She soon noticed that the models on their own initiative open to her different aspects of their lives and the reasons that had brought them to the project. Xeniya began to record their stories with the permission of the models. As photos and stories began to accumulate, the idea of a coffee table book was born. Cats and Boobs calendar 2019 is released in the beginning of December, available for pre-order at https://www.facebook.com/groups/343089739586735/The book is coming next year under Helsinki Pride wing.
When Xeniya started searching for a place for Cats and Boobs exhibition, the task turned out to be more difficult than she could have imagine. The issue was still regarded as dubious. Xeniya succeeded in finding a gallery for her exhibition in the center of Helsinki, in the basement of Nespresso Boutique during Helsinki Pride week.The City of Helsinki and the hosting Stockmann did not authorize the photographic artist to place advertising on the street.
The City of Helsinki and Stockmann explained their point of view vaguely and referred to nudity.Naked breasts could not be presented in the street image, they were considered offensive and unconventional. Advertising on the Internet outside the exhibition proved to be almost impossible. – I was surprised that I was not allowed to leave advertising flyers for this exhibition at places where my previous print ads had been warmly welcomed. Public libraries in the city and Cybershop did not want me to leave the flyers at their premises. I was very surprised especially at Cybershop because I had left Welcome to Sideshow exhibition flyers (where people cause each other pain) two years ago with permission, Xeniya told.
Although more than 2,000 visitors visited the exhibition, which is a large number for exhibitors that are different from the mainstream and small-scale, the ban on the street advertising has surely taxed the number of visitors.
However, at the same time it is perfectly appropriate to keep the sculpture by Felix Nylund three hundred meters away in the street, Kolme Seppää (Three Blacksmiths statue), where three full-naked blacksmithswork the iron. I am not saying that the sculpture is not either culturally or artistically valuable and visually impressive, or that the sculpture would not fit the street image. Instead, it just leaves me wondering that nowadays a clearly homoerotic sculptureis somewhat more appropriate than a photo of a woman’s naked breasts and a cat. What of the latter makes it so objectionable that it doesn’t fit on the facade?
–I thought it was strange that no larger media showed interest in the Cats and Boobs exhibition despite the big number of visitors. I wrote to and invited different media, but no one was interested in publishing an article about it, Xeniya wonders.
Although most of the women considered the project to be magnificent, there were also diverging opinions. Some women visitors viewed photos as humiliating women, and the exhibition did not suit children. I do not think that any naked breasts are inappropriate, especially when they are not connected to pornography. It is confusing that at the same time images demonstrating the worst aspects of our world in a brutal way are exposed in public places. Pictures of war.Hungry dying children. Burning people. Murdered people. Captured people. Prisoner camps. I’m talking about World Press photo exhibitions that are completely open to anyone regardless of age. There must be something really wrong with public opinion if the common image of breasts and cats causes more disgust, trauma and harm to children than realistic images of the war wickedness.
The Cats and Boobs project has been fruitful and necessary in many ways. It has done exactly what art does best: created debate, shared opinions, and hopefully gave birth to new perspectives. For many models participating inthe project it has given the experience of beauty and calm, the momentum towards greater self-confidence. Xeniya’s way of photographing can also be called empowering photography. Many of her models experienced their self- and body image in a more positive way after seeing the final pictures. This is what is important nowadays, as distorting beauty standards surround us everywhere.
Young girls are already forced to live under constant pressure. The media create a strong image for the way what makes us sufficient, popular, and accepted. What if we start from a healthier point of view that all of us are of value and enough for ourselves. We are all beautiful in our own personal way. We do not have to be copies of fashion world stereotypes to be happy, to accept ourselves and each other. Let’s live a balanced, happy life.
The sad thing is that even though the main idea of Cats and Boobs series is to introduce a concept where all boobs and cats are equally beautiful, the exhibition’s ad picture did not support this message. The ad only displayed boobs fitting contemporary beauty standards, like the ones shown in each and every lingerie ad.Without asking Xeniya’s opinion, the most popular photos in the project’s Instagram were chosen for the ad by various media.
Hands up, how many are traumatized by women’s naked boobs? Really. Most of us in our childhood have received our first food through these deeply disheartened breasts.The experience of first intimacy is unmatched. Women’s breasts are above all a symbol of frugality and life. How do they get the one and only twisted interpretation that is vulgar and ugly?
And what’s next? Xeniya is looking forward to the next project. – One of the most popular questions that I have been asked is when I begin Dogs and Dicks photo project. However, so far no man has been willing to let any animal near his precious thing, so in the male series called Perfect Dick Selfie are only dicks visible. I can already expect that the release of such a photo series is going to bring much more trouble than the Cats and Boobs project has shown. Tumblr has already tagged my profile as explicit. It means that the photos I have added there will only be visible to those who logged in and chose an option Show sensitive material.
I’m eagerly waiting for Xeniya’s Cats and Boobs book and future projects that we hope to see on an even larger scale. Such a violating, debating and shattering art culture is one of the things we really need today in our society. Shake the general norms, Xeniya, shake it properly!
Original text in Finnish Anu Toivola, translation into English Anna Rinta-Jyllilä