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Siddharth Sivakumar

Cultural journalist and Writer

Metropolitan Museum, New York, USA



"Thanks Poulomi Di for asking me to participate in the ongoing museum memories project. I'd like to pick three instances from my 2018 visit to the metropolitan museum in New York. Each instance consists of an interaction between a work of art, a spectator, and a second spectator. The second spectator is always me taking photographs, not only as a means of record keeping, but as an attempt to create a narrative across time and ideas, involving an art object and spectator.

So the first photograph I'm about to discuss… such as this frame, Rembrandt's warrior goddess Bellona, and a rather plump American woman whose mane-like hair and general physique creates a visual training of sorts. Thanks to uncanny resemblance that the two women share. Now the actual woman sits on a bench with back turned to us and their head hanging low as if she's inspecting the wooden floorboards. Her eyes are not on the wall. They do not meet Bellona's determined gaze. The confidence that the painting exudes is clearly missing in the woman who sat flesh and blood, before me. The woman before me fails to strike a dialogue with her mythical counterpart, since there is no dialogue with the painting, there is no mirror to see herself to recognize her own true strength of beauty. And of course, the fact that although she's not the Rembrandt's warrior… she's definitely somebody else's.

Now let's move on to the next photograph in the courtyard of the museum, Greco-Roman sculptures remain scattered across the floor. Torsos, busts and often the whole body stand erect on pedestals.

Put on display is the ancient man's potent verility and mythical strength carved out of white marbles .Within the frame, you might be able to spot Zues's son Hercules; bearded, muscular hunk who's lion's king hood does very little to hide his impressive butt cheeks. Amidst all this masculinity and male nudity, a woman sits fully clothed in black from toe to the pom-pom of a cap.

And inspired by the show, she minds her own business. She draws and captures with intense concentration, the plethora of nude men flexing muscles around her. This encounter is especially fascinating for it has turn the tables on the comparatively male dominated domain of drawing unclothed female bodies instead of the female nude being the center of attraction. Traditionally, what might have been considered the convergence point of the collective male-gaze, this is remarkable reversal makes us hopeful about the slow, but steady socio-cultural progress in art and society.

Now let's move on to the third and final encounter. On the foreground is Dega's … famed little 14 year old Nancy, cast in dark bronze. At the MET this sculpture is customarily displayed wrapped in a real bodice, tutu and ballet slippers. But not on the day of our visit when all the external articles of clothing, including the tattered Tutu, were removed for the purpose of conservation. We witnessed a rare undoing of the dancer identity. The sculpture was no more of a dancer, but of a girl, a particular kind of a girl nonetheless. The young girl's posture, at once relaxed and attentive without the ballerina's costume, becomes a powerful image of an observant receptive girl who learns not under duress, but on her own volition. The actual girl behind the sculpture lost in one of the many Dega paintings of ballerinas, is a similar creature as suggested by her own relaxed yet engaged posture. If ballerinas in general and a 14 year old dancer in particular had once inspired Dega to become the artist turned out to be, then here we see another fruitful engagement wherein a painting of ballerinas inspire our young spectator.

Would she become a dancer as a result of this engagement? Perhaps, perhaps not. From her sustained conversation with the Dega's work, she actually derives something else, something that is useful to her. After all, we should not forget that the dancers spoke to Dega. And spoke to him in a way that inspired him to paint and sculpt. Similarly, Dega can speak to her and to us. And if not nothing, the experience of engaging with a work of art teaches us to be open, to interaction, to pay attention, to get inspired and do our work.

As much as we love our artists, as much as we love conversing with them, I would request you all to not lose any opportunity to have a meaningful conversation, one-on-one with works of art in museum and elsewhere. Thank you!"

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