Their faces were painted in hurried brushstrokes, slightly off-color, and without many identifying characteristics. The women had sober faces and defying eyes that challenged me to understand them, to imagine where they sat while being painted and who they returned home to after.
The artist Joan Kelly is white, redheaded and Irish-American. She teaches drawing and painting at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore, one of the top fifty universities in the world. The women she paints are Chinese, Nepali, South Indian, Thai or Bengali, and are all sex workers in the red light areas of Singapore or Kolkata, India. As I sat in Kelly’s lecture called “Foreign Worker, Or Foreign Talent: Hierarchies, Perceptions, and Keeping Whole Communities in Servitude” in McCormick 101, I couldn’t help but angrily scribble in my notes the less-than-articulate question “who even is she!?”
When Kelly moved to Singapore ten years ago, her plan was to revamp the (nonexistent) painting and drawing program at NTU. For inspiration she would wander around the city, exploring new neighborhoods and painting people on the streets. The exhibit she presented in her talk was a collection of portraits of sex workers and migrant laborers that she met on the street and paid to model for her.
Her project began when she first ventured into the red light area in Singapore and struck up a conversation with one man who was unapologetically staring at her. After bragging that he was a pimp, the man proposed that she come and paint the women who work for him. The next day she waltzed into the red light area with an easel and began to paint the women he brought to her. She painted them quickly, just simple portraits, and she paid them for modeling at the same rate that regular customers pay for prostitution. The women in the portraits look calm, certainly posed, with expressions not particularly happy or unhappy. Kelly showed a photo of herself surrounded by the sea of men that typically gathered to watch her paint. She indicated one man as the pimp from her story. His grin shone with pride.
The pimps decide who works and how much they’re paid. Last year I worked with a North-Indian organization that fights sex trafficking and forced prostitution for seven months where I learned about this and other harsh realities that women in the sex industry face. I heard striking accounts of low-caste and impoverished women who turned to prostitution as the only remaining option after generations of systematic oppression. Some try to argue that sex-work empowers these women because anyone is entitled to use her body however and with whomever she wants. But for communities like the ones where I worked in Varanasi and where Kelly painted in Kolkata, sex work is not a choice— it is the marginalization of an entire community deemed by society unfit for any occupation other than prostitution or toilet-scrubbing.
Sex workers often receive only a fraction, if any, of the price paid by their customers. With no way to guarantee that the modeling stipend she dispensed would be different, Kelly may even have been complicit in the disempowering of the very women whose marginalization she claimed to expose. Kelly described one brothel in Singapore where the pimps would guard the doors and collect customers’ money while the women waited in an inner chamber. Kelly proudly showed the women she painted in this brothel, who were mostly Thai. Although Kelly’s patronage was different from other customers in terms of the services she asked of the women, the price she paid was the same; and at what cost for her models?
I have a hard time believing that Kelly’s work even marginally affected the living and working conditions of the women she painted beyond the initial excitement. In Kelly’s words, her portraits serve to “capture the humanity” of her subjects. Kelly proclaimed that nothing is changing in these red light areas, that the status quo is in place. She’s not trying to change the lives of the women she paints; she wants to meet them, paint them, and tell the story. They are the subjects of her art, the women whose stories she’d like people back home to know about, the usually nameless faces of poverty and desperation that press on society’s hidden wounds.
But what was missing from Kelly’s talk was any acknowledgment that when she entered those communities and made a name for herself there, she lost her ability to be an independent observer. The so-called status quo of oppressor and oppressed, creditor and debtor, pimp and prostitute, customer and provider, is a self-perpetuating social reality—one that she bought into for the sake of her project.
The other complicating factor is Kelly’s position as a Western, female visitor in the communities she claims to feel so connected to. After a heart-wrenching story of being bullied about her first-grade romance with a black classmate, Kelly explained that her art is driven by questions of minority and majority, racial and socioeconomic discrimination, and privilege (or lack thereof) that she has struggled with ever since. She tries especially to paint communities where she is not expected to keep company.
In the United States, to be white is to be a member of a privileged majority. However, while abroad in predominantly non-white countries, white skin takes on a whole slew of other projections and assumptions. Tourists from the West are often assumed to be exorbitantly wealthy, and women in particular have the reputation of being promiscuous and naive. Kelly described her motivation to paint these portraits as a reaction to her frustration that the “white woman box” of affluence and sexual looseness associated with her skin color defined her interactions with locals.
During my time in India, I too grew accustomed to what it feels like to be approached for money every time I walk outside; to be stared at, called for, and invited into dark alleys by unfamiliar men. But I was instructed to keep my head down on the street, only smile at people I recognized, and especially never to wander around the red light area on my own. As a white woman, I could draw unnecessary and potentially dangerous attention to myself and to the non-governmental organization I worked for, and disrupt the careful work my coworkers had done to gradually integrate the organization into the red-light area without alienating the community.
The differences between my experience and Kelly’s are glaring. I was exceedingly conscious of my role as a foreign volunteer. I was there to learn about trafficking and prostitution, help with projects that I was equipped for, befriend the neighborhood children and learn their stories, and avoid interfering with delicate work like rescues and court cases where my foreignness would be more hindrance than help. Kelly boldly wandered into unfamiliar neighborhoods, welcomed the crowds that gathered to watch her work, and brought her students from the university with her on fieldtrips.
This mutually entertaining encounter between Kelly’s art class and the local community was almost the exact opposite from the approach I was cautioned to take. The drastic difference in her approach struck me at first as almost criminal. But she spoke about her paintings with undeniable emotion and fondness for the women she met. Her passion for her subjects and for the story her paintings tell was clear. Joan Kelly is a painter. As she sees it, she had a choice to paint these women or to paint something else entirely. She returned day after day to grungy, impoverished neighborhoods so that she could try to give a voice to people who have never received such positive attention in their lives.
While I remain confident in the guidelines I was given for being an effective volunteer and informed activist, Kelly’s work represents art as a form of activism in a different realm. Working against a system from within is a painstakingly slow process. Volunteers, lobbyists, and social-workers fight for systematic change incrementally, which means patiently waiting for hopeful indications that they have invested themselves in a worthwhile and effective project. Artists, and even journalists, are fighting in a separate arena. It is rare for a single art piece or exposé to draw enough attention to change the systemic failure it highlights. However, artists play a huge role in humanizing the hidden struggles of out-of-sight communities. After my initial frustrated-question-scribbling indignation, I turned my attention to Kelly’s motivations and perspective on her role in her models’ lives. Whether Kelly’s work constitutes service under the same definitions as the work of social workers or long-term volunteers is up for debate. But her paintings, exhibitions, lectures stand as a poignant example of the importance of engaged and unapathetic art.