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The Making of a Monster

By Shefalee Jain

painting dis-ease 1

Painting Dis-ease 1painting dis-ease 2

Painting Dis-ease 2

painting dis-ease 3Painting Dis-ease 3

painting dis-ease 4

Painting Dis-ease 4

painting dis-ease 5

Painting Dis-ease 5

drawings 1

Drawings for the Garden of Delights 1

drawings 2

Drawings for the Garden of Delights 2

drawings 3

Drawings for the Garden of Delights 3

drawings 4

Drawings for the Garden of Delights 4

drawings 5

Drawings for the Garden of Delights 5

drawings 6

Drawings for the Garden of Delights 6

drawings 7

Drawings for the Garden of Delights 7

drawings 8

Drawings for the Garden of Delights 8

drawings 9

Drawings for the Garden of Delights 9

drawings 10

Drawings for the Garden of Delights 10

monster 1

Monster 1

monster 2

Monster 2

monster 3

Monster 3

monster 4

Monster 4

monster 5

Monster 5

monster 6

Monster 6

monster 7

Monster 7

monster 8

Monster 8

What difference is there between gazing at the eyes of the blind or the labia of the Hottentot Venus? It is a discomfiting analogy, and I realize some people will not like it. They will be angry. Perhaps then they will begin to understand the anger of the disabled—how the gaze that acts under the guise of curiosity, like colonialist curiosity, is actually a gaze of violence. (Postcards to Sophie Calle, Joseph Grigley)

Much of my work is about the diseased body and how we look at it. I am intrigued by the discomfort, the horror, the disgust, and simultaneously the invasive curiosity that the sight of a diseased (especially a diseased skin) or disabled body, creates in us. Why do we react to it in such terror and with such violence? Why is it that despite advances in modern medicine, there has been no positive change in our ways of seeing and accepting the fact of disease?

Thinking around this area has led me to explore the visuals that modern medicine uses and the way these shape our perception of disease. I became interested in pursuing this thread and started exploring representations from the history of medicine in the west. It was then that I came across texts such as the Monstrorum Historia and De Monstruorum Natura, the first scientific attempts in the western world, during the Renaissance, at enumerating and recording monstrous births and disability. These were modelled on earlier texts such as Physiologus (Greek) and the medieval Bestiaries which were more fabulous than scientific in their approach. They documented and classified various animals and birds (both real and imaginary) and employed them symbolically to speak of Christian morals and values. But then, even the Renaissance texts had enough of the fabulous in them, so much so that the new races discovered in new lands were also illustrated and listed as monstrous curiosities alongside animals, birds, monstrous births, and disabilities.

Looking at these part fabulous part scientific representations which made monsters of ‘the other’, in comparison with today’s ‘true to life’, ‘factual’ (as the eye/scanner sees it) and ‘objective’ representations, I started wondering about the work they do. Despite their claims to ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity’, modern medical representations (like the renaissance illustrations) continue to depict disease and difference as monstrous. While the Renaissance underlined this difference with crude labels such as Monstrum Bifrons and Monstrum Cepticeps, we use complex medical jargon  which classifies one anyway as a deviant from the ‘norm’ and thus monstrous and in need of correction. No doubt modern medicine has come a long way and achieved a lot ( I do not want to in any way belittle the advances that we have made in the field) yet what struck me was that the ways of seeing it perpetuates remain as problematic as in the Renaissance texts.

As I explored this area, I realized that these visuals, circulated widely through the net, in hospitals, and in medical journals are highly problematic. They literally cut the body up into pieces and make it available for public display. They are either in the form of neutralized linear diagrams that project the body as an object of study and separate it from its emotional, social, and political existence, or they are hyper realistic close ups of diseased body parts which invariably produce reactions of horror, disgust, and fear, as well as complete disavowal of one’s own body. Having been a patient of severe eczema, and having scoured the net and all sorts of books looking for cures, I realized how disturbing and reductive modern medical imagery is. How much it controls our ways of looking at ourselves.

The work shared here is a reflection on how modern medicine constructs the way we perceive and receive disease and disability. The series titled Monsters is based partially on some illustrations from the Renaissance text Monstrorum Historia (1696) by Ulisse Aldrovandi that catalogues monstrous births alongside different racial types. I wanted to use these particular illustrations since they mark the beginnings of modern medical representation of the body in the west with special emphasis on ‘scientific truth’. I decided to re-invent those adding tools of modern medicine such as the stethoscope, the scanning eye, the ruler, and the spot light, suggesting that the making of a monster lies within the field of representation even today.

The five diptychs in acrylic are titled Painting Dis-ease. The panels to the left in each of these diptychs are portraits of people with some form of skin ailment. I wanted to make the portraits in the format of a studio photograph where a desiring subject poses willingly in front of the camera (unlike in the series titled Monsters where the subject becomes a passive object caught in the gaze of the examiner/doctor).  These portraits are drawn partly from memory and part imagination. The companion pieces (panels on the right) to these acrylic portraits are images culled from representations in modern medical texts of particular skin ailments.

The group of drawings are named after Bosch’s well known triptych, The Garden of Delights. They explore the pleasures of itching. Rather than seeing disease and disability only as a negative or constituting a lack, these drawings explore the moments of pleasure and more importantly the moments of reflection that these conditions put us in. It is when you do not fit in with the norm, when you fall out of step, that you become intensely aware of the hegemony of the normative and begin to question it .Often it was in the nospace and notime of my different partial recoveries from illnesses that I began reflecting on how the perception of disease and disability is constructed within modern medicine as undesirable as well as unproductive. These drawings are a kind of tribute to moments of recognition of disease and disability as loci of resistance to the cognitive authority of modern medicine.


Shefalee Jain is an artist who had a solo exhibition titled Painting Dis-ease at The Faculty of Fine Arts, M.S.U., Baroda in Feb. 2012.She has been part of several group shows and is an occasional contributor to Chakmak, a children’s magazine published by Eklavya, Bhopal. She has jointly illustrated (with Lokesh Khodke) Mother, a poem by Kancha Illiah, as part of a project, Different Tales: Stories from Marginal Cultures and Regional Languages (conducted by Anveshi research centre for women’s studies, Hyderabad).A set of 25 children’s books in three languages were published as part of this initiative by Mango, D C Books, Kottayam, Kerala, 2008.She is also the author and illustrator of a children’s book ’Ten’, published by Tulika. Shefalee teaches at the Ambedkar University, Delhi, School of Culture and Creative Expressions, as Assistant Professor. She co-ordinates the Visual Art program and offers a core course in art practice as well as an elective titled ‘Examining Normalcy’.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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