Naked and disabled: the body as a site of strength and beauty

By Disability Arts International on May 5, 2020

A brunette woman screams on the floor, her wheelchair beside her. She wears Converse trainers and a sparkly black dress.
Diana Niepce performs in Teatr21’s PokaZ in Warsaw. Photo: Pawel Kuligowski

There is a long tradition of artists and performers being drawn towards nudity as a tool of shock, vulnerability, truth and raw self-expression. It places the body in  the public eye, revealing what is usually hidden, and uses explicitness and intimacy to spotlight the audience’s gaze as part of the meaning-forming process. Voyeurs, spectators, observers are not as innocently passive as once thought.

When images of normative bodies are the ones most commonly seen in the mainstream media, how are disabled artists using the attributes of nudity in subversive and radical ways? How does audience perception change in relation to whether a naked disabled or non-disabled body is seen on stage?

Diana Bastos Niepce is a Portuguese disabled dancer and creator who frequently experiments with the naked form, both as creative methodology and artistic content. Here she talks about the multiple qualities and layers of meaning that it brings to her practice.

“When a dancer sees herself in a wheelchair, there is a side of fatality as great as it is miraculous. It’s fatalistic in the way that it makes her deal with the fragility of the body and how it seems destined to move in certain ways. At the same time, it appears miraculous for re-framing a trivial action such as walking as now grandious. Observing this story from the outside makes us deal with our biggest internal fears, regardless of this being my story.

My relationship with the body is like poetry, full of beautiful and violent landscapes. Yet, I haven’t always had the conceptual fluidity, the troubled relationship of self-love and how we relate to ourselves, that distinguishes us. I took a long time to understand my physicality, and I only understood it, in is genesis, when I felt that my body stopped understanding me.

I connect nudity in my creative practice with the concept of letting go of the body. It’s as if showing my own skin, I come closer to the divine and reaching another level of being. For me, the exercise of stripping makes us analyse the enigmas of life and physical limits.

In the Nazi concentration camps, the act of undressing reinforced the power of those who dictated and the fragility of those made to strip.

There is a historic power dynamic in using the naked body, especially the female body, and as a performance-maker, dancer and choreographer, I claim that control and use it as a tool of power.

By exposing the body, it forces me to contemplate the physical form with all of its flaws, but when everything is laid bare, there is a new glory in oneness and intimacy. It’s as if in deciding to reveal my own flaws, that I can begin to close the gap between self and other.

Diana Niepce explored nudity in performance during her residency with Polish learning disabled theatre company Teatr21. Photo: Pawel Kuligowski

Through a normative lens, the naked bodies of disabled people are often observed as obscene and non-sexual, among many other things.  Yet why should a nude disabled body be any more shocking than a non-disabled body? The shock element clearly has a different resonance with how society views disabled bodies as the naked human form has been widely used throughout dominant art traditions. To try and address this, one of the exercises I use in my practice is to experience the action of undressing and dressing over 20 minutes. It creates this feeling of exposure, a provocation that uncovers our differences in a raw and beautiful way.

My body then and my body now has a very different dance vocabulary. As well as different movement, it has a different capacity to induce a change of perspective in the audience.  Viewing the body as a machine, the movements that had technically formatted me for a long time were no longer the characteristics that interested me. I had undergone a metamorphosis and through sharing my body with the audience, I am extending this process of change. I seek, through this exposure of the body, to enhance its weirdness and remove taboos. For me, identifying and highlighting the barriers that confine social norms is part of the creative content.

When it is only normative bodies that are shown on our stages, screens, in theatres and culture industry, it creates a very narrow lane for us to exist. When the bodies that are shown are aesthetic and technical replicas of each other, it gives rise to a fascist view of physical form. It is an act that represses everyone.

We aren’t all the same, something that disabled artists acutely aware of, and as long as the non-normative bodies are still hidden, nudity will be an important tool in confronting the existing power dynamic. Questioning the norms, raising questions, making noise, revelling in disturbance is by nature a risky business but it’s the only way I know.”

Diana is a Europe Beyond Access artist, also taking part in the second laboratory hosted by project partner Skånes Dansteater in Malmö, Sweden. Learn more about Diana’s work on her artist profile page.

See Diana perform:

5 June 2020 – “Duet” – creation of Diana Niepce – DefFest – Capitólio – Lisboa

24 October 2020 – “Duet” – creation of Diana Niepce – Cinema Gemini – Oliveira de Azeméis

April of 2021 – Premiér of Anda, Diana – creation of Diana Niepce – TBA – Lisboa

(All the performances are subject to permanent changes following the national plan for preparedness and response to the disease by the new Covid-19 and the guidelines of the General Directorate of Health of Portuguese republic).

Website: http://aniepce.com/

Engage with Diana on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/diananiepce/

Engage with Diana on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/aniepce/?hl=pt

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