Sydney-based queer artist Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran may be an atheist, but his debut solo exhibition - In the beginning - at the University of Melbourne’s Ian Potter Museum of Art, thrums with the electric possibility of creation myths.
Humanity’s forging through clay is a rich seam in religion. The ancient Sumerians - whose civilisation was founded in the place we now know as Iraq - believed the gods created the first human from clay. Greek mythology attributes this shaping of mankind to the Titan Prometheus, with Athena breathing life into his work. The Bible recounts a similar origin of Adam and Eve.
“It’s creation matter,” Nithiyendran says. “It’s a very loaded material.”
It’s one he’s moulded into new life in In the beginning. “There’s this narrative of the artist as creator that’s functioning on a literal level, but then it’s engaging with this idea of a creation myth and what that means, looking at contexts like Catholicism and Hinduism where creation narratives have been used to structure lots of social stuff.”
An energetic character bristling with ideas, the nose-ringed Nithiyendran leaps from one thought to another as we walk around the gallery space, taking in clay creatures with multiple heads and genitalia. The impressive centrepiece is a bronze casting layered with snakes and penises, easily mistaken for one another.
The traditional tall white walls have been transformed. Spray-painted neon pink and yellow, a massive tag reveals Nithiyendran’s innuendo-laden Instagram handle Ramsdeep69. Texta figures bear both breasts and phalluses, with some mid-wee.
There’s also a snake figure circling the two rooms, with yet more religious symbolism represented by historical artefacts from the Ian Potter collection, including zoological specimens, statues of Hindu gods and homoerotic ancient Greek pottery that stand side-by-side Nithiyendran’s brightly adorned clay figures.
“All the figures are meant to be pseudo-religious, new-age idols for this time,” he says. “They’re all multi-gendered or genderless or ambiguous. Sexual identity isn’t necessarily defined by your genitalia. Especially legally now, there’s lots of self-definition happening, so I never conceived theses being of a specific gender, they have attributes of or both.”
The fluidity of gender depicted in these playful images straddles centuries of religious tradition. Born in Sri Lanka, Nithiyendran’s mum and dad moved to Sydney when he was one. His father’s side are Hindu, with his mother’s Catholic, so he’s been surrounded by a clash of cultures all his life.
The modern comes crashing into the ancient, with Nithiyendran noting that, in his role as creator, he did not literally get down on hands and knees and dig clay from the earth. “It’s capitalism, with mass-produced glazes and things, so there’s lots of engagement with internet culture,” he says, pointing to the curly dark locks tumbling from one of his sculptural pieces. It’s real Indian hair purchased on eBay, referencing his unruly locks.
“It’s kind of a discourse on exoticism and capitalism,” he says. “When those things get woven into the economy, those specific attributes of people’s race.”
While he acknowledges that the proliferation of penises in the exhibition could be perceived as male bravado, Nithiyendran sees it as self-debasement loaded with ironic humour. “The thing about this work, it’s presenting sexual symbolism, right, but rhetorically, so it’s not about sex, if that makes sense? It’s looking at these symbols to talk about broader socio-political issues.”
The gender queer creations challenge patriarchal structures and racial power dynamics. Nithiyendran references Palestinian-American professor Edward Said’s Orientalism, a study of post-colonialism and the west’s patronising, exoticising view of the east.
“Within the Hindu religion, one of the last surviving instances of phallus worship in a religious context is the Shiva Lingam, which is Shiva’s penis, essentially,” Nithiyendran notes. “It exists in this concave [yonic] base structure. It’s not really about domination; it’s more about unity. It’s really interesting because when the British came to India, they thought it was perverse and started to cover it up or knock the heads off it to make to make it less phallic, imposing their conservative morality onto a sexually liberal society.”
In the beginning channels the Shiva Lingam reference. “There has been phallic, graphic sexual imagery since the beginning of time and it wasn’t unorthodox or subversive; it had its place,” Nithiyendran says. “It’s a bit different nowadays with the proliferation of porn culture, which is omnipresent.
“There’s this sense that women’s bodies are commoditised by the media, on TV, everywhere, and yet men’s bodies are still fairly veiled, like the penis is a highly censored object,” he adds. “Maybe you need to actually proliferate images of this to make it less powerful? Maybe you have to engage with the symbol rather than just keep censoring it?”