Student nudes banned from college show

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The Independent Online
WHAT IS the difference between a nude painting and a photograph of a naked woman? One is art, the other is smut. At least as far as South- East Essex College is concerned.

Unfortunately lecturers at the college, in Southend, forgot to mention this to Hannah Lewis, a student on a BTec fine art foundation course. She took photographs of her classmates naked as part of her coursework but has been banned from displaying them at an end-of-term exhibition.

The photographs - colour, full-length body shots of students aged 18 to 50 - were withdrawn from the show, even though nude portraits were allowed to go on display at the same event. The row has raised the age- old question of where pictures of naked bodies stop being art and become porn.

The students have no doubt - it's art. They turned up at last Friday's exhibition wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the photograph of them naked.

"The pictures are completely non-sexual," said Ms Lewis, who originally wanted to blow the pictures up to life size, before deciding to scale them down to A3. "They don't show anything rude. Most of the students are covering their bits up."

Ten students had volunteered to model for her, she said, and five had declined.

The pictures were not meant to be controversial, said Ms Lewis. "I've always been interested in the human body and I've examined different artists and done portraits before. The point was to look at figures, lighting, skin tone, observing the nude form in an asexual way. Even though they're nude their identity shows through, you're not seeing them as sexual objects."

But the college decided the pictures were not acceptable for a public show, insisting instead that the offending body parts be cut out of the pictures, leaving photographs of heads, shoulders, arms and feet, but no torsos. "If I'd painted these people it wouldn't have been as bad," said Ms Lewis. "One person has even done a nude sketch from my photograph of him naked and that has been allowed, which is ridiculous.

"Photographs are an immediate thing, which is where the worry about pornography comes in. You can't exploit people through portraits. But there isn't any real difference between my pictures and nude drawings."

Erica Williamson, head of art and design at South-East Essex College, said that Ms Lewis's work was of "the highest standard", but was not appropriate for general display. "The content of the work was such that it would not be suitable for the kind of audience we attract to the end-of-year show. Many of our students are under 18, as are pupils from local schools who have been invited. We have to be mindful of both students' and parents' expectations."

The question of whether nude photography amounts to pornography has even troubled the Women's Institute, 12 of whose members from North Yorkshire earlier this year shed their jam-producing image - and their clothes - for a charity calendar in which they appeared naked, except for a few strategically placed props. More than 30,000 have now been sold and a fourth print run is being considered.

Tricia Stewart, 50, Miss October in the calendar, said that nudity had a key role in art. "The greatest sculptors have all used the naked body," she said. "People were very supportive of our work. It was tastefully done. But it's a different thing with the younger girls. Magazines which show a woman with one foot in one corner of the page and another foot in the other corner are pornographic.

"If this student is just posing people as if for a police identity parade it could offend a lot of people, but if she's trying to make a statement about art then it's a different matter."

Anthony- Noel Kelly, the artist and sculptor best known for using human remains as moulds, has sympathy for Ms Lewis. "Her work sounds pretty similar to my own," said Mr Kelly, who opened an exhibition in east London last week of photographs of naked males and females of every age from one to the mid-eighties. The life-size black-and-white photographs were taken last year while he was awaiting trial before becoming the first person to be found guilty of stealing body parts from the Royal College of Surgeons.

"People worry about photography of the body because it has a reputation for being used in pornography. With photographs of naked bodies, people immediately think of obscenity. They're very wary about it.

"But people tend to accept painting in the nude because there's an element of craft in it and you can subdue certain parts of the body if you want."

He said the border between what was acceptable and what might be censored lay in the difference between nakedness and nudity in art. "In nudity the photographer can be asking for a response from the model. In nakedness the person isn't being manipulated. It has everything to do with the way it is presented."