By Liana Jacob
CONTROVERSIAL PHOTOGRAPHS show a domestic abuse survivor posing naked as the Virgin Mary in a picture series designed to prove that nudity and motherhood doesn’t have to be sexualised – and the model claimed it made her feel ‘gorgeous again’.
Stunning pictures show new mum, Leah, who became a mum after getting out of an abusive relationship, breastfeeding her son on her lap.
The incredible pictures include intimate shots of Leah breastfeeding while sitting down with a halo above her head as a symbol of Virgin Mary.
The poignant photo series was taken by fine art photographer, Reka Nyari (39), who lives in New York, USA, as part of a project called INK; based on the illustrated journey of tattooed women.
“I have been working on my INK Series for the last three years, which portrays incredible, extremely tattooed women and their life stories,” Reka said.
“Once I got pregnant, had my daughter, and found out that breastfeeding was still a taboo (especially in public, and especially when breast-feeding toddlers), I wanted to shoot a series about motherhood; breastfeeding, and the over-sexualisation of the female body.
“I saw photos of Leah, the subject of my newest ‘Mother Ink’ series, on Instagram, and messaged her immediately.
“She is heavily tattooed, recently had a baby, and was breastfeeding her son. She’s got a very unique life story of leaving an abusive relationship and being a single mother.
“The Mother Ink series portrays a young, tattooed woman, who’s taken on the character of Virgin Mary; the ultimate symbol of motherhood and love.
“In these images, we see her nursing and playing with her son, full of tenderness and devotion. Her body, still a tool for self-expression and sexuality, has also become a sanctuary of nourishment and security.
“She is a mother, yet a sexually empowered woman. There is no reason why these two powers should not co-exist.
“Each series begins with me getting to know the unique life story of my subject; we talk and write to each other, following a few months of planning and research for the shoot.
“I aim for each story to be as authentic as possible, while visually engaging and beautiful. There is a lot of trust and a connection between me and my subjects. I feel very privileged that they open up and let me share their stories with the world.”
Leah has spoken out about how the photoshoot made her feel and what she hopes people will take from it.
“The project helped me re-connect with feeling beautiful. I was so focused on being a mum, the experience really made me feel gorgeous again,” she said.
“Incorporating my son, while being beautiful reminded me that I can be a mum at the same time as feeling beautiful.
“The message I hope people see right away is the naturalness and love in breastfeeding and motherhood. If they look deeper and read my story, I hope they feel the empowerment.”
Reka explains that while she knows that the theme of Virgin Mary may displease some people, she believes it accurately portrays the love and devotion of a mother, which she says Virgin Mary symbolises.
Despite being faced with some logistical issues along the way, she says that this is part of the challenge and it keeps things interesting.
“Some people will find the religious references disturbing, however, they should keep in mind that the Virgin Mother has been portrayed nude, breastfeeding, topless, and even squirting milk in religious iconography since the beginning of Christianity,” Reka said.
“Censorship of the nipple is rather a modern idea. Mary has been portrayed breastfeeding a naked baby Jesus, in public for all to see, and it was not considered disturbing or slutty, but a beautiful and natural display of motherly love – as it should be.
“Each shoot has their obstacles, which usually makes things more interesting and challenging. In Leah’s case; her son got sick the night before the shoot, his first fever, actually.
“So, I was nervous that we’d have to cancel the whole production we had worked on for months. Luckily, he got better overnight.
“It’s also always very difficult to shoot with a baby and very unpredictable. We had to shoot fast as babies don’t have long attention spans.
“It was a lot less about planned shots, and lot more about getting what the mother and baby felt like doing at the moment. He wanted to feed a lot, so I captured Leah breastfeeding. It was very organic.
“I love narrative photography, where there is so much more than meets the eye; these images are multi layered.
“There is a story behind the accessories, symbolism, and pose, but the subject’s life stories are literally also written on their bodies with ink.
“There are a lot of messages to my work. I aim to show a woman who’s strong, empowered, and in charge of her sexuality and her destiny. Nudity does not equate to sexuality, unless she so wishes.
“I print my pieces as large archival pigment prints. They look a little bit like old silver gelatine prints, or like massive charcoal drawings.
“I’ve had people cry when they enter the gallery. A lot of the work deals with trauma and abuse that women have overcome, and it can be very touching.
“Most of my collectors are actually women, which I find to be a huge compliment. The images are nude not to sexualise my subjects, but simply because that is the only way that the stories on their skin can be seen.”