Nirma Madhoo and Studio Anatomy: What happens when multiple art forms converge?

Nirma Madhoo

By Mamelodi Marakalala

When Azimuth (2019) starts, you are met with a dramatic sound that reminds you of the music score from your favourite alien invasion science-fiction blockbuster. It pulls the viewer into the depths and darkness of the built world. The film is in mirror image, so the one side of the environment appears as going in and out of the parallel other. You see a woman submerged and swimming in a body of water. The image is horizontally mirrored, and so she appears to be becoming one with herself but also diverging into two bodies with each stroke. Then, you are taken to the outside of a vertically mirrored building and a dancer floats in midair, in the foreground – posing, dancing, twirling around and hanging upside-down from time to time in that sequence; in one grand choreography. Then appears the centre of an ominous space, enormous enough to encourage exploration but holding nothing to explore except the coldness of the walls and some light coming in through the windows. 

This virtual reality fashion film was directed by Nirma Madhoo, who uses the title of Anatomy Studio to promote her work in place of her own name, and explores “South African brutalist-scapes as elemental triptychs in 360° space”. Many people know brutalist buildings as geometric walls made from concrete and not covered by paint – an architectural style that dominated cities of the world between the 1950s and 1970s. Act 1 was filmed at Durban harbour and features dolosse, which are concrete blocks originally invented in South Africa to protect breakwaters, harbour walls, and coastal constructions from forces of the sea that lead to erosion. Act 2 was filmed at the Durban University of Technology’s Steve Biko Campus. Act 3 features a 3D structure referencing the Ponte City Skyscraper in Berea, Johannesburg, which was built around 1975. These constructions, two real and one rendered, allow the audience to understand the environment and, therefore, the essence of the film’s story. 

There is a clear contrast between the body swimming in the water in the first act and the body floating about in front of the building at the Steve Biko site in the second act and then within the space of the skyscraper rendition for the rest of the film. The messaging travels seamlessly from one medium to the next in each scene, and the viewer is left to appreciate how these converged art forms carry their weight in telling the overall story, by following the imagery of the particularly fashioned body, water, and concrete. Water represents birth and life, freedom, and purity reflected in the flowy and effervescent movements of the swimmer, who is dressed in soft white fabrics and with bright blue colouring. Concrete, or architecture, is solid and represents strength, substance, rigidity and longevity, which are reflected in the dancer’s movements and their all-black militant style outfit. It is a very collaborative contrast, in that water can be used to make concrete and give way to life, while the architecture protects and sustains life. Soft flowy fabrics represent the fragility of life while rigid black fabric represents its strengths. 

The beginning of the 9318_ (2022) shows a fashioned body in its anatomical form appearing from a completely black background. Then it cuts to the title screen: nine three one eight. You see the body – draped in black fabric – dancing in sophistication to classical music, a combination of Soprano by Bulelwa Sayaki and Mozart’s Requiem as re-arranged by Matthijs van Dijk. Thereafter, this figure slowly becomes covered by a web made of Voronoi lace. There is a moment where the body is floating upright in a fetal position with hands dropped to the ankles. That is, until the next scene wherein it is engulfed by a swarm of red-yellow-blue particles while wearing a dress, or rather while being a dress that has gained a body. For this film, Madhoo (aka Studio Anatomy) collaborated with Andrew Sutherland, who is a VFX, 3D, and Houdini artist based in Durban, and he creates VFX tutorials for Rebelway on YouTube. “The lattice and particles are generated in Houdini and I created the fashion performance in CLO3D and Cinema4D,” says Nirma Madhoo.

The viewer is invited to reflect on humanness before and beyond natural, social and political constructions of the internal self, as well as to understand how those identifying factors become part of the individual self. Examples include the performativity of the body in the film, the fashioning that the body has undergone, and the dark space the body has inhabited in the scene, as well as the technology that allows viewers to enter and interact with the themes – as prescribed by the story or formed in external subjective interpretation. 

The title itself, 9318, was derived from a short National Geographic documentary about how Susan Potter’s body became a high-resolution digital cadaver. At some point in the documentary, the cadaver’s body is labelled with this number. Madhoo says, “The idea was to create a fashion film which speaks to the transformation of this human, and woman, into her inscription as posthuman and incorporation as a digital body. The film is not representational, I do not depict Susan Potter; I am rather inspired by her post-humanity and how she is transformed into a digital body.”

For both of these productions, the three elements of film, fashion and XR work together to enhance what is being addressed in the direction and being perceived by her audience. This intermingling of different modes of storytelling and documenting society and culture is what fuels Madhoo’s creative practice. Madhoo’s career of marrying fashion, film, and XR began with a Bachelor of Technology and then a Master of Technology in Fashion at the Durban University of Technology. She proceeded to study for a Master’s in Fashion Photography at the London College of Fashion, which led to her PhD candidacy, presently at the RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. 

Madhoo has exhibited her work internationally, at events such as the Melbourne Fashion Festival at the Melbourne Museum and MARS Gallery; London Short Film Festival, the Aesthetica Short Film Festival based in York, United Kingdom, Berlin Fashion Film Festival, MUTEK Montréal, and the Fak’ugesi Digital Festival held annually in Johannesburg. She produces work, along with many others who offer distinct services such as camera work, lighting, styling, applying creative technology, editing, and many more for those pre-production, production, and post-production phases. She is also vested in education, as a lecturer in fashion.

The work of Studio Anatomy explores humanity by delving into the sciences of anatomy, constructs of society and technological innovation. These projects are not about pointing to where the fashion ends and the film begins or questioning the extended realities (VR/360°) in the mix. The fact that these art forms in Madhoo’s work operate in inseparability enables us to embrace life’s big picture – where biology, psychology, theatrics, fashion, architectural space, and technology function to address specific concerns and advance traditions in this contemporary world, and they simply flow into each other at different points of daily existence. 

In a typical world that places modes of making and mediums of communication in their designated bubbles, we understand fashion as a commodity, a means of decoration, expression, and the armour protecting us from our sensitivity to the environment and our intersectionality. We understand film as the medium which carries a story for us to experience, learn from or develop a fondness for. We understand XR as a way to interact with digital creations, to go into the screen instead of simply staring at it. In this contemporary world – a world constantly shifting from the typical – we are starting to see the rise of multimedia in different artistic and technological processes.

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