Intimate Moments in Non-Western Art

So Much of "Art History" is Eurocentric.

It’s not just stylistic either; popular European social convention both feeds and creates the answer to questions posed by art, like the ever important “who’s dating who?” or the classic “no homo?”. There exists a world outside this feedback loop however. It’s called the rest of the world. Platonic intimacy, a sort of relationship that takes its name from the philosopher Plato, is not unique to the Western sphere. Intimacy in all its complexity has been viewed and depicted in beautifully unique ways around the globe, and it has been for centuries.

Mokuan's Four Sleepers

Mokuan's Four Sleepers

The friendship between figures in Chan (also known as Zen) lore is a notable example. The artist Mokuan Reien was a Japanese monk and painter in the mid fourteenth century who helped bring the Zen style of painting to greater recognition in Japan. He painted the Four Sleepers, depicting classic Chan/Zen figures while studying at a Chan monastery in China. The Four Sleepers depicts legendary monk Fenggan/Bukan with his friends Hanshan/Kanzan and Shide/Jittoku taking a nap together, using Fenggan’s tiger as a pillow. The apparition style painting conveys the meditative dream state they are experiencing as a group experience. The sleepers are unified in their spiritual bond as they lean on each other in one unifying shape. Softness (both visually and contextually) is celebrated. Just look at how cute the tiger is!

Igbo Mbari

Igbo Mbari house with clay figures

Igbo Mbari houses represent life- the process of creating them is just as important if not more than the finished product. The houses are built in a lengthy and detailed process to honor Ala the earth goddess (among other deities). They take years of tedious sacred work to construct, and when completed are “the” destination to travel to.

Igbo Mbari sculpting a clay figure


The ornately constructed architecture is inhabited by clay figures of all varieties, from humans to beasts, locals to foreigners. The forms depicted inside the mbari specifically do not shy away from any aspect of life, including sex and sexuality in addition to everyday familial and platonic intimacies. Mbari is meant to encompass a broad range of emotion; included are the good and beautiful, the forbidden, the frightening and the humorous. Sexual intimacy is taboo in everyday Igbo life, so the displays of sexuality are for the purpose of humor, shock, and most importantly, showing life as it is. The Mbari is a celebration of the relationships people have to each other.

Ajanta Caves

Buddhist monuments in Ajanta caves

The Ajanta caves are a series of Buddhist monuments carved into a rock face in Maharashtra. The caves functioned as monasteries, and depict the many stages and lives of Buddha. Also filling the caves are depictions of scantily clad women carved and painted in the idealized body types of the era. By European standards this would be inappropriate decor for monks, but the women and their sensuality were not seen as sinful.  The representation of these Ajanta women are not as sexual objects, but as divine and spiritual worldly forms. This kind of depiction of the was perfectly normal for monastic dwellings. The relationship between the monks- who had given up worldly possession- and the material sensuality of the artwork was not seen as a juxtaposition, but logical counterparts in a spiritual narrative.

Mother With Child

Mother and child by Oswaldo Guayasamin

In a more modern time, the importance of intimacy is evident in Oswaldo Guayasamin’s Tenderness series. Painted in the 80s and 90s during the later years of his life, Tenderness is the last and most hopeful collection of his works. His artistic career of depicting oppression, poverty,  and class division abundant in Latin America during his lifetime took a turn for the more hopeful with his series of  works of mothers and children. Still harrowed from a life of horrors but finding reconciliation in each other's gentle touch, these portraits tell a tale of intimate connections between families in Quito, Ecuador.

Krishna and Sudana

Platonic intimacy also plays a part in Hindu mythological art. In this image, Krishna greets Sudama in an image drawn from their story of friendship in the Bhagavata Purana. Their lifelong bond is a lesson in friendship and class/income difference. According to the story, Lord Krishna washed Sudama’s feet upon his entrance into the palace, an intimate act of respect. These friends had a close bond, sharing food and gifts in a way that honors selflessness and generosity. Their food sharing and physical touch are a great equalizer, bringing these men of greatly different status together.

Krishna and Sudama intimately embracing each other in a greeting


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