Armando Cabba on art, nudity and social media censorship

This week’s post is an interview with Armando Cabba, the Canadian artist who’s challenging social media’s puritanical governance of nudity and sexuality through thought-provoking social critique in the shape of not-safe-for-work (NSFW) art. Aside from being a brilliant artist, Armando has been championing NSFW creators’ voices through his account, supporting my content and awareness campaigns, so it was only about time I returned the favour by showcasing his work on bloggeronpole.com.

About Armando Cabba

Armando Cabba is an artist and activist from Montreal, Canada. There, he studied Fine Art before moving to Italy to briefly attend an Academy, which he left to work independently in Florence. He is now based in Paris.

“My art has always been focused on realism, specifically portraits, and as time went on elements of activism began to be more present in certain pieces,” Armando says. His focus was initially on politics before moving to erotic art – something that you can actually watch him paint on his Patreon show, The JOI Of Painting, which he describes as “Bob Ross style art teaching but for erotic art that’s open to anyone.”

Armando and I connected around the time when I and a series of activists, creators, sex workers and pole dancers launched a popular petition against Instagram’s 2020 terms of use change. It was very refreshing for me to speak to him because, unlike the anti-censorship campaigners I’ve often seen come out of the art world, his approach wasn’t about separating art from sex, but about protecting all creators instead. Being part of sex-positive, anti-censorship activism has been really important for Armando:

“Ever since I’ve been involved in the sex positive community along with fighting censorship, I’m eternally grateful to have met such wonderful people. To listen and learn from everyone has been such a privilege that I’m thankful for. I’m not perfect at all, but I think I did something right somewhere to be here.”

@armandocabba

Because of his sex-positive approach and his unique art, Armando can be the bridge ‘sexy’ creators need to reach factions in the art world that are trying to separate themselves from NSFW content when fighting censorship.

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Armando and erotic art

Erotic art wasn’t something Armando explored until Tumblr imposed their infamous adult content ban in 2018. He remembers pre-purge Tumblr as a positive space:

“Before everything got censored, I found Tumblr to be a refreshing form of social media. People would post whatever inspiration, creations, etc. and it was nice to be a viewer and follow these creators. The platform felt a lot less toxic than Instagram at the time and there was certainly a lot more freedom. There was no pressure of an algorithm or chasing high engagement and you could structure your blog to be whatever you wanted it to be.”

@armandocabba

Tumblr’s new guidelines inspired Armando to start working on erotic art because, having studied fine art for seven years, he’s always enjoyed questioning authority and seeing how far he could go by bending the rules. “Challenging boundaries is a recurring theme in art history and it’s constantly in practice,” he says. “I remember the rules stating they’d only accept nudity in art that was followed by examples of the Renaissance. The idea came to mind to paint NSFW subjects and use titles from Old Master paintings to see if I could get away with it.”

The new guidelines looked incredibly unfair to Armando because, as it then became obvious to all of us on other platforms, everybody from artists to sex workers all of a sudden lost all the time and work they invested online due to a corporation’s decision. “Part of me wanted to do something and the first piece was a vulva painting,” he tells me. The series has continued on since then.

Sistine Madonna by Raphael / Oil on Wood / 15 x 15 cm / 2019 – Armando Cabba

The erotic art paintings inspired by Tumblr’s adult content ban “came from a place of defiance but were really about love,” Armando says, adding that they’re about celebrating and being an admirer of intimacy in all forms.

“When people began to notice my work and resonated with it, I leaned more into creating for beauty’s sake and wanting the viewer to feel connected and seen as oppose to just me being a pain in the ass in the eyes of Instagram. Thinking about it now, I want people to not feel erased or shame for being who they are.”

@armandocabba

Art, censorship and… the Vatican?

Armando’s art has had to evolve with Instagram’s Terms of Service. Now, he has to publish his art including two slides before the painting itself. “Seeing a post of mine that says ‘This Post has not been approved by The Vatican’ means there’s an erotic painting in there,” he says. “This reduces the chances of it being reported by a user if it should ever pop up on the explore page, because you’re most likely not going to notice a line of text next to actual photos.”

Navigating censorship for this series was a challenge for Armando. Initially, he’d post the painting with a Renaissance title along with some biblical hashtags, and it would stay. On his sixth entry he was flagged, so he opened up burner accounts to test paintings there before posting it on to his main page. “I did notice that accounts that identified as male were not getting reported compared to those that didn’t,” he says, mirroring what some users experimented with during our #everybodyvisible protest in 2019.

As the rules became stricter, Armando had to change his approach to posting. His experiences with content take-downs are pretty explosive examples of the biased, discriminatory censorship users face on Instagram:

“I didn’t want to change how I worked in the studio or the subject of the series in favour of an app owned by the guy who puts BBQ sauce on a bookshelf for decoration. I tried using bible verses since Christianity/Catholicism would never be censored. That worked for a while but I noticed I was getting flagged more as time went on. My paintings that involved people of colour and LGBTQ+ themes were always taken down first.

@armandocabba

Initially, he made short videos splicing in his paintings with the original paintings he was taking the titles from. Finally, he landed on the screens. “I began with one which evolved to having two since I got reported again. The second slide consists of a joke concerning the church due to who I am as a person.” This approach has been working in keeping his series live on Instagram so far.

“The relationship I have with digital censorship has become very personal,” Armando says about the evolution of his erotic art series. He cites the fact that over the course of a year, he has only been notified that his posts have been removed in the morning when he wakes up as an example. “I never receive the notification during the day or when I’m actively using the app. It starts to feel like they’re doing you dirty by getting you when you sleep in the middle of the night,” he says.

Armando has also been hit with what he calls “bizarre flags” when he shares someone’s story after they have shared his existing posts. “The post doesn’t get removed and the person who shared it doesn’t receive a penalty, but I get a strike for nudity for reposting their story directly to mine. It feels like they’re trying to get me with any minor infraction.” On top of this, Armando has found that every time he’d try to promote a workshop or his Patreon, his engagement would suddenly drop as if on purpose.

The impact of this censorship on Armando was both psychological and physical: “Unfortunately, [censorship] made me feel very anxious for a few months,” he says. “I’d get a sinking feeling in my stomach when the app would open and not load thinking, ‘This is it. I’m finally locked out.’ It constantly felt like I was being punished for what I was doing or that I was being isolated from everyone.”

As a result, his only available coping mechanism was to let go of the pressure of it all, for his own wellbeing. “I didn’t want them to win if I cared about what would happen to me,” he says. In his answers to me, Armando expressed the alienation arising from social media more eloquently than anyone ever before:

“I know I’m saying ‘they’ as if it’s one person doing this. I feel my mind tries to see it as an individual as opposed to a machine/system to try and ground it in reality so I can relate to it in hopes of trying to understand what’s happening.

It becomes a very strange relationship that I’m sure other creators on here have felt at some point. No matter what the weight is, as time goes on it will feel heavier and heavy the more you hold on to it.”

@armandocabba

The problem with the art world’s reaction to censorship

Conversations around the censorship of nude art always come back into the news cycle, and Armando argues they have began blowing up again since 2019, when artist Betty Tompkins’ Instagram account got deleted for her work. “It was major news and felt like a lot of people were talking about it. Since then, it’s been very divided and everyone seems to have their own agenda when bringing it up,” Armando says.

Before Armando discovered the sex positive community, he tried helping an organisation that was against the censorship of art – but that didn’t go well. “I offered my platform, I shared my information regarding my tests on burner accounts, and formally submitted my work to them. I didn’t make the cut and I was politely told I was too much for them so I should go speak to this other organisation they recommended,” he says. He was then directed to a link with no information, instead of being introduced to an actual contact. “No name, no direct email, no further questions, not even a ‘let’s keep in touch’. They probably mean well but they have their own vision of censorship,” Armando adds, and this is obvious in the anti-censorship techniques adopted by the art world, which seem to exist in a vacuum:

“There are museums that are censored for showing their collections. We’re talking about pieces that are art history being labeled ‘pornographic’ by Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. Vienna museums had to open OnlyFans accounts to show this work as a way to protest the rules. Institutions are aware there are these online barriers and the unfair moderation that exists on social media.

Of course, loads of people said that was a badass move. My question to those individuals is do you show that kind of respect to all creators on OnlyFans or just museums who are trying to sell tickets to shows? There are countless works of art that depict sex workers throughout the ages, but barely anyone in the art world are considering them when it comes to the topic of censorship.”

@armandocabba

Having been a creator of NSFW content for a few years, Armando can’t help but notice how other artists handle censorship especially on Instagram, and is particularly concerned about big names with hundreds of thousands of followers transforming the narrative to fit their needs.

“When a post of theirs is removed, it’s frustrating and disheartening to say the least. I agree with those feelings and that’s completely valid, but they frame the incident as ‘Instagram vs Me’ as opposed to being mindful of the entire impact censorship has on all creators, workers, and educators. Their posts about it read like marketing ads as opposed to saying the system is unfair. Especially when they say their work is ‘too hot’ for the platform and then they push their merch / book in the following sentence.”

@armandocabba

He tells me of a meeting he had with an art gallery in Paris, who approached him about his erotic series. Instead of focusing on the actual artwork, the meeting ended up being about how Armando has managed to promote his series on social media. “Not once did they mention it was important to share this work with the public for the sake of the work. It was a very strong show that included pieces from Andy Warhol and Kent Monkman. These days censorship only comes up when the art world can’t make money.”

While Armando understands that galleries need collectors and that artists need to make money, he thinks the art world should adopt a more inclusive approach to anti-censorship activism: “I want to see all creators win and not be held back by unfair rules, but you have to be aware of how this hurts so many others and far worse than just having one post removed. You’re privileged if your account doesn’t get deleted or you endure a single shadowban.” This is particularly true for erotic artists:

As an erotic artist, where do you think the references to our work come from? What do you think we look at that inspires us to create? It all comes from sex workers at the end of the day and the bare minimum you can do is stand in solidarity with them. If not you’re just ripping them off and continuing the cycle that exists in every industry.

It doesn’t matter how much art lingo you can type to make yourself sound so profound and original. It doesn’t matter how many patterns and bright colours you use in your work to remix it, be honest for once. It comes from sex workers at the end of the day and it’s a group that suffers endlessly from censorship and stigma. Make some noise about it and if you don’t know what to say, pass the microphone to them.

@armandocabba

For Armando, the art world’s current attitude will only lead to more discrimination against NSFW accounts. He says: “We’re probably going to see large galleries and auction houses get the same ‘get out of jail free card’ that accounts like Playboy have to never have them talk about it publicly. They’ll be able to keep getting paid and they won’t use their influence to bring up the subject of censorship with their thousands of followers.”

Censorship’s impact on art

Nevertheless, censorship is affecting the art world. It’s incredibly hard as an emerging artist to make it into the scene, now ruled by what Armando calls ‘Instagrammable art’. Artworks like the Infinity Mirror Room by Yayoi Kusama now dominate the art world: “It’s a beautiful environment that’s also popular with visitors who want to post pictures of it. The marketing happens on its own. Better photos and more posts means a bigger audience.”

But nude art isn’t as easy to promote. Social media platforms’ censorship of nudity and sexuality is changing the art world – and not in a good way, Armando says: “I’m concerned for how social media is negatively impacting artists in both their creative choices and galleries/curation accounts selecting new talent.”

In short, social media censorship is having a chilling effect on the art that’s being created and promoted. For Armando, it has led to the creation of a ‘Safe NSFW’ category, or sexually charged art that isn’t too cheeky made by a handful of artists whose work is reposted by everyone with no risk.

“It’s a tricky environment to navigate if you make things that go against social media rules. Your work is no longer judged on, ‘Is it good or not?’ but rather ‘Is it safe or not?’ I don’t want to be in a world where creators begin sacrificing the integrity of their work in hopes to have more engagement. Users shouldn’t be afraid to share what they truly enjoy without the risks of being deleted. Everyone should have a fair shot.”

@armandocabba

According to Armando, this turn to ‘Safe NSFW’ and artists’ silence in the face of platform governance even ends up affecting the revolutionary, political power of art. He has found that erotic artists who don’t bring up issues with censorship, especially regarding sex work and minority groups, tend to face less take-downs. He says: “Maybe it’s fear or that it doesn’t bother them, but they don’t get involved and as a result I’ve seen work that’s surprisingly more graphic than mine stay up without any screens or hiccups.” He adds:

This platform favours white cis-gender users. It also seems to favour people who don’t complain about their policies. It’s a problem in the sense that it’s teaching artists to not question what’s going on. You begin to think more selfishly and disregard anything that doesn’t impact you personally. The lesson being taught is that you’ll pay the price if you begin to critique the system.

@armandocabba

Armando’s ‘Law & Order – Dick Pick Unit’ art series

One of Armando’s coolest projects also stems from content moderation, and from one of the biggest inequalities we face on Instagram: the biased governance resulting in the de-platforming of mostly female nudity and sexuality, while the harassment and unsolicited dick pics we receive often stay up. Armando’s ‘Law & Order – Dick Pick Unit’ is a refreshing, art vigilante response to dick picks in the face of platforms’ inaction.

He cites our mutual IG friend artist Chao-Ying Rao aka Betty (@femme.castratrice) as a big inspiration behind this series. They connected over her work on online censorship, and during one of their chats she mentioned a bizarre dick pic she received. Armando says:

“Among the jokes and discussion regarding how the senders don’t face any consequences from Instagram, she said ‘Wouldn’t it be funny to paint them and call them out?’

That’s when it kicked off and I painted the one she mentioned, and from there people began to reach out sending screen shots from when they got cyber-flashed. Betty even created a piece including my painting that took it up another level.”

@armandocabba
@femme.castratrice holding Armando’s painting

For Armando, this is a completely different set of work from his erotic paintings that celebrate all kinds of love and bodies: “Instagram pushes censorship saying it’s protecting a community but nothing ever happens to the people who send unsolicited pictures despite being reported.” As a result, these dick pics are not painted from a place of admiration, and that is reflected in Armando’s process: “I use the left-over paint on my palette from the day. My headspace is completely different since I’m not approaching this series to celebrate beauty, but to condemn the senders.”

Armando’s relationship with this series is complicated. “An artist is usually happy when viewers relate to their work, but I feel the contrary for these works,” he says. “A lot of women/femme individuals connect to it because it’s happened to them. It feels like it never ends. There are a lot of other people out there fighting against unsolicited dick pics and we’re going to need all of them if social media platforms don’t do anything.”

Paintings from ‘Law & Order – Dick Pick Unit’ are always posted with a message, in the hope things will get better. But it’s hard to remain hopeful:

In a perfect world if these types of men understood the damage they cause through this behaviour and if Instagram truly cared about its community, this series wouldn’t exist. Unfortunately, here we are and there’s no shortage in cases to paint.

@armandocabba

Armando’s hopes for the moderation of erotic content

“If platforms would be a lot clearer on the rules and explain more specifically what can pass and what can’t, we’d already be better off than we are now,” Armando says, echoing many users’ calls for more platform transparency. He adds that platforms should have specific guides about how to have more successful appeals and how to get your content reposted once it is taken down.

“There’s still so many questions like, ‘Is it a person reviewing the appeal or a machine? Is that person specialized in one subject or do they just review mix bag of posts? How much time are they spending on each post? Is there a midpoint we can reach? How much context do we need explain with each post?’ That’s a dialogue that needs to happen.”

@armandocabba

While censorship is necessary for platforms to run, Armando argues it isn’t being used properly:

People are still being sent unsolicited pictures. Misinformation is still being spread. Harmful content is still there and continues to be shared. Protecting the community sounds nice but hunting for exposed nipples and bodies that don’t follow traditional beauty standards isn’t protecting anyone. Instagram is an app that’s trying to be everything except being fair to its users.

@armandocabba

Despite this, Armando isn’t giving up the fight anytime soon: “I’m still going to be here painting and doing what I can regarding censorship. I have a thing for pushing buttons and questioning the rules, so I’m in this for the long haul. This community has been incredibly welcoming to me and I strongly believe in supporting the people that support me.”

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