‘People still sexualise the body’

Charlene Galea’s performative art celebrates the female body, while stripping it of the male gaze.

It is no exaggeration to say that Charlene Galea is one of the front fighters in Malta when it comes to feminism and a body positive movement. Throughout the past year, the artist has carved a niche within the performative arts space that I suspect  had been pretty much untapped locally.

If you’re still unfamiliar with Charlene’s works, check out the series of self-portraits and images taken of her by others on her Instagram account. They are as far-removed from the stereotype, influencer-style shots that have become the norm on social platforms. You won’t see any flattering filters or angles here. You will find nudes, within the limits accepted by Meta, but certainly not in the style that we’ve come to associate with the word ‘nudes’ itself. Charlene’s art is as real as it can gets, celebrating the female body while stripping it away from the constraints of the male gaze.

She tells me that her life today, spent commuting between Malta and artist centres based in Budapest, London and other cities, is a far cry from her simple, rural upbringing, where art didn’t quite form part of daily life.

“But I was always interested in telling stories and living them, so eventually I left Malta. I was always very into the clubbing culture, especially techno, and living in London I was fascinated by the detailed costumes party-goers would create, especially by the DIY aspect. I spent most of my weekends attending underground parties, discovering more about the lifestyle of the DIY movement,” she explains.

Eventually she started studying beauty therapy, which she describes as her first ‘formal’ introduction to the body. But even then, her interest gravitated more naturally to the theory of the body, falling in love with image-making, editorials, concept creation and – eventually – group performance.

“At this time I was looking into pursuing creative direction for fashion editorials, but I was advised that my work was more related to fine arts than fashion. I started researching, going to museums and finally became really interested in the work Serbian artist Marina Abramovic was doing with nude bodies,” she reminisces.

Working with the nude body, the risk that someone decides that you’re doing pornography is ever-present. Charlene tells me that this was, in fact, one of her first projects, distinguishing between working artistically with the nude, using it for fashion photography and also pornography.

“Possibly, in Malta these subjects would have been considered too out-of-the-box, but in London I could pursue it. My research and studies eventually were transformed into performance, where I documented my body on social media.”

When Charlene returned to Malta in 2017 to read for a Masters in Digital Fine Arts, her focus on the female body intensified. She started asking herself how women felt in their bodies, and admits that her first first image-making project was quite sexualised.

“It reflected the way I grew up, watching Italian TV. The female body was always sexualised, and this was the first media I encountered. Then I started attending drawing classes in the nude and it started to change the way I present my body in images. My poses changed, as did the way I connect with nature. My perception shifted towards inner feeling.”

Charlene’s first nude performance took place in Berlin, at a small, experimental festival. After this, she started to develop the concept of being live, in front of an audience, more fully, even enlisting the participation of choreographers. She describes how, in countries like The Netherlands, Germany, Brussels and Austria, this type of experimentation is par for the course among artists.

In Malta, things develop at a slower rate. But interest in this genre of art is growing, as witnessed by Charlene’s recent residency at MUŻA, Malta’s museum of fine arts. Titled Walk of Shame, the residency saw her working with collaborators all interested in exploring this line of art, focusing on topics like shame, guilt and failure through simple movements and short stories influenced by personal anecdotes, magazines and the way the notion of female beauty has been constructed by society.

She describes the Maltese fine arts landscape as “very cliquey”, describing how artists and audiences will follow one artist but not another. “We lack a cross-interest to see other people’s work. I go to everything I’m interested in. That said, I have found plenty of opportunities to collaborate. When I’m performing in Malta, there’s a niche group of people who are always there and people do respond to calls for collaborations,” she says.

Naturally, reactions aren’t always necessarily positive. She had to switch her Instagram account to private after receiving unsolicited messages from strangers, some of which made her deeply uncomfortable.

“People still sexualise the body, and it’s not only in Malta. I found the same issues in Vienna. People sometimes ask me why I create barriers by putting my social media on private, but it’s for my peace of mind,” she says.

When single, Charlene’s art has also had an impact on her dating life, and she describes how, in relationships she finds that she has to discuss her art from the start. Some try to date her because they get a very wrong impression after seeing her photography. Others go the opposite direction, choosing not to continue the conversation after seeing her social media account.

“This is what I do and I’m not going to change it. I have found support, however, including from my family. Sometimes it occurs to me that I wish I can be as comfortable in my own body at the beach, as I am during a nude drawing class. But at the beach I’m always fixing myself and comparing. In the artistic field the body is well-respected, and not treated with judgement. Maybe if there were more artistic awareness, we would all accept each other better,” she says with a smile.

She stops for a second and ponders, before asking: “Why would we want to change body parts? Where does it come from? In performances, I’ve learnt to make myself vulnerable and to trust the audience with a piece of my own body. But this concept of trust is missing from our society. I believe it’s something that needs to be developed within the community,” she concludes.

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