Laid bare and mixed up: Smudge explores nudity and eroticism in Maltese art

Curator and founder of Studio 87 Justine Balzan Demajo speaks to MaltaToday about Smudge – a collaborative exhibition featuring the works of Gabriel Buttigieg, Sarah Chircop, Charles Balzan and Ryan Falzon, all of which nudge at the under-explored arena of nudity and eroticism in Maltese art

Photography by Charles Balzan
Photography by Charles Balzan

First off, could you tell us a little bit about Studio 87? What were some of your main aims in setting it up, and how would you say it fits into the visual arts ecology of Valletta in particular?

Upon returning to Malta three years ago, after studying and working abroad, one of my dreams was to open a private art conservation studio. The studio space was originally an old store, belonging to my great Auntie Tessie. While renovating it I saw potential for it to also serve the community, especially when considering the need for more art spaces in Malta. Having an interest and some experience in curation, I decided to have the ground floor as an exhibition space. Studio 87 is not a gallery, but more of an independent community art space.

Its scope is to be a reference point for art goers and enthusiasts, as well as a safe and inspirational space where one who may not be so familiar with the field, may feel encouraged and welcome.

Object-Relations: ‘The Infant as Monster’ by Gabriel Buttigieg
Object-Relations: ‘The Infant as Monster’ by Gabriel Buttigieg

What were some of the ideas behind Smudge? How does the exhibition fit in with your interests and background as a curator?

Having been following and intrigued by Gabriel Buttigieg’s work, I approached him and together we decided to create a collaborative exhibition focusing on themes such as eroticism and nudity, and the vulnerability and ephemerality that surrounds them. While he helped me scout for relevant artists, I selected works which I felt worked harmoniously when placed together.

As a curator, I enjoy the challenge of dealing with pre-conceptions of what people expect art to be. It may be said that the subjects of eroticism have faced many restrictions in reaching the public in Malta, even in more recent years. Having studied in Florence where the human figure is celebrated not covered, even associated with divinity, I wanted to explore how the idea of the creative act can be illustrated by eroticism.

Justine Balzan Demajo: “As a curator, I enjoy the challenge of dealing with pre-conceptions of what people expect art to be”
Justine Balzan Demajo: “As a curator, I enjoy the challenge of dealing with pre-conceptions of what people expect art to be”

On what criteria were the participating artists that make up Smudge chosen, and how would you say each of them contributes to the ethos and thematic structure of the exhibition?

All four artists, are collectively depicting some form of intimacy but all in rather different ways. With Gabriel Buttigieg’s miniature series ‘Infant as Monster’, he retells a narrative of the sexual encounter between a couple. The style and palette used is playful and somewhat childlike, which contrasts with the strong subject matter. Ryan Falzon’s work is also direct and crude. His acetone prints are ephemeral and engaging, exploring intimacy with fetish undertones.  

Charles Balzan shoots and exposes his subjects in movement. In their vulnerability, they appear to be animalistic, and here too does the art contain that ephemeral quality.  

While Sarah Chircop’s approach is more subtle and gentle. Her hauntingly beautiful photographs offer a romantic and nostalgic image of intimacy, yet their ambiguity add to your curiosity. Each artist contrasts and complements the other, leaving the viewer with a sense of being exposed to a different perspective on the subject.

Photography by Joanna Demarco
Photography by Joanna Demarco

Do you really believe that nudity and eroticism – which Smudge sets out to explore – are/were taboo subjects in Malta? If so, how does the exhibition confront this reality?

Yes, I do believe so. As a society, we have taken huge cultural shifts towards accepting different attitudes to sexuality, yet here in Malta nudity is still scandalous. I also wanted to ask people to question why themes of nudity and eroticism can be something uncomfortable to look at, when in fact it is the most natural state of human form. By questioning our social boundaries, we can discover our own natural taboos and those that have been inherited from a previous era.

When presenting such images to the public, I would like to consider that we are confronting the situation. By displaying works in a safe public open space, we offer an opportunity to break down this stigma and encourage the viewer to think beyond the restrictive cultural norms. Another motivation is to create awareness for the viewer to be more comfortable within their own skin and acceptance of others.

What do you make of the visual arts scene in Malta? What would you change about it?

In the last few years the art scene has progressively improved, with more art spaces opening up and more investments being made. Whether this growth is sustainable is another question. If I had one wish, it would be for the local art scene to be more daring, and get even more outside its comfort zone. Only then can we really grow. Also, there is still a dire need to create more engagement with the public, and participating with educational establishments and projects helping the coming generations to be more enthusiastic and involved.

Photography by Sarah Chircop
Photography by Sarah Chircop

What’s next for Studio 87?

After the closing of Smudge, which will fall on April 26, we will have the pleasure of hosting a solo exhibition of American Pakistani artist Saneeya Ghadially. Saneeya will be presenting us with her exhibition entitled ‘Out of Context’, which will explore both mythological and Catholic themes executed in an old Persian traditional form of miniature painting. She has been based here for two years, and her work is very symbolic of her stay in Malta. During the summer, we enjoy making use of the rest of the space such as weekly yoga on the roof, film screenings, pop-ups and more.

Smudge will remain on display at Studio 87, Liesse Hill, Valletta until April 26. The space will be open from 10am to 6pm from Monday to Friday.

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