In her previous exhibition of masks, Charlene Calleja explored the façades we put up on a daily basis. Now, she is putting faces on trees. She tells Veronica Stivala that giving nature human attributes may be our way of making it seem more hospitable to us.
When I was a child, my daily school trip up and back down the Rabat road always included the exciting game of spotting the tree which had an ‘eagle’ between its branches and the one which had a very noticeable ‘crucified Jesus’ on its trunk.
This second tree went on to become rather famous and became a sort of natural statue; people even put flowers at its foot.
Attributing human characteristics to inanimate objects – anthropomorphisation – is a common and seemingly natural tendency for humans.
The reason, some suggest, is that it provides a window into how we perceive ourselves. You could say this practice is our way of seeing our own likeness in the world around us and to give objects a human face as this makes it easier for us to relate to them.
Seeing faces in trees is what inspired artist Charlene ‘Xaxa’ Calleja’s works in her latest exhibition. It is interesting to note that Xaxa’s previous exhibition – one of 365 masks – explored the different masks, or façades, we hide behind in our daily lives.
This time, she is attributing the masks, or faces, to inanimate objects. Entitled The Trees, Xaxa’s works are a series of oil paintings that explore the ways we transmogrify the human body in trees.
The paintings verge on the disturbing: one depicts a writhing face, buried in a body imprisoned by green roots, or possibly on fire with green, flaming roots. A hot, red background further adds to the sense of pain, of heat.
In another unsettling image, the bark of a tree takes on the form of a red-eyed, female figure, limbs unnaturally stretched out, another face being born out of her. The rest of the painting is populated by Munch-like faces, contorting as they suffer.
The inspiration behind these works came when Xaxa was out walking one day and came across a tree, in which she saw a number of figures within its bark.
As she came across more trees, they in turn inspired her and she began to see more faces and figures in them. Over the next two years, the artist worked on oil paintings inspired by this anthropomorphisation.
Xaxa explains her affinity for trees: “Trees are adaptable and change according to their environment. I like the natural curves found in the branches and in the leaves. The intricacies within the bark of the trees also inspire me. I wasn’t planning to do a whole series of trees; the works started to progress naturally. The more I worked, the more I started to see different shapes and forms within the trees.”
Different times of days created different shadows which sometimes gave the trees a different look and feel, depending on the mood she was trying to evoke.
On further contemplation, Xaxa adds that it could also be that she chose trees because of “our intertwined relationship with them. Human life is dependent on them for survival; we would not exist without them. Most of the time we take this relationship for granted. In these works, I wanted to merge the two together, putting the human form or face within the fabric of the tree”.
Now, if perceiving inanimate objects as having human characteristics provides a window into the way humans perceive themselves, what has Xaxa learnt about how she (or we) perceive ourselves?
“We obviously cannot imagine a life without ourselves in it; we are our own centres of our universe,” she explains. So, we cannot help but see things in our own likeness. Face recognition is one of the first things we learn when we are young, as it is necessary for our survival, she points out.
“We give names to things to make them more personal; in a world where everything can seem so random and uncontrollable making sense or making a connection to an apparently random object can make it more approachable and more welcoming.”
Linked to this, the philoso-pher David Hume argues that anthropomorphising is our way of trying to explain that which is unfamiliar to us. What is Xaxa’s take on this?
“The fact that we have been anthropomorphising objects since the beginning of Greek civilisation and are still doing it today shows that we still need this connection,” she says contemplatively.
“Humans form a small part of this world; even though we would like to think that we can control our environment, we know at the back of our minds that we are still at the mercy of nature. Maybe, anthropomorphising objects is one way of controlling our environment and making it more hospitable.”
Admittedly, these are all rather deep questions. Does it matter to Xaxa whether people who see her art have such thoughts?
Not really, she admits. “I would like audiences to be inspired to look at the world around them. Nature is an endless source of inspiration.
“I wasn’t expecting to do a whole series on trees and anthropomorphism but the more I worked, the more I found sources of inspiration.
“Often, we are so caught up in our daily activities that we don’t really look at the world around us and take for granted what we are seeing.”
From faces to trees, what’s next in store for Xaxa? Exploration, a different medium, perhaps inks. And the human anatomy.
The Trees is supported by The Malta Arts Fund and is on at The Splendid, 74, Strait Street, Valletta, from Saturday to October 11. There will also be drawing workshops for children as part of the exhibition. The exhibition can also be found at a satellite event at Science in the City and Notte Bianca.
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