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The Ventriloquist of paintings

If visual art could talk, Claire Tonna would be it’s interpreter

The opening of a new art-space on this island is always very exciting. Mark Sullivan, an architect with a passion for art took over a beautiful space in Tigne street, Sliema, and revealed its raw beauty, transforming it into a serious of rooms and together with a team of passionate art lovers planned a program of exhibitions which so far has wowed patrons and collectors. 

Image: Artwork by Charlie Cauchi. Exhibited at R Gallery
Claire Tonna interpreting the artwork to an audience on 26 January 2023 at R Gallery as part of a series of events titled ‘R Talks’. Artworks in this photo are by Charlie Cauchi

If visual art could talk, Claire Tonna would be it’s interpreter

R Gallery’s last show, AWOL, was a group exhibition of international contemporary artists – multimedia practitioners, namely Maxine Attard, Charlie Cauchi, Romeo Roxman Gatt and Duška Malešević whose work is informed by the plethora of interpretations of AWOL (absent without leave/absent from where one should be; missing) curated by the gallery’s Creative Director, contemporary artist Julien Vinet.

The show, which opened on the 12th of December and ran until February 11th 2023, saw hundreds of visitors, from the seasoned gallery goer to the art novice. As part of the gallery’s mission to act as a catalytic connector between artists, art and the community, each month an event is held as part of a series called R Talks, which invites poets, musicians, artists and others from across the artistic realms to interpret the works for an intimate evening.

On the 26th January 2023, the gallery held R Talks 3.2: AWOL: A night of sound by Claire Tonna. Tonna, a prolific singer-songwriter, shared her words, songs and thoughts in connection to AWOL and the rich pool of interpretations that emerge through it. Inspired by the works presented by the four artists, Tonna opened her inner world to us for an intimate and magnetic night of sound at the gallery.

“I often found myself disappearing from noise, chaos, norms, words, thoughts and actions; it is how I survived. It’s how I can listen to the terror of beauty and power that lies inside me,” she said. I share songs and writings that emerged from such journeys and transfigurations.”

Claire Tonna is a queer Maltese singer and songwriter renowned internationally for her distinctively contralto voice and writing, considered to be one that transmits the plural facets of human emotion and empowerment.

Tonna’s works and performances have been taking place all over the globe in the last two decades inside theatres, festivals, lgbtqi spaces, prisons, slums, refugee centres, mental hospitals and many other spaces resonating with her truth-filled music and vocation.

The facets of her presence and voice are acclaimed to present the audience an experience of incomparable empowerment. In 2019 she won the title and award of ‘Best European Singer/Songwriter’ rewarded by the Tour Music Fest, Sony (Italy) and Berklee College from Boston, United States. In 2023 Tonna is releasing her new material and sound composed in the last transfigurative years.

“I sing what heals my broken bones and sing them in the one voice we are; Human,” she finished.

JD: How the art talked to you?

CT: The theme featured in the works ‘absence without leave’ (AWOL), ‘dissapearing’ definitely a resonated with my recent writing and the personal experiences that it reflects. I do find ‘dissappearing’ to often be a means of survival. Disappearing from the noise, people, thoughts, so I can listen to what is inside me and cater for my needs and my need for peace. So it was very easy to hear the art talking to me and in a way seeing my own experience in it.

JD: Can you verbalize the process from experiencing the works to your artistic reaction to them? 

CT: I entered the gallery with my journal and just let my pen translate my first encounter with the art work into words. I basically translated the works into songs. I have done this other times at Austin Camillieri’s ‘Leiva: anger is a lazy form of grief’ where I translated the rooms into songs and also at the ‘pelvic laboratory’ residency where I translated dance and movement into words and songs. At AWOL my artistic reaction was once again transcribed into songwriting and singing the works birthed from the work itself and all the works transferred to me. Sharing them with an audience was once again another reaction to the core element that unites us all in the very themes presented. It was a most powerful and intimate experience to live through,such transferring from artist to art work to song to the people’s own hearts. 

JD: How did it feel to be in the space and give your all? 

CT: It felt like home, bare, real, belonged, liberating. 

JD: Do we need more of this? Of a conversation between artists using their media?

CT: Yes definitely. Such conversations connect us all on so many various planes. It’s art and the expression of the human experience shared, and it connects our own humanity, our pain, hope, trust and belongingness. We converse like this naturally but when we converse with such deep truths it becomes a healing experience where we live a human connection that is often lost or hard to find in the world that we live in. 

Translating the artwork into song added to the experience of the artworks delivery to every person there, deeper than just an audible deliverance. It was a connecting means for the very human heart we together are.



[ˈeɪ.wɒl] adjective [ after verb ]

1. abbreviation for absent without leave; to say that a member of the armed forces is away without permission but without intent to desert.

2. absent from where one should be; missing.

“Absent without leave“ as an idea holds a harlequin of meaning, particularly if one looks to redefine it.

i. In a military world, it denotes rebellion and fight against an established order; a transgressive action against authority.

ii. In the physical experience, it could allude to a subject that is not visible or tangible, yet still present.

iii. In a nostalgic sense, it connects as something that has faded, disappeared or is lost in time, kept alive in the residues of personal and collective memory.

iv. In a framework of the corporeal, bodily transformation simultaneously fills and creates absence in the material world, often defying social approval and norms.

AWOL provides a metaphysical thread for the works of four artists: Maxine Attard, Charlie Cauchi, Romeo Roxman Gatt and Duška Malešević. Through their explorations, the artists invite us to question, confront, reframe and reinvent absences that inhabit us, giving these seemingly empty spaces the presence necessary for redeeming catharsis.

The potent body of works includes installation, photography, objects, sculpture and painting.


Maxine Attard (b.1986, Malta) is a visual artist and a graduate of the University of Brighton, U.K. (MA Fine Arts, 2011) and the University of Malta (History of Art, 2008). Attard works in multiple media including works on paper, works on wood and found material. She has had solo shows in Malta and group shows both in Malta, Germany, Italy and the UK. She is based in Leipzig, Germany.

Charlie Cauchi is a multidisciplinary artist and filmmaker living in Malta. Her work encompasses video, sound, text, archive and built environments. Her practice is a hybrid, amalgamating documentary practices, academic research, and fantastical construction. She holds a BA and an MA in Film Studies from Queen Mary University of London.

Romeo Roxman Gatt (b. Malta) is a multidisciplinary artist who explores sexuality, identity, gender, love and consumption within his practice. For a while now, the artist has been working with themes of humanising and interacting with consumer objects, making the inanimate iconic and fetishised. He is also interested in documenting and archiving trans and queer experiences and has recently launched a new project called Rosa Kwir.

Duška Malešević, born in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, lived and worked in Berlin, Sydney and Rome where she got her Masters in Psychology of Art (at La Sapienza University). Based in Valletta, she is a visual artist working mainly in the field of documentary, contemporary urban and minimal photography. I-n 2016 she published a book ‘Postcards from Paradise’ that was launched in Rome, Italy and was awarded an Honorary Mention from International Photography Awards (IPA). Duška exhibits both locally and abroad.


R Gallery is a contemporary art space located in the heart of a bustling seaside town called Sliema, Malta. Built as a British military hostel at the turn of the 20th century, the art nouveau edifice has been transformed from a place of sanctuary for soldiers into a spacious host for bold contemporary art. R Gallery opened in September 2022 and acts as a commercial gallery with a full calender of exhibitions and events.

R Gallery is A cultural connector between practitioners working in contemporary art in all its manifestations, including but not limited to visual, performance, literary, and sonic art. A physical and immaterial bridge between artists working in the local and international context and the public by means of production and propagation of work.

A space to consider, dissect and disseminate pressing questions of contemporary times through art.

A catalyst for conversation and engagement with the rich cultural scene of Malta and its community. R_Gallery provides the community with a chance to champion, invest and support local and international contemporary artists, emerging and established. The Gallery assists the artists through mentorship, conceptual and logistical assistance, connections to the international art world and a dynamic yearly programme with adjacent events.

An educational impetus bringing contemporary art to the people through strategized action including exhibitions, events, talks and workshops.

The space consists of four rooms that surround a courtyard, imbued by ample natural light.


Mark Sullivan is the owner and director of R Gallery. An architect and engineer by profession, the urban environment is his playground where he searches for ways to implement the power of art and design. Sullivan graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering and Architecture degree at the University of Malta in 2010 and later obtained his warrant to practice as an architect and civil engineer. He is the co-founder and partner of SON Architecture and Design Studio, which was set up in 2017 in the capital of Valletta, Malta.

Julien Vinet is the creative director and curator of R Gallery. Vinet is a multidisciplinary artist from Paris, currently living and working in Malta. Vinet obtained a BFA from Sorbonne Paris Nord University in 2002, and has exhibited extensively in solo and group shows in Malta, France, Japan and Germany. His solo exhibition ERROR CODE 8003 spearheaded the opening of R Gallery in September 2022.

Sam Vassallo is a journalist, writer and multidisciplinary artist working and living in Malta. She obtained a Bachelors of Political Science from University of Malta and SciencePo, Lyon. She acts as the gallery’s marketing strategist, event planner and assistant curator.

Kathrine Maj is Danish visual artist, currently reading a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Honours) at the University of Malta. Maj operates the day-to-day operations of the gallery as well as events and logistics. 

Photograhic work by Duška Malešević at R Gallery

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