Madelyne Beckles Proves Women’s Bodies Aren’t Just For Looking At

If you’re heavy into today’s current scene of the art world, Madelyne Beckles‘ name may have come up in discussion.

This Canadian-born artist and feminist goes beyond the conforming, traditional direction of art world — a world that normally excludes work by women, people of color, and people who are genderqueer. Through her work of live performances, videos, and installations, where she often poses herself, as a way to present women in a way that is unorthodox.

Alongside fellow artist and friend Petra Collins, Madelyne made her debut at MOMA’s PopRally series event with their live performance, “In Search of Us” this past March. The event featured a live three-hour tableau called a “digital salon” hosted by Instagram, and music by Junglepussy and DJ Madeline Poole. The show was dedicated to celebrating the female form by challenging the norm of women representations throughout the history of art.

I spoke with the flourishing artist and got the chance to learn a little bit more on how she goes about changing the world’s perspectives of those who often fall subject to its negativity.

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How did you get into art? What kind of artwork do you do?

Well, I did my undergrad in art history and women’s studies. So, I think through learning about other people making art and also, learning about all this theory that I was getting really excited about. I had started experimenting with performance art and I don’t know… I’ve always been a very creative kid — took dance lessons, singing lessons, and theater. So, I think it came kind of naturally to start experimenting with just my body and myself, and it kind of developed. I have a lot of peers who are artists and artists in my family. So, I was lucky to have people trust me and start giving me opportunities, where I could start to explore my craft in.

I make video work, I do performance, and installation, which is mainly what I do now.

What do you hope to get out of the work you do — the purpose of it?

Well, I think my goal in making art is to open up critical dialogue and political dialogue around issues of gender and race and pop culture — those are the kinds of themes that I work within. And yeah, I just want to start a conversation or have people think critically about something that they usually wouldn’t.

How do you feel your art plays a part in the today’s push to forward others ways of thinking of women, in regards to body image, women’s rights, and just how people view women in general?

I think that I at least try to put out different forms of representation or I hope to contextualize women’s bodies in different ways as oppose to just being looked at. I try to really embrace my subjectivity of my work because I’m in my work a lot and I try to kind of make the mundane or like the everyday, transparent to the viewer I guess. So, I don’t know, I feel like in terms of body image or like that kind of stuff created in a more grander way — making work about myself as like a “mixed-race woman”, who you don’t really see those bodies in certain contexts of art or pop culture. So, I hope that just like me being out there making art at least encourages other people or makes people think about the black body in a different way.

I noticed you have a YouTube and Vimeo channel. What made you want to put videos like the ones presented on your channel? Are you going to expand or continue doing those types of artistic videos or was that a one-time thing?

No, I still make videos. I’m just kind of lazy, so I stopped uploading things. And I also, it wasn’t… I mean it was kind of a way to just put my work out there and have people to be able to look at my work somewhere. So, I still make videos, I just don’t really update the page.

I’m working on getting a website started, so hopefully there will be a better place to kind of see my work. And I think that’s kind of the weird thing about my work, too, because of a lot of it is performance-based or like contextual — it’s hard to kind of showcase online. So, that was one of the ways — one of the solutions that I thought that was very like short lived.

What was the purpose or meaning behind your MOMA show, “In Search of Us,” with Petra Collins? How did you get connected with MOMA? How did it come to happening?

So, MOMA approached Petra to do the PopRally event and the photo that was used for the promotion of the event is a photo of me that we took a couple of years ago when we were kind of playing around with this idea of representations of women’s bodies in Art History.

So, we were directly recreating a painting by Manet called “Olympia” and so, we made this photo and it was supposed to be for a different project that kind of fell through. So, we’ve been trying to get it off the ground for a while, and then when MOMA approached Petra she approached me because we thought it would be a fitting idea to talk about the canon of Art History in such a big institution, where a lot of the art canonical work that we were kind of playing around with are actually housed. We just started to think about, you know, recreating classical tropes of art history — like an abundant still life or ‘the reclining woman’. We tried to think about it in a bigger way. So, it ended up being kind of like the photo of me, but like 10x bigger. So, having like a live tableau with three different performers living in it to speak to representing different bodies and people in our history — taking up the space in an institution, where typically women of color or gender queer people or women in general aren’t usually housed.

How was it? How did you feel afterwards?

It was very surreal. Petra was very generous to allow (me to be part of it). And it wasn’t just me working on it, we had like Lauren Nikrooz, who was our set designer; Zara Mirkin who was our costume designer; our three performers; Kalena Yiaueki, Monica Hernendez, and Samira Alfrius; and then Grace Miceli and Alea Murawski, who made video works (as well as me) that were displayed at the MOMA while the event was going on. It was just nice that it was a collaborative effort. You know, when you’re speaking to like quote unquote, a women’s experience or a person of color experience, it’s nice when you have more than just one or two voices contributing to the project so it really isn’t just like one person’s experience being conveyed.

But yeah, it was very surreal. I’m still kind of like pinching myself I guess.

How did you and Petra link up?  Have you two always known each other?

Yeah, we met in grade nine in high school. We’re both from Toronto and we’ve been experimenting creatively and collaborating since we’ve met each other. So yeah, we’ve been friends for 10 years and we just work really well together. I think we each levy different things to each other’s craft, which is cool.

Are there other things you do outside art or is it your sole focus?

Art is my focus right now. I think I’ve been out of school for a couple years now, so I started to take it more seriously. It’s pretty much taking up my life right now. I’m doing some residencies this spring and I have a couple of more big projects coming up. I wish could quit my day job, but I can’t.

What are the big new things happening for you that you’re working on?

Well, I’m about to start a residency in Toronto at the Gladstone Hotel. I have a collective with one of my friends named Delilah Rosier. So, we’re going to be working on making a feature art film during the residency, where we’re kind of going to make a parody — we’re going to parody a bunch of reality shows and kind of poke at pop culture. I’m really excited to just like play draft and fool around for a week. And then, I’m a part of a festival in Montreal called Chromatic, so I’m working on a video for that — a video in installation. And then at the beginning of May, I’ll be doing something at the art gallery of Ontario. It’s kind of an event that’s similar to what MOMA does with PopRally — it’s where they open the museum after hours and kind of have performers, a bar, and that kind of stuff. So, I don’t know what I’m going to do for that yet — I was just asked to do it, but I’m probably going to work on some kind of live performance for it.


Photos by
Madelyne Beckles/Holden Kelly/Petra Collins/BFA NYC



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