Filipino artists

The female gaze: Your #SecretNudes are safe with artist Christa Vega

Amanda T. Lago
The female gaze: Your #SecretNudes are safe with artist Christa Vega

Courtesy of Christa Vega

Christa has drawn nearly 300 nudes as part of her ongoing art project

MANILA, Philippines –  Christa Vega’s Instagram feed is made up of brightly-colored boxes framing bodies in all shapes, sizes, and degrees of undress. 

Some bodies are in bikinis or lingerie, some are completely bare. Some pictures are more modest – a gaze from behind, or parts gently covered. Others are more explicit, in-your-face, front-and-center.

This is #SecretNudes, an ongoing art project by Christa, who started drawing strangers’ nudes in March 2020.

The project is an off-shoot of Christa’s undergraduate thesis as a Fine Arts student at the University of the Philippines, where she studied digital violence against women.

“I determined then that nude leakage is parallel to rape in terms of victim-blaming, slut-shaming, and the total disregard for consent. This started the artistic fight in me,” she told Rappler.

One moment that paved the way to #SecretNudes was when Christa sold stickers with an illustration of her own body on them.

“People were buying and displaying it, yet nobody realized it was me in that artwork. It was at that moment I felt the magic of being totally bare in an image, yet tastefully concealed by lines and colors. Like my art was there to protect me,” she said.

After that eye-opening moment, she started asking women for nudes online.

In an age where revenge porn and leaked photos are yet another form of violence that women have to be wary of, a stranger asking for nudes online raises all sorts of alarm bells. 

Courtesy of Christa Vega

In 2020, the Foundation for Media Alternatives saw a 165% increase in online gender-based violence against women, with the most prevalent cases involving photos or videos taken without consent.

In this landscape, why would anyone send nudes to anyone, ever?

And yet within a year, Christa had received 150 nudes which she then turned into art. Now that number is nearing 300. 

Consent first

The first step in Christa’s #SecretNudes process may be the reason why so many women participate. Before anything happens, Christa explicitly asks for consent.

“#SecretNudes artworks must first go through a consent and age (18+ only) checkpoint. I always remind clients that even if I take precautionary measures to keep their photos safe, there are still potential risks. I make sure that we are all in agreement, which is the very essence of consent,” she said.

Consent, for her, is a non-negotiable. 

“I’ve had some clients ask me to either draw an ex for them, or perhaps have their partner drawn as a surprise. Whenever this happens, I always say that I will have to see proof of consent first,” she said.

After getting consent and receiving the photos, she begins to draw.

“I see my process as being intimate with lines. I illustrate clients as they are, but I also capture how their poses or expressions make me feel. I try not to make my linework too clean because bodies are not meant to be perfect, and I’d like to think that drawing them in the way I do pays tribute to their figure,” she said. 

“What I appreciate most is how my clients trust me enough to let their guards down. Through drawing hundreds of portraits, I’ve become a part of the relationships fellow women have with their bodies – the battle with body dysmorphia, the postpartum struggle, the acceptance of aging, the healing from rape or sexual abuse, and even the reclaiming of one’s self-worth after being personally victimized by revenge porn,” she said.

Courtesy of Christa Vega

Not surprisingly to Christa, she’s been called all sorts of names for doing what she does.

“I get reactions like ‘manyak (pervert),’ ‘bastos (vulgar),’ or even, ‘Ano ‘to, bold (Is this smut)?'” Some are even quick to assume that I am a lesbian or bisexual because of all the women I draw,” she said.

When she hears anything negative about her artwork, she simply lets it go.

“The moment I post a nude artwork – even as a means of advocacy – I lose control of how people are going to understand it. I can try to keep on making the fight behind it shine more than the ‘shock value,’ but not everyone will want to be part of it and I accept that. Nude art has been attached to scandal ever since the Renaissance and that is not something I am trying to change,” she said.

It takes about two weeks for a nude to turn into an artwork in Christa’s studio. At the end of the process, women get more than just portrait of them that they can proudly display in their homes. 

Ultimately, every woman who has been part of the project has reclaimed their body by entrusting it to a stranger.

“I’ve drawn more strangers than women I personally know. What it beautifully validates for me is that art really can be a way of establishing trust, building communities, and fighting for the same thing. I love that by being vulnerable with one another, we can demonstrate the meaning of consent, why it matters, and how it should be observed in all aspects – whether in illustration or reality,” she said.

The female gaze

Where women are all too often objectified, #SecretNudes aims to empower – viewing female bodies from the female gaze this time.

For Christa, the female gaze is “gentle yet unafraid.”

“I’ve seen through #SecretNudes that women can look at each other’s bodies with nothing but respect. I’ve never had any woman insult another here. The compliments aren’t even always about the body but more so for the bravery behind it,” she said. 

Courtesy of Christa Vega

Almost two years since she first started asking for nudes online, Christa is still at it.

As she continues to draw more nudes, she’s hoping to use more traditional mediums like the brush pen and oil paint. She’s also opened the project up to men and queer people, making it more inclusive. 

How far her project has come is proof of the magic of trust and consent. There may not be many places online or in real life where a woman can feel 100% safe – but there is at least this little corner of the internet, where you can go send nudes and feel beautiful, but more importantly, powerful. – Rappler.com

Amanda T. Lago

After avoiding long-term jobs in favor of travelling the world, Amanda finally learned to commit when she joined Rappler in July 2017. As a lifestyle and entertainment reporter, she writes about music, culture, and the occasional showbiz drama. She also hosts Rappler Live Jam, where she sometimes tries her best not to fan-girl on camera.