As a professor, artist, critic and lecturer, it’s a wonder Raphael Vella found the time to co-curate Malta’s exceptional Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Here, he takes us behind the scenes of the prestigious art show and his own works, and reveals the burgeoning rise of Malta’s art scene.
Malta has a Pavilion at the Venice Biennale for the first time in 17 years, which you’ve co-curated. Are you excited it has returned?
The Venice Biennale remains the world’s best-known contemporary art event, so it is naturally a great honour to be a part of it. Planning and installing a 300-sq. metre pavilion in a place like Venice was not an easy task; requiring interdisciplinary research and countless meetings in Malta and abroad, it also involved visiting museums and artists’ studios, selecting artists’ works, issuing an international call for Maltese artists based abroad, designing the pavilion and publication, freight of artworks, and onsite logistics. But it was worth the effort, and I think it’s great that Arts Council Malta took this initiative.
The Pavilion is entitled, Homo Melitensis. Can you tell us about its concept and which artists have been showcased?
Homo Melitensis means ‘Maltese man’, which we are using a bit like Homo Sapiens — a sort of generic term that could, in principle, describe a nation. At the same time, the other artist-curator in our team, Bettina Hutschek, and myself didn’t want to create a didactic exhibition that simply explained national identity as a series of characteristics in a checklist. The reality is far more complex.
We came up with nineteen chapters with tongue-in-cheek titles like ‘Subjects to avoid when talking to strangers’ or ‘Things people put on their head’ and then selected works of art and other objects from everyday life that could engage audiences by exposing visitors to subtle tensions and deliberate contradictions. Our exhibition architect Tom Van Malderen helped us bring all these objects together in a number of purpose-built cabinets, columns and other structures that invite visitors to explore a labyrinthine space.
How would you describe the current Maltese contemporary art scene?
I have been involved in the local art scene for a long time, so I’ve experienced it first-hand and seen it change over the years. While one needs to keep in mind that local cultural facilities are relatively limited when compared to other, much larger countries, I believe that the overall approach to culture has become more professional, with increases in funding for the arts, private investments and educational initiatives.
You’re something of a polymath as a professor, lecturer, artist and curator in your own right. How do you balance all these different fields?
My life in art took off quite early, so I guess that I’ve had plenty of time on my hands. As a child, there were no artists in my family who I could look at as role models, so my personal interest in art quickly merged into other things I was exposed to at home, school and the country: literature, philosophy, languages, and politics.
I started exhibiting art in my early twenties. then supplemented art-making with articles I wrote for a Sunday newspaper because I felt there was a space in art criticism locally. Meanwhile, I also got into teaching, an activity that in various ways resembles art because they are both transformative activities. I think that being involved in work with emerging artists, teaching and curating helps to balance out the loneliness of art-making.
Shifting from one project or activity to something completely different every few days or even hours is important to me, otherwise I start to lose focus. I need time to reflect thoroughly about what I am doing, but I also need time to get away and do something else.
Your own artwork is very multi-disciplinary – sculpture, installations and illustration – why are you drawn to so many different mediums and do you have a favourite?
Making art today is not about sticking to a specific medium but about engaging with ideas and issues, so I guess that the materials I use are secondary to the ideas I’d like to convey. Having said that, in recent years, I’ve been involved in drawing quite a lot, producing a number of series of drawings, ranging from 12 to 50 drawings per series. I should also mention curating, which we could consider a medium in its own right. In a drawing, you distribute marks around a sheet of paper. In a curated installation, you distribute objects around a given space.
Who or what inspires you creatively?
Life. Life is the ultimate palette. Then there’s the written word — my artwork often makes reference to texts I’ve been reading. But then again, the written word is also part of life.
Where can visitors to Malta go to experience its arts and culture?
Perhaps in the places where one least expects to encounter art: forgotten streets and rural areas, feasts, village bars, the country’s spoken language.