Artist Norbert Francis Attard on how loss inspired his latest body of work

Artist Norbert Francis Attard speaks to LAURA CALLEJA about his latest exhibition, Event & Being, a satellite show of Soap To Think With at Gozo Contemporary in Gharb. He has produced 111 works since 2020, largely deciated to his late wife

Invicta: A commemoration of Daphne Caruana Galizia
Invicta: A commemoration of Daphne Caruana Galizia

Artist Norbert Francis Attard began working on his latest project after the gallery he founded and managed for three years was closed down due to COVID-19 in March 2020.

“Because I put all my energy towards the gallery, I neglected and shelved my personal projects, including my artistic practice. When we (Marisa and I) started, like everyone else, our quarantine mode, I went to Gozo, where I live and have my studio,” Attard said.

The artist explained that he, and his late partner Marisa Vella, to which he had been married for 30 years, sat down and started making a list of priorities. “The quarantine situation was a great opportunity to redefine our lives and was a time to reinvent ourselves on many different levels.”

“The quarantine situation was a great opportunity to redefine our lives and was a time to reinvent ourselves on many different levels. One on the list was to reinvent myself as an artist. Hardly a few days into the quarantine, I realised immediately what could be a good start to create new artworks.”

Attard said that in 2015, he had been given thousands of soap boxes by a local company. He had created one extensive work at Kunstquartier Bethanien in Berlin, a work named The truth may not set you free, but afterwards, he did not know what he should do with the rest of the soap boxes.

“It took five years to realise what to create with the soap boxes because when COVID-19 arrived, it was clearly the right material to express what I was experiencing during that time. When I restarted as an artist again, the works created during the first twelve weeks or more were related to the pandemic situation,” the artist explained.

Unfortunately, in 2020, Attard’s partner Marisa passed away. “Apart from experiencing all the loss taking place during the pandemic, I suddenly was presented with my own great personal loss. Loss became a keyword at the time, so I needed to express this loss in many of my works.”

Attard further elaborated that loss became a keyword at the time and that he expressed that loss through many of his works.

The loss of Daphne Caruana Galizia

“Loss became an even more important word as eventually it included the loss of Daphne Caruana Galizia because of her assassination and apart from many other losses, primarily the loss of the integrity of our institutions because of the corruption during the last 10 years.”

Soap, he said, also became a keyword as well. He realised that soap could be used in a metaphorical sense. He associated soap with money laundering and, therefore, the corruption that Malta had endured during the last 10 years.  

“I, therefore, developed my work to include this second theme which I called Dirty Money. Automatically, because Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was the one investigative journalist who was exposing all the dirt going on, I had no choice but to include her as the third theme, which I called Invicta. These three themes remained throughout the three-year period, creating 111 works in all,” he said.

The title Soap to Think With was chosen to represent the body of works created in that three-year period. Attard explained that it was taken from Paul Sant Cassia’s essay that was written specifically for the exhibition catalogue. In his essay, Sant Cassia refers to a quote by Levy Strauss.

“My intuition about soap is that it provided an important connection between the three major themes of my exhibition,” he said.


Quick exchange with curator Julien Vinet from R Gallery on the exhibition

What drew you to this exhibition in particular?

Norbert Attard created 111 artworks in the period of COVID for an exhibition that he wanted to show in his studio in Gharb. He wanted to create a new place for contemporary art in Gozo. When I visited the studio with Mark Sullivan, the director of R Gallery, we saw that all 111 artworks would not fit in the studio, so we asked him if we could create a satellite event as an introduction to his exhibition in Gozo. The works were strong, different and multi-layered without being too alienating for people who might be impressed by contemporary art, so they were a perfect fit for the gallery. Apart from the obvious honour of exhibiting one of the pioneers of contemporary art in Malta.

Why did you feel like it was a good fit for your gallery?

The works are powerful, easily accessible, but also extremely symbolic, profound and multi faceted. That's exactly what we look for when we want to do a new exhibition. Something that anyone can access by spending a few minutes in front of the artworks. In the end, the sizes of the works were also perfect for the scale of the gallery. This was overall a very easy decision to work with Norbert.

What is your favourite piece in the collection?

As an artist, Skin Deep is the work I can talk to for hours. As a curator, I have to say that I would not be able to choose one work...

What can people expect when they visit your gallery?

Diversity. The gallery exists to raise awareness of contemporary art in Malta, so we show works by artists that people do not usually get to see. We always associate the exhibitions with something that appeals to the Maltese because we want the people of Malta to understand that art is not just for one section of the population but is a medicine for the soul of us all. That Beauty needs to be protected by all of us. When it feels difficult to decipher it, sometimes it just takes a few inner questions and sometimes concentration on the work. Everyone has the means to experience contemporary art, we just try to give them the will to do so as well.