Alexandra Aquilina explores identity and upbringing, in debut solo exhibition

LAURA CALLEJA speaks to artist Alexandra Aquilina about her upcoming debut solo exhibition entitled Shrine hosted by MUŻA. The exhibition is curated by Lisa Gwen and takes place at The Malta National Museum of Fine Art up to 13 August 2023

Photos by Lisa Gwen
Photos by Lisa Gwen

What was the inspiration behind Shrine

The underlying concepts I explore in “Shrine” have been bubbling between my conscious and subconscious for a while now. A lot of the themes emerge from an exploration of my own identity and upbringing. A journey that intensified the longer I spent living away from Malta.

In the last years I have developed a fascination towards the religious imagery that surrounds us: the sacred geometry, and symbols, not only in Christian iconography, but also in the prehistoric, Greek and Roman art and architecture, in paganism and folklore, in alchemy and fairy tales and even psychology and the esoteric. These sacred symbols, which transcend any individual religion or geographical location, encourage us to engage with the divine. It is this exploration and manifestation of works that resulted in the title of “Shrine”.

Do you have a favourite piece in the collection, and if yes, why?

As an artist who dips their toes in numerous techniques, I tend to develop a certain fascination towards pieces where I outdo even my own expectations. “Cosmos: Let’s dance” is one of those pieces. It’s a gigantic 4 colour screen-print in CMYK (using 4 colours - cyan, magenta, yellow and black – of dotted patterns I create a photo realistic handprint of one of my artworks). The gargantuan size of the piece meant that the artwork had to be split into 9 panels, which means that I had to handprint 36 large artworks, to create this final piece. Due to its sheer size, I couldn’t ship it assembled to Malta, so my dear friend and set builder Sven Bonnici, built the frame for me. I hadn’t been able to appreciate it in all its glory until we set up for the exhibition and boy what a stunner!

Another piece which holds a special place in my heart is “The words you say”. This piece was possibly one of the most traumatic and cathartic to make.  Despite its innocent appearance of children’s white tights and hand printed pink scribbles, the artwork holds a much more sinister meaning. On the stockings are a series of phrases in English and Maltese, which I (or my female friends) have been told at some point or other in our lives. Phrases mostly based on our gender. Some of them are very hard to stomach and I warn people not to attempt to read it if they might be triggered. I still don’t feel 100% comfortable reading the text but getting them out and onto an artwork helped me to expel them out of my mind.

What can people expect when they visit this exhibition?

The exhibition is a celebration from the moment you enter the space, you are enveloped in a visual feast - a veritable smorgasbord of pop culture references and stylised visuals that question conventional understandings of spirituality, blurring the lines between the divine and the mortal. The work draws on from visual themes of spirituality which are specifically Maltese as the centre of Mediterranean. A delicious blend between Europe and Africa, and all which that gives us. From the prehistoric pagan temples and their mysterious fertility and death cults to folkloristic and superstitious beliefs and fairy tales of monsters and sirens to the opulence of catholic art and iconography. Malta is enriched with a glorious visual culture of rich symbolism transcending time and place. The works celebrate the rich diversity of Maltese culture and the importance of spirituality in human well-being.

Was there something that surprised you during the process of creating the pieces for this exhibition?

As perpetual cynic, I have pleasantly surprised myself by an internal shift within me. A growing desire to trust others more and to be open to ask for help and receive it gracefully.

I started out my artistic path as a screen printer, though time, as it often does, encouraged me to reinvent my approach and develop my voice. A lot of my work now has a sculptural element to some extent or another.

Discovering and playing with new materials developed a newfound sense of curiosity towards the act of creation, which in turn allowed me to have more fun with my art.

When is your favourite time of day to create?

One recurring rule I’ve had since university is that I never work after 8:30pm. I pack my days so intensely that by that time my mind is too tired to focus and be useful. I also take it as an act of self-care. I take that time to read, watch a movie, hang out with friends, but if I didn’t have that time, I’d probably burn out more often than I already do.

And lastly, what motivates you to create?

Oh, so many things, but to put it in the simplest and possibly most egotistical terms…I create because it gives me satisfaction, whatever that might be. Sometimes its catharsis, sometimes its humour, sometimes it’s the act of inspiring others, other times its to make sense of something, and sometimes it’s just because I want to see something beautiful. I create because that’s what I do. As an artist, as a singer/musician, as a designer, as a small business owner. I don’t know how to do otherwise and that’s what I’ll always do.