The clutter of creation | Raphael Vella

Is the Maltese art scene finally learning to have some fun? We speak to artist and curator Raphael Vella about a new crop of Maltese artists who seem to be more keen on playing around than brooding on tragic subject matter.

"Don't waste your time."

That simple piece of advice has apparently enabled Raphael Vella to juggle a number of roles throughout the years, all of which are directly linked to the ongoing survival of the local arts scene.

Apart from nurturing his own solo career as an illustrator, sculptor and installation artist - with which he tours the globe regularly and extensively - Vella also finds time to curate a number of exhibitions... all the while earning a living as an art lecturer at the University of Malta.

"I've learned through experience that the trick is to just not waste time. I would just say to myself: okay, I've got a free 15 minutes - what's the best way I can exploit them? The same applies to people. I ask: is this person 'useful' to me?"

Though he feels the need to qualify this statement - "of course, I don't mean this in a Machiavellian sense, an interesting discussion with someone could prove to be intellectually 'useful', for example..." - one would be hard-pressed to describe anything about Vella's work ethic as being selfish or manipulative, given his consistent effort in promoting the work of fellow - and mostly younger - artists.

A case in point is Divergent Thinkers, an upcoming collective exhibition curated by Vella and featuring the work of seven different artists, all of whom are under the age of 30 - a restriction imposed by Aġenzija Żgħażagħ, the exhibition's main organiser along with St James Cavalier.

"Though it is a shame that some of the best local artists have only just surpassed the 30-year mark, I don't mind working within a younger age bracket, and it's one I've enjoyed working within in the past. There's an added thrill to working with emerging artists because there's an element of risk involved - their work might be promising right now, but will they bear fruit in the future? In a way it's a lot like writing art criticism - if you're writing about new artists you're taking a risk because your assessment of their work might not prove to be very perceptive if the artist never develops. In this exhibition there are artists who have already started to show their work internationally like Patrick Mifsud, others who have emerged in the last couple of years like Adrian Abela, and some completely new names like Giola Cassar, Aaron Bezzina and Luca Cauchi."

Underscoring many of Vella's own preoccupations - both as an artist and a curator - the exhibition is also similarly loose and wide-ranging in terms of its thematic scope.

The concept of 'divergent thinking', culled from psychology, invites people to observe as much as possible into mundane objects.

"It's all about how far you can stretch the familiar," Vella says, mentioning as an example the work of one of the exhibition's participants, Emanuel Bonnici.

"Emanuel took the image of a trumpet as a starting point, then he attached a watering can, a gun, a chess piece... he developed this as a digital image first and then made a sculpture out of it. In a lot of ways, exposing this process ties directly into what I set out to do while devising the exhibition. Going into it I wondered whether we could possibly have an exhibition that doesn't just show the polished end result, but the clutter of creation too..."

This talk of preparatory 'behind-the-scenes' planning on Vella's part leads me to a niggling question: when it comes to brass tacks, what is it exactly that a curator does? Much like a musical conductor - or even perhaps a film producer as opposed to director - a lot of the curator's work seems to be invisible.

Vella laughs off the suggestion, assuring me that in fact, the job of a curator "is not that easy at all".

"Really, the role of a curator is as visible as you want to make it. The biggest challenge is finding a balancing act between orchestrating the overall aesthetic of an exhibition while remaining sensitive to what the artist is trying to express and convey. Sometimes, the influence of the curator can be too overpowering. For example, I remember going to an exhibition where one of the paintings was hung up close to the ceiling... okay, maybe it was an innovative idea on the curator's part but the end result is that nobody sees the painting properly. I'm also not keen on seeing exhibitions with a very rigid aesthetic - like for example, placing all the paintings in the exhibition within the same kind of frame. It's minimal, and it's safe, but it tends to kill individuality and ignores subtle conceptual differences that separate the work of one artist from another."

On the other hand, Vella strives to meet the artist half way, starting out with an abstract concept of his own while trying to suss out the strengths and needs of the artists under his wing.

"You can't just throw something in the artist's face that is completely foreign to them and expect them to just roll with it. That way it becomes too much like a primary school composition, like you're asking them to write about their summer holiday... you need to allow artists to express their own vision... and you need to be aware and sensitive to historical and cultural patterns that you see emerging around you..."

Following through with this train of thought, Vella mentions a 2010 exhibition, Relocation, which operated on the assumption that Maltese art is always going to be informed by artists moving abroad to pursue further their education and careers - given Malta's limited cultural resources and opportunities - and that this leaves a definitive stamp on Maltese cultural identity.

"I firmly believe that identity is in flux, and that our art reflects that. I think it's a bit of a misconception to view national identity as something static. It's a bit like expecting African art to be all about traditional wooden masks... then when Picasso comes along and appropriates them in his own work, we applaud him..."

Vella's engagement with emerging artists is also helping him to maintain an optimistica attitude about the future of the Maltese art scene.

"When I was growing up, the trend was very much for Maltese art to be sombre, and to deal with metaphysical and tragic subjects. Perhaps it was because the church was still a dominating force, and that artists found a parallel vent for the liturgical aspects of culture through art, but playfulness was never really on the menu.

"I'm not exactly sure what contributed to the shift, but now, there's artists like Emanuel, Elisa von Brockdorff, and Michael Xuereb who seem to enjoy poking fun at everything," Vella says, flagging up some of Bonnici's irreverent works, among them an embryo made out of condoms and a statue of the Baby Jesus made out of chocolate, or von Brockdorff's emphasis on the glossy and colourful surface of banal objects.

"Of course some of this harks back to international Pop art... but Maltese artists are starting to inject aspects of local culture into the work... which is something we've rarely seen before."

Divergent Thinkers will be on display at St James Cavalier, Valletta from July 27 to September 2.