Playing with the big boys | Raphael Vella

Artist, curator and lecturer Raphael Vella speaks to us about being invited to exhibit his ‘Big Boys’ drawings at the ‘collateral event’ Personal Structures, taking place in May at this year’s edition of the Venice Biennale – one of the most prominent visual art events on the global calendar.

Raphael Vella: “An artist’s identity today is actually a conglomeration of many traces”.
Raphael Vella: “An artist’s identity today is actually a conglomeration of many traces”.

Could you tell us a bit about the event itself: what's the main aim behind it, and how exactly does it fit into the overall framework of the Venice Biennale?

I was invited to participate in the exhibition Personal Structures by a curatorial team based at Palazzo Bembo on the Canal Grande located next to the Rialto Bridge in Venice.  Personal Structures actually is not a one-off event - it is more like an artists' platform that has brought exhibitions, symposia and publications to the public over the last few years. 

The organisers are Global Art Affairs, conceived by Dutch artist Rene Rietmeyer around 10 years ago. Curators Karlyn de Jongh and Sarah Gold have brought some important artists to Personal Structures: in the last edition of the Venice Biennale, for instance, artists like Marina Abramovic, Lee Ufan, Hermann Nitsch, Arnulf Rainer and Lawrence Weiner participated, along with several lesser-known artists from around the world. 

The curator of the Venice Biennale, Massimiliano Gioni, has endorsed Personal Structures as an official Biennale collateral event for 2013 - this means that the exhibition is included in the official list of events in Venice and becomes part of the Biennale. My participation was also made possible by support from the Malta Arts Fund.

How would you say your Big Boys drawings fit into the event? What about them makes them amenable to this particular event?

The underlying theme of Personal Structures is 'Time-Space-Existence'. The artists were selected because the curators felt that their works deal with these overlapping, philosophical themes. Naturally, the exhibition will show works in different media like sculpture, installation, drawing and so on, but at a deeper level, a sort of dialogue will be created between these various works located in rooms around Palazzo Bembo.  My series of drawings has actually travelled quite a bit: I showed them first in Nakagawa Gallery in Tokyo, then at St James Cavalier in Malta, and two of them recently formed part of 'Stemperando', a biennale of works on paper in Torino, Cosenza and Rome (invited by Opus 64 Galerie in Sliema).

What would you say that the drawings themselves express: and how much interpretation have you left in the hands of your audience?

Big Boys is about famous men, portrayed in their infancy, childhood or youth. The portraits of living or dead politicians, terrorists and religious leaders like Osama Bin Laden, Pope Benedict, Mao Tse Tung and Che Guevara are based on old photographs of these individuals. One important factor for me is that the children aren't named, so the audience needs to guess their identity. The installation of these drawings is therefore changed into a sort of naming game, closely associated with our mental categorisation of some of these individuals into mental pigeonholes like 'good' and 'bad' persons. Short texts lifted from their adult life (from speeches, books they wrote, and so on) are included in each drawing, so this can be a kind of hint but in reality, the texts are not very helpful. As you read their words, you find yourself agreeing with something that a terrorist might have said; alternatively, you find a face 'cute', only to realise that the face is actually Saddam Hussein's. The 'game' is meant to destabilise preconceptions we have about certain people we are accustomed to seeing in the media. I felt that childhood provides us with the strongest form of destabilisation, because we tend to think of children as being intrinsically good.

You experiment with various media - from drawing to installation art. Why did you opt to return to drawing in this particular case?

All visual artists know that drawing is the basis of every medium: from painting to photography, sculpture and even installation.  Drawing has developed into an important medium in recent years and new variants of conceptual drawing have emerged. This is not drawing as a form of self-expression; it's more like a thought process, often methodical and repetitive. I've loved drawing since I was a kid - I spent long hours drawing on loose sheets of rough paper I found around my parents' house during my childhood. Now, I like drawing because I find that it allows you to be focused on the idea - no colour, only concept.

You've participated in various exhibitions abroad, despite hailing from the small island in Malta. Does a contemporary artist need to have a cosmopolitan sensibility to survive, and if so: does a trace of the artist's national heritage still remain in the work?

It's important for Maltese artists to show their work internationally. I try to show my work to new audiences as often as I can because this means that I can learn from their feedback. In May, Big Boys will travel to Venice, and other, new works I am creating now will travel to Germany for a solo show in a museum in the town of Brilon. I guess that a trace of Malta remains, but an artist's identity today is actually a conglomeration of many traces. Every place I go to and every person I meet is one of these traces.

You are also one of the artistic programme directors for the Valletta 2018 Foundation. How is that process unfolding so far? What developments are you most eager to see implemented?

It's exciting to form part of Valletta 2018. In every European Capital of Culture, there is a learning curve, because you generally only get to do something like this once. So it's never an easy process, but it's always exciting to feel that you are working with people's dreams and ideas for a different and more culturally vibrant city. As far as I'm concerned, I want to help to give contemporary art in Malta the importance it deserves and to help internationalise Maltese art by creating new platforms and dialogues between international artists, curators and local ones.

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