Of death masks and coded information | Jennifer Mallia

Having gained experience working in various media as a student at the MCAST Institute for Art and Design, young artist Jennifer Mallia drew attention during the collective exhibition Divergent Thinkers 2 at St James Cavalier with her ‘memento mori’ masks made out of human hair. She speaks to us about her evolution as an artist.

Jennifer Mallia's 'memento mori' masks, made out of human hair.
Jennifer Mallia's 'memento mori' masks, made out of human hair.

"I heard of Divergent Thinkers last year from a friend of mine who participated in the first Divergent Thinkers exhibition. Unfortunately I had to miss last year's exhibition due to my studies and my dissertation work for my degree in Fine Arts. I heard very good comments and feedback regarding the organisation and the actual layout of the exhibition, so I decided that it would be worth participating in the next one.

"This collaborative exhibition is not my first one as at MCAST, as a class, we always participated in an end-of-year exhibition, which made me feel experienced enough to work with other young and emerging artists.

"I think, in my opinion, the fact that Malta is a small island, we are somehow limited. The distance between other European countries (being surrounded by sea) is influencing people on how to approach, critique, see and appreciate a work of art. On the other hand, Malta being limited but developing into a multicultural society, young and emerging artists are coming up with a new style of art which could be called 'contemporary' or 'conceptual'. In other words, when artists are faced with limits, their art flourishes. As a result Malta's art practice have evolved and solidified.

"I have been collecting my hair, and that of my family, for about two years now. For the creation of 'Famiglia Lignum', I took casts of my family members onto which I covered with their real hair onto their casted face. This reminds me of death masks, or 'memento mori'. I was to use hair thanks to my mother's attitude 23 years ago, when she used to collect my first trimmed hair and the first fallen teeth. They are highly valuable, precious and sentimental to her. Then I noticed the hand gestures in relation to hair. Also, during the Victorian era the hair of deceased loved ones was also considered as very precious (in fact, it was used in their jewellery). Hair also has unique properties since it contains coded information. Through this work of art, I feel I have found the inner meaning of life and self-discovery.

"I like to work in a variety of media, from two dimensional such as photography, painting, and printing to three dimensional such as sculptures and installations. I have worked with ceramics, metal, epoxy resin, recycled materials, natural materials and others. I always enjoyed experimenting with different materials... in fact, I mostly prefer test pieces rather than a final piece. "I don't like working with the same material for a long time as I find it becomes boring. This continuous experimentation enhanced my artistic abilities into working with almost any material. I feel that some specific ideas require specific materials to accommodate them. They can't be one instead of the other. The material is crucial in my work, as the medium links itself with the concept - as was the case with Famiglia Lignum.

"Unfortunately, there are more opportunities abroad than locally. There are artist residencies, huge museum and studio spaces for artists to develop their practice. Foreign societies tend to give more value and a sense of appreciation to art. Looking at the local scene from a slightly different perspective, Valletta's role as European Capital for Culture in 2018 will eventually create new opportunities for emerging artists.

"Personally I am planning to keep exploring available avenues and pursue local and international opportunities. Sharing my art and letting others to know more about my work is crucial for my practice. Doing a Masters of Fine Arts is helping me to understand better who I am before I consider myself an artist. Art is my language though which I best communicate and express myself. So my priority right now is simply to continue creating."