‘What if the toddler were an insect?’ | Moira Zahra

Replying to the question ‘what is art?’ with a ‘Does it matter?’, illustrator Moira Zahra speaks to us participating in the Xebgha Nies exhibition, now taking place at the Lower Galleries of St James Cavalier, Valletta.

Moira Zahra.
Moira Zahra.

What was your first reaction when you heard about the exhibition's brief? How did you feel you could contribute to it?

I was excited that I get to draw people, it's my favourite subject, so any excuse...

Would you say that the recurrent motif of 'people' that seems to be a running thread in this exhibition in particular is something that a Maltese audience would respond to? Why do you think this is, and how did you respond to it artistically?

I think people are always interested in 'people' because it tells them something about the artist and it tells them something about themselves as well, so they can generally relate to the works. When they can't relate there's still a certain degree of curiosity.

As for how would a Maltese audience respond, well, a Maltese audience can vary from 'Cikku' and 'Peppa' to a wealthy artsy person or an engineering student for instance. I was quite glad to hear positive comments about the exhibition from the guys who were hanging the artwork at St James, for instance. So a Maltese audience is quite a diverse audience, and the exhibition is indeed a very diverse one with so many different characters and personalities that indeed represent the Maltese culture.

Moira Zahra

The exhibition is predominantly figurative, perhaps generally tending to illustration more than anything else. Do you think this also gives it an edge over other local exhibitions?

Although the subject itself is a common one, I think the exhibition is definitely different than what we are used to seeing. Seeing this style of illustration in local galleries is a recent thing and I am quite happy about it. I am also glad that we got to do playful, fun illustration without being too experimental or too traditional and so far the response has been very positive.

How would you describe your own visual interpretation of Maltese society?

I wouldn't say my theme was an interpretation of Maltese society even though I have included some local scenery. My focus was on different people living indifferently with large insects (and one spider). The idea came about when I was looking at a group of middle-aged women cooing over a toddler at the pool. For some reason I thought, what if the toddler were an insect? Wouldn't it be funny if they were cooing over an insect rather than a toddler? And am I only imagining this toddler as an insect because I don't know him or her? This then became a matter of familiar vs the unfamiliar, but I always wanted to keep the people themselves, the focus of the drawing, and the insects as a subtle, humorous addition. Some of my people also look similar to the insects that they are portrayed with.

Moira Zahra Xebgha Nies

What do you think of the local art scene? Do you think it can learn from the 'laid back' attitude that Xebgha Nies seems to have adopted?

I think so. Artists are familiar with the barrage of questions: "Is this art?"; "Is Illustration art?"; "Is the subject focused enough?"; "Is this good conceptually?"; "Is this experimental enough?" or, "Is this different?" Making art has become so frustrating for artists because there is so much pressure on trying to be different. In Xebgha Nies our answer to all the above was pretty much, "Does it matter?"

As long so you have fun and the work is of a good quality, I don't think it does.

So to answer your question I think that yes - the local art scene can learn from this attitude. I know I certainly did.

Xebgha Nies will also feature work by Debbie Caruana Dingli, Andrew Diacono, Mark Scicluna, Steve Bonello, Marisa Attard, Paul Scerri, Saviour Baldacchino and Kenneth Zammit Tabona. The exhibition will run from February 21 until March 30.