How to raise a rabble-rouser | Raphael Vella

Artist Raphael Vella speaks to us about his recent exhibition at the Senate Hall at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, Poland, ‘Raising a Revolutionary’.

Raphael Vella:
Raphael Vella: "If you’re a Maltese believer in a god called ‘Art’, praying is not enough; you also have to build your church"

Would you say that this exhibition collates some of the most significant work of your career? What kind of preoccupations emerge from the work on display?

The exhibition brings together a selection of works produced in the last two years, most of which have not been shown in Malta yet. The title of the exhibition, ‘Raising a Revolutionary’, is also the title of a new series of large drawings that I’m showing in Warsaw. In a way, this series combines many of the concerns that have affected me as an artist and lecturer in the last 10 to 15 years: education, books, politics and childhood.

Each drawing is made on sheets of book-pages that I pulled out of a well-known parents’ manual on the care of infants and children. The drawings represent revolutionary figures and writers like Thoreau, Lenin, Trotsky, Guevara, Luxemburg, and Bakunin along with partially visible titles of their best-known written works.

At the simplest level, there is a link between the baby book and these revolutionary figures because each one of them was once an infant. So, we could ask ourselves: what came along to transform this child into Che Guevara? How does one raise a revolutionary? Each drawing is created by using pencils to delete hundreds of lines of printed text.

The portrait emerges by ‘forgetting’ one’s infancy. The success of all political and artistic revolutions, after all, is normally supposed to lie in their ability to make us forget the past. We destroy one system and replace it with another. Yet, in these drawings, for the most part, the deleted text remains legible. No matter how much we attempt to destroy or forget our past, it returns to haunt us.

As someone who’s exhibited abroad quite often, how does it feel to show your work in Warsaw in particular?

It is unusual to be given the opportunity to exhibit one’s work in a venue that is as beautiful as the Senate Hall at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. The newly-restored parquet floor and walls and the proportions of the spacious interior located in the Rectorate’s building make it ideal for an exhibition like this. With the support of the Deputy Rector, Professor Pawel Nowak, and his team of colleagues who helped out with the installation and catalogue design, the setup is very professional. I should add that the generous help and enthusiasm of Malta’s Ambassador in Poland, Pierre Clive Agius, and the support of the Cultural Diplomacy Fund, also contributed very much to make this event possible.

The subject matter of the exhibition – i.e., the focus on anarchists and revolutionaries – puts political realities front and centre. What would you say is the role of art when it comes to commenting on key historical events and issues? How can it impinge upon and inform political discourse without being simply illustrative?

When a work of art makes you react, motivates you to look at something with new eyes, or even makes you stop in your tracks to reflect about something, it is already performing a political action. ‘Politics in art’ is not equivalent to ‘art about politics’.

Art does not need to deal thematically with specific historical events to be political. Whenever I feel that I might be getting dangerously close to ‘illustration’ in my work, I turn away and return to ‘art’ or some other discipline that I’m interested in. I am not interested in didacticism because I believe that didacticism isn’t ‘education’. Education is only about opening another person’s eyes, not about directing his or her eyes to a specific place.

How do you view the contemporary Maltese visual arts scenario, particularly when compared to our international neighbours? What are its quirks and particularities?

I believe that the contemporary art scene in Malta is developing very fast and ‘learns’ much faster than it did only 10 years ago. The biggest challenge is related to whether we truly want to adhere to certain standards of professionalism. 

Being professional essentially means making things harder for yourself and for people around you. It means that second-best is never good enough. Mediocrity, on the other hand, tempts people to cut corners in order to solve things more quickly and cheaply.

In a place like Malta, where infrastructure for the arts is still in its infancy, it’s much harder to reach international, professional levels and stay there. It’s like starting from scratch on a daily basis. If you’re a Maltese believer in a god called ‘Art’, praying is not enough; you also have to build your church, and you need to build it every time you feel the need to pray. The hill is steeper and paradoxically, it’s easier to fall into the trap of thinking that you’ve made it to the top.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on the possibility of having this exhibition travel elsewhere and am planning to show some new work in northern Italy in 2015. And I just started work on a new book, with chapters featuring interviews with many international artists who also teach.

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