Round and round the prickly pear | Adrian Abela

Artist Adrian Abela intertwines the natural world with architecture in his latest exhibition, A Similar New, in which he presents three light pieces, one object, and two sprayed paintings at the Architecture Project space at Sappers Street, Valletta. He speaks to us about his exploration of Maltese identity through its flora.

Adrian Abela: “The prickly pear has become an intrinsic part of the Maltese identity – similar to the Turkish kebab places which just as effectively serve drunken people at 4am”
Adrian Abela: “The prickly pear has become an intrinsic part of the Maltese identity – similar to the Turkish kebab places which just as effectively serve drunken people at 4am”

At what point did you first become interested in Maltese flora, and why did you decide it would make interesting fodder for an exhibition?

The initial stimulus was not a direct interest in the Maltese flora per se. I was mainly inclined towards the exploration of fractal formations. We can actually observe such formations in the Maltese flora and so far I have explored these with particular focus on the internal and external structure of the prickly pear and the fennel plant, both of which are present in our landscape. These structures can be generated though computer programs with strict mathematical formulas.

When I was seven years old, my grandfather built me a little altar to edge my childhood aspirations towards priesthood. As an altar piece for my church setup, I had put a dried out baby phylloclade from a prickly pear. I think the reason for placing it there at that time was simply because I was amazed by the beauty of it and the detail of the structure.

In hindsight, it makes more sense to me – these ‘fractal’ patterns have a kind of god-like quality to them since they are present within the majority of natural forms. The mathematician Mandelbrot, who coined the word ‘fractal’, defined it as “a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole”. These shapes can indeed be observed in mountains, trees, snowflakes, your lungs, fennel plants and the prickly pear.

How did your idea about Maltese flora (in an artistic context) develop over time?

My work is often about materials that dictate their own narrative, or else starts from a narrative that dictates a material. This time, the subject revolved around the fractal shape and the infinite possibilities it allows through the technique I use in these ‘paintings’. These structures, present on the walkways of our fields and countryside, served as apt tools for me to convey the aesthetic I had aimed to create.

The exhibition is called ‘A Similar New’ with the legend being ‘to see that with which you see with’. What I wanted to say here is that these shapes and forms will seem familiar to you, even if you might have not encountered them before. In the process of seeing these forms, your body is using structures very similar to the patterns themselves in order to make your eyes function, to let you breathe... so in a way you are seeing your own self through a mundane thing like a pest plant.

Why did you choose this particular set up – three light pieces, one object, and two spray-paintings – for the exhibition?

The choice of this work was only determined by the fact that it would be exhibited in the premises of an architecture office. The work to be exhibited was chosen to fit within the limits of the physical space provided, as I did not want the work to be in the way of the daily users of the space. The work is somehow very ‘architectural’ because it explores these naturally occurring structures; the positive and negative spaces such forms create, the light and shadows, the micro and macro perspectives, and so on. These characteristics are relevant to architecture as much as the visual arts. I had also studied these during the writing of my dissertation for a degree in architecture; my dissertation compared the works of a Soviet architect and artist Yakov Chernikov to the fractals found in nature.

How does the space complement the work?

The work was adapted to the space and complements it through its function. The room used is the place where the company’s employees have their daily breaks or meet with clients. I wanted my work to blend in but at the same time contradictorily alter the experience to provide thinking space for the employees and link this occurrence to their practice.

How do you think this exhibition – and your work as a whole - represents the Maltese landscape and – by extension and inference – Maltese identity? It’s certainly leagues away from any grand claims and narratives... would you say you seek out more intimate expressions of what still remains intrinsically ‘Maltese’?

This is a very important question, particularly with regards to this particular exhibition. The pieces do seek a less grand narrative and ask for an intimate experience; in truth, the dialogue remains between the work and the viewer without paying heed to provenance. The ‘Maltese landscape’ came into the equation simply because I happen to live and work within the ‘Maltese landscape’.

The paintings and the light pieces are made using the prickly pear, which is very common in the Maltese landscape. But the prickly pear was only introduced some five centuries ago, probably from Sicily who in turn got them from Mexico, whether directly or otherwise. The plant is also referred to as the ‘Indian Fig’, and despite not being Maltese it was included in the Maltese coat of arms from 1975 till 1988. It is now only present in the Mexican coat of arms, and rightly so. On the other hand, the fennel plant is indigenous to the island and adorns the Maltese landscape with the most exquisite of structures and scents.

Although the prickly pear was introduced in Malta to serve as a fencing device in fields, cheaper and more effective than rubble walls in the protection of farmers' property, it has become an intrinsic part of the Maltese identity – similar to the Turkish kebab places which just as effectively serve drunken people who need to sober up at 4am.

A Similar New will remain on display at Architecture Project, 4, Sappers Street, Valletta until February 27. The exhibition is curated by Michael Bock