Their vibrant palette | Joseph and Henriette Mallia

The vibrant colours of the sea, Senglea’s architecture and the strong presence of its natural environment play a key role in the work of father and daughter Joseph and Henriette Mallia. They tell VERONICA STIVALA why they cannot live without the sea

Joseph and Henriette Mallia • Photo by Mario Micallef
Joseph and Henriette Mallia • Photo by Mario Micallef

There is a house in Senglea that I fell in love with a while ago and which I make it a point to pass by whenever I am in the area. Located in a quaint narrow street, just next to a small piazza that overlooks a gorgeous view of the sea, this house is unusual. Its windows, steps, house number are a burst of vibrant hues; purples, blues, oranges make this house stick out.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that this house belonged to artist Henriette Mallia, and so which I got to see from the inside. The bright palette continues throughout the house – in its furniture, soft furnishing, ornaments and tiles – giving it a fun air, an artistic air. On the walls hang the work of its owner, Henriette Mallia, as well as her father, Joseph Mallia. Both artists’ paintings also comprise bold and bright colours, many abstract and many featuring the sea as their protagonist.

I am meeting two artists, father and daughter, to talk about the upcoming exhibition and book launch, aptly named Two Generations of Maltese Artistic Families. Organised by APS Bank, the exhibition and literary publication are the second edition in a three-year series documenting the works produced by two fathers and their offspring, the other two being the late George Fenech and his son Gilbert.

Painting by Joseph Mallia
Painting by Joseph Mallia

Like George and Gilbert, the surrounding natural environment plays an important and visible role in their art. With the Fenechs it is softer pastels that portray the grassy areas and imposing rocks, whereas with the Mallias, the colours are brighter, the work more abstract, a reflection of the different surroundings, this time, Senglea.

The sea is a powerful protagonist in Joseph’s work, both in his landscapes as well as his abstract works. Portraits also form part of his portfolio, which is characterised by light and colour, and precise draughtsmanship, be it in his quick sketches, large oils or acrylic paintings. He brings out a folder of numerous little notebooks, some just bits of paper he has put together and printed with his own handwriting to make them look like books. He flips through the pages and one after another, the sea is present: from glimpses of the contours of the waves, to luzzus on the water, to idyllic scenes of the beautiful blue sea, caressing the golden, cream-coloured Maltese stone. “I can’t get rid of the sea, be it rough, quiet or calm” he half jokes.

Indeed, Joseph “was always fascinated by the sea bed”. He reminisces about how as a child he would find the sea so mysterious, wondering what lay beneath this vast blue water. “The sea is always at the back of my mind. It is something romantic for me,” he adds. Joseph’s words are echoed by his daughter who concedes that even when she goes abroad, she needs to see the sea at some point. “The sea environment is very important to both of us,” Henriette comments.

In Henriette’s work – be it her paintings, furniture design and decoration or stage sets – her sensitive perception of nature is evident. Movement is a key feature in her work, be it from the sea, the sky or other natural elements.

For both, their source of inspiration is key to the work. “When you paint, you need to be inspired by something,” comments Joseph, adding how a key word in his creative process is ‘notation’. He explains this by saying that his art has to come from “depths from within”. You cannot make a drawing of, say, another drawing. There must be emotion behind a good drawing.

Painting by Henriette Mallia
Painting by Henriette Mallia

Both Joseph and Henriette have a teaching background and this is evident in the way they speak. I find myself practically being given a lesson in how to approach my painting subject –  which I greatly enjoy. And Henriette’s passion for imparting her knowledge is almost tangible. She explains to me how it is imperative that she offers a practical side to learning art at the school she teaches and involves her students and lets them watch her and join in with her when she is painting.

For this is how she learnt how to paint from her father. He never imposed anything on her but would help her when she needed it. Henriette would love to go around with him, taking her sketchbook with her and absorbing everything she would see him do. “We never actually sat down for lessons but he taught me just by exposing me to what he did, to what he saw, both in Malta and when we went abroad,” she comments.

Henriette admits that “there was a time when I admired my father so much that I felt I couldn’t aspire to him,” This passed when she found herself working on big projects and she felt she had to make her own mark.

Two Generations of Maltese Artistic Families will be on display at the APS Centre, Swatar. The public is invited to view the exhibition from October 16 until December 3, between 08:30 – 13:00 (Monday – Friday) and 08:30 – 11:00 (Saturday). The complementing book, edited by the exhibition’s curator Louis Laganà, will be available from the APS Centre, Swatar and