The worthwhile concept of suffering | Gulja Holland

On show at Mdina’s Cathedral Museum as part of the silent city’s ongoing Biennale, Gulja Holland’s powerful paintings – under the banner of ‘Dreams of a Child’ – place the most harrowing victims of war front and centre. We speak to the young artist about how and why she set about depicting the suffering of children during wartime, negotiating the conceptual minefield of her artistic education in the UK, and what’s in store for her in the near future

Gulja Holland • Photo by Jose Vazquez
Gulja Holland • Photo by Jose Vazquez

Given that spirituality is the theme of the Mdina Biennale – what kind of prompts does this theme serve to you? Are you inspired to create art associated to spirituality in some way, and if so, how do you approach it?

 At the Biennale, my work tackles with the theme of spirituality directly. I wanted the audience to think about the relationship between religion and spirituality, since the theme also encompassed Christianity and the ‘Other’.

The victims of any religiously motivated war are considered non-believers of the opposing dogma and therefore not treated or recognised as spiritual human beings. This is my interpretation of the ‘other’. For many religious people religion and spirituality is one and the same. Yet children are by nature innocent and loving. They symbolise purity of thought and intent, which is probably why they are so often depicted as angels in religious paintings.

I would like to think that some of my previous works also transmits a sense of the metaphysical. To me being spiritual means being compassionate and feeling connected to everything on a very deep level.

So I think that spirituality is closely linked to the act of creating in a general sense. Art has the potential to communicate the heart of the matter and to unify people. I approach my work with this intention in mind.

How has studying abroad changed your perspective on art?

Living in England for the first time away from home definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone creatively as well as socially. Experiencing an old culture superimposed with multiculturalism, and its inherent tensions, was somewhat of a culture shock and brought me up to speed with the reality of this new world.

The energy at the college was very stimulating as were all the gallery visits. I was constantly being exposed to techniques and practices which I had never seen before. Leeds College of Art has some of the best resources and workshop facilities in the UK, and we were encouraged by our tutors to explore and overlap new practices within our own.

What I was less enthusiastic about was the college’s concept-driven approach to Fine Art practice. Essentially, with conceptual art, it is the idea rather than the aesthetic or craft that the artist is selling. At first I felt insecure about the fact that I didn’t really want to be creating this art, which is definitely seen as most avant-garde.

It forced me to rethink my practice and evaluate whether I could create work which would be taken as seriously on canvas. It is difficult to say something new with such an old medium as so much has been done with it already. Before coming to the UK, I hadn’t chosen paint so much as paint had chosen me. It’s what I had used in art classes since school. That’s changed since.

Holland next to her exhibition space at the Cathedral Museum, Mdina • Photo by Lukas Schepers
Holland next to her exhibition space at the Cathedral Museum, Mdina • Photo by Lukas Schepers

What do you make of the local visual arts scene? What would you change about it?

Of course I haven’t been around long enough to be anything of an expert on any art scene. Yet I do think that for such a small island we have some really great talent. Today artists have more opportunities to expand themselves on an international scale, thanks to the internet. We don’t look inwardly as much as we used to for inspiration perhaps.

I paint almost exclusively from photography, for instance. I’m very optimistic about the local creative scene as the amount of creative opportunities for artists is definitely on the increase. I’m anxious to see it pick up some momentum though.

As critics have mentioned before Malta urgently needs a museum for both contemporary and modern art especially in light of the Valletta Capital for Culture event in 2018.

While I think that while Arts Council Malta has done a commendable job in providing funds for creatives, it might be worthwhile exploring the possibility of setting up separate project funds for emerging and established artists seeing that the former need more motivating and financial help.

What’s next for you?

Many more artworks and opportunities to exhibit them hopefully! I’m currently working towards a solo exhibition set to take place something early in 2016. The style of these works will be very different to the works currently on display. They won’t be as serious and sombre and more whimsical, and primarily concerned with the aesthetic quality of colour combinations. I’ll reveal more closer to the date. 

The Mdina Cathedral Contemporary Art Biennale runs until January 7. For more information visit