Meeting our monster heritage | Joseph Bugeja

For painter Joseph Bugeja, the creepy creatures from Maltese folklore have become something of a labour of love. He speaks to Teodor Reljic about the spark behind his 'Hotel Babaw' exhibition, and the value of preserving the monsters of yore

Painter Joseph Bugeja
Painter Joseph Bugeja

For painter Joseph Bugeja, the creepy creatures from Maltese folklore have become something of a labour of love, as he takes over the evocative venue of The Splendid in Valletta to convert it into ‘Hotel Babaw’ – a series of paintings offering a fresh perspective on ancient fears. Bugeja speaks to Teodor Reljic about the spark behind the exhibition, and the value of preserving the monsters of yore.

When did you first become interested in doing art in a serious, long-term capacity, and what were your initial goals in this regard?

I can say that my passion for art has been with me from the day that I could hold a pencil. I was surrounded by art related materials and art books all my life because my father is also an artist and so the environment of my upbringing helped a lot into making art my passion. My father used to have books by fantasy art greats, like Boris Vallejo, Jim Burns and Chris Achilleos, to name just a few. I love comic books as well – mainly for the art work – and I’m also obsessed with the horror genre. In my teenage years, I grew up watching the horror cinema of the 80s – which in my opinion could be described as the golden years of the genre – and in addition to all of that, I was also exposed to a lot of heavy metal album sleeves. All of these things, I think, helped my imagination to flourish and to pave way to the style I draw today. I don’t consider drawing a profession, for me to produce art is important as much as drinking and eating and so making art has always been my goal in life.

Did you always have a particular interest in Maltese folklore? Do you think other Maltese visual artists have perhaps neglected the importance and potential of local folklore as a source of inspiration?

‘Sarangu’ by Joseph Bugeja
‘Sarangu’ by Joseph Bugeja

I love history in general. If I’m not painting, most of the times I will be doing some research on some event in history. So, considering that I live in a country which has such a rich history, this reflects as well in my artwork. I consider the history of Malta and what shaped our community, in other words, the folklore of the islands, as my main source of inspiration. There are so many references in our history that beg me to put them on paper or creatures and characters that form part of our folklore that need to be explored and given an identity. As every other visual artist who resides or visits our island, I am impressed with the natural beauty that Malta can offer, but I try to go further with my imagination. I draw beyond what the eye could see. I give importance to my fertile imagination, and this could be described as the trademark in my paintings.

How would you say Hotel Babaw builds on your previous work, and what can visitors hope to see at the exhibition? 

Hotel Babaw is taking place at the evocative venue of The Splendid in Strait Street, Valletta
Hotel Babaw is taking place at the evocative venue of The Splendid in Strait Street, Valletta

My first solo exhibition, which was titled Immagina, was held in 2006 at St James Cavalier. It consisted of 36 artworks portraying Malta’s history, but obviously with a touch of my imagination. In Hotel Babaw, there is still that element of fantasy but this time I am tackling more the folkloristic side of the islands. I remember a few years ago I was reading a book and came across some creatures that we find in our folklore that our forefathers used to be frightened by. I barely knew that a bulk of these characters existed, and so I began researching in Melitensia books, trying to find more about this dark side of our folklore. I was impressed with the amount of knowledge I found, and considering I love drawing creepy creatures I thought of doing an exhibition on them, which would also help generate some awareness about them, especially since they risk fading away in the collective memory. Apart from the artworks, visitors to the exhibition will also get a chance to see a video on each character, helping them understand the dark side of our folklore all the better. The atmospheric venue of The Splendid at Strait Street, coupled with the Halloween-friendly timing of the exhibition, were chosen to maximize the exhibition as a fully-fledged experience; to help the visitor understand what our forefathers felt when confronted with the idea of these creatures. 

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

Actually, what I’ve been noticing is a very big absence of imagination. There are some very good academic artists but then that’s where the majority stops. They lack imagination. It could also be our local upbringing, and even our art schools. They don’t encourage the students to go beyond just drawing what they have in front of them. Imagination is a very important part in someone’s artistic journey. 

Knowing the fundamental steps is very important for each and every artist and these steps can’t be skipped – especially by beginners – but many are not inclined or encouraged to go beyond that. 

‘Censa L-Mewt’ by Joseph Bugeja
‘Censa L-Mewt’ by Joseph Bugeja

I believe that an artist needs to use all that they have learned from all those hours studying, shading, perspective, form, colour, and then go beyond that. I believe that local art schools need to begin addressing this situation.

What’s next for you?

Well, after this exhibition I need some time to recharge my batteries because it was so exhausting to hold. It had so much research involved and time spent to make the ideal venue and ambience to be held in, that I can proudly say that I don’t recall ever visiting such an exhibition on our shores. It was designed to be totally a whole package to the visitor. Then I’m sure I will get back full speed on another new project – my mind doesn’t know how to stop! Sometimes I think that it is another beast, like one of the creatures that form part of Hotel Babaw.

Hotel Babaw will remain on display at The Splendid, Strait Street, Valletta until November 20. Opening hours: 19:00 to 21:30 (weekdays) and 10:00 to 12:30, 14:00 to 22:00 (weekends). More information:

Front cover image: It-Tork tat-Tarag by Joseph Bugeja

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