More than just reproduction | Jesmond Vassallo

Started as a desperate bid to educate the Maltese public about the art of printmaking, the iMprint series is back for a third exhibition round. Teodor Reljic speaks to artist and exhibition co-organiser Jesmond Vassallo about iMprint iii, which showcases original prints by the likes of Marc Chagall alongside a wide variety of local and international artists

Jesmond Vassallo – ‘Rdum il-Qawwi’ – 28.5cm x 38cm – Aquatint, Etching and Drypoint (2017) and Etching by Justin Falzon – ‘Untitled’ – 27cmx36cm – Soft ground etching and Sugar lift aquatint (2017)
Jesmond Vassallo – ‘Rdum il-Qawwi’ – 28.5cm x 38cm – Aquatint, Etching and Drypoint (2017) and Etching by Justin Falzon – ‘Untitled’ – 27cmx36cm – Soft ground etching and Sugar lift aquatint (2017)

You’ve said that the iMprint initiative was borne out of a desire to react against what you perceived to be “provincial attitudes towards printmaking” in Malta. Could you elaborate on this, and why do you think such an attitude had taken root in Malta?

At present there are a small number of Maltese and foreign individuals who passionately collect and commission original prints. In general, however, very few people from the general public know what an original print is. Sadly, even the majority of specialised professional art educators have never produced an original print themselves. Such poor visual education is one of the reasons why this provincial attitude has taken root in Malta.

Following such observations, I was led to ask how we could ever have a public that values original prints and understands their relevance as works of art, and what could be done by art practitioners to promote such knowledge and appreciation. It was this commitment towards raising more awareness of the value of this art form that prompted the iMprint collective back in 2013.

Since the inception of iMprint, in fact, all the participating artists can observe that this situation has improved. The audience’s attentive eye is growing eager to know more. I’m glad to say that this annual effort has made a difference in how people view original print works.

Another factor that moulded this provincial perspective is that, for a number of decades, Malta did not hold any annual events which showed this art form in all its beauty and complexity. If there were any sparse exhibitions of original prints, these were the sole effort of individual artists. National infrastructures such as museums still do very little to showcase this art form.

In my travels to the UK, Austria, France, Lithuania and Japan, I could observe a national esteem for this art form. Activities revolving around original prints featured all year round in the cultural calendars of each country’s respective national structures and institutions – a far cry from the Maltese situation where individual initiatives like iMprint were needed to act as a spur and drive momentum. Malta’s visual culture needs to catch up in this regard and take a serious and professional attitude towards original printmaking.

Such factors hindering this lack of knowledge towards this art form operate in a vicious circle, and cannot be changed overnight. If one were to conduct a survey and ask the public what an original print is, one would be surprised to realise how many believe that an industrial reproduction which is signed and numbered is an original! This is the change that iMprint is bringing about. It is constantly showing that an original is a print from a template created by the artists themselves, and should not in any respect be confused with a reproduction.

iMprint also gave rise to a number of collaborations with schools which sought to work on projects with individual artists that would introduce a hands-on approach towards original prints for their students. The enthusiasm of both students and their teachers is very encouraging. Although these are small changes, they are tangible ones which are already creating a more attentive audience which keeps growing year after year.

Which aspects of the printmaking experience did you hope to emphasise in your ongoing efforts to bring the craft to the fore with the iMprint exhibitions?

iMprint aims to bring to the fore the visual poetry and richness of this art form in its own right. Through dialogue with international artists, we are working towards achieving more recognition and appreciation among the Maltese and international audience that follows us.

From left: Roderick Camilleri and Jesmond Vassallo
From left: Roderick Camilleri and Jesmond Vassallo

What can you tell us about iMprint iii? Which artists will be exhibited as part of it, and how did you manage to get them all together under one roof?

iMprint iii is an exhibition not to be missed! It is being held at the newly-restored upper galleries of the Malta Society of Arts, and is open daily from 08:30 to 19:00, and Saturdays from 08:30 to 13:00. The exhibition will be running until the 9th of December. Curator Roderick Camilleri and I weaved an international exhibition which highlights the richness of this art form. The curator entitled this show Intaglio, A Creative Text.

The artists’ works have been brought together under one roof because of a direct personal relationship Roderick and I had with each participant. iMprint iii invited national and international artists working in this medium to take part in this year’s international event. Those who showed interest were asked to send a number of photographs of their work. A thorough selection by the curator and myself together with Lino Borg and Justin Falzon followed, with the works carefully chosen to establish a narrative throughout the exhibition.

Lino Borg, Austin Camilleri, Pawl Carbonaro, Justin Falzon, Luciano Micallef, Richard Saliba, John Vassallo and Robert Zahra are artists who have participated in iMprint since its conception in 2013. The aim of this year’s show was to also engage other artists in order to showcase a larger number of artists working with original prints. This year’s edition saw the participation of Eman Grima, Raymond Pitré, Robyn Smith and Irene Zammit. The late Olaug Vethal’s work was made available through a collaboration with Jonathan Xuereb of Christine X Gallery.

Additionally, it was possible to also feature great masters’ print pieces thanks to collaborations with private collectors and galleries. Marc Chagall, Marino Marini, Giuseppe Santomaso, Gino Severini and Gianfranco Ferroni’s prints feature in this exhibition as a result of an excellent relationship formed with Valerio Ballotta of GBK Malta Ltd, while those by Julian Trevelyan and Victor Pasmore have been loaned to us by private collectors.

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

On a national level, Malta needs to respect its deceased artists more. Education should pay respect to Maltese artists of the 20th and 21st centuries who worked in a modern idiom. I would like to see a more serious approach towards visual education, and more exhibitions of international standards. I also think there should be less red tape when it comes to arts funds, and fewer hobbyists elevated to national hero standards. What would I change? I would like to see my country dedicate an entire museum to Modern Maltese artists. This I believe would help foster respect for and a stronger acknowledgement of our past – something which young budding artists seem to lack, let alone the general public. A nation that does not respect its artists and artistic heritage is quite soulless. There should be more international exhibitions to show main currents in history of art, rather than exhibitions concerning individual artists. Unless this happens, as vibrant as our local scene may be, it risks remaining very parochial.

What’s next for you?

Upcoming art activities include iMprint iii at Abraham’s Arte, Gozo in January 2018 and – with the iMprint series now taking a biennial format – iMprint iv in 2019, for which research and work is already under way.