Raw matter for a raw world | Victor Agius

Gozitan multidisciplinary artist Victor Agius speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about his upcoming exhibition Terrae, and how his holistic conception of our natural environment continues to inform his work

Victor Agius. Photo by Bennard Buttigieg
Victor Agius. Photo by Bennard Buttigieg

The natural surroundings of the Maltese islands, in perhaps their most fundamental form, have proven to be some of the raw matter for your work. Could you tell us a little bit why you find this to be such an on going spur for your creative output?

Nature in general is in fact the crux of most of my works, be it sculpture, installation or painting. Living and being brought up in Gozo also helped to shape my affinity with this language. I am always trying to have my senses alert to all my surroundings for example the incredible rock formation of the cliffs, geology of our seashores, the smell of carob trees and soil after the first rain in September. However my focus shifted in context and in concept over the years. Using mainly the same language of materials I feel intrigued however by a rugged stone or discarded roots of an uprooted tree. For me, these bear layers of memories and narratives that speak about our ancestors, the planet we live in and our relation with it and within it.

I am obsessed with the way man and Earth are vitally connected and attached as if still with the umbilical cord. In 2005, I worked on a project named Nativitas, in which my canvases also included earth, hay and sheep’s wool. This series was more focused on the traditional connotations between materials and iconography.

From this, I moved on to create works with the intention to play with aesthetics and textures while using discarded objects and organic materials. In 2009, I started collaborating with composer Mariella Cassar Cordina to work on Ggantija 2013 project. Here, the use of materials mainly in sculptures and panels using clay in its unfired raw state strived to show the affinity with the spirituality that inhabits matter. I was trying to link my language with Mother Earth and the primitive rituals which were around since the dawn of man. It also served as a reflection of how man consumes Earth for his daily and spiritual needs. I still see all this happening today.

My preoccupation with our relation to the Earth is still evolving, not necessarily with my way of developing my practice, but also due to the fast-changing landscape around me. In this sense the environment is also changing the levels and the layers of meaning in my work.

‘Terrarossa’ by Victor Agius
‘Terrarossa’ by Victor Agius

On that note, how do you feel that the works exhibited in Terrae show the evolution of your work, and your thematic concerns? What’s new in this exhibition that you haven’t quite had a chance to explore in previous ones?

This is the reason why Terrae is taking place in Valletta in 2018. I am showing this collection, which has a body of work spanning from sculptures to ceramics, paintings and documentation in video and sound for Ggantija 2013 Project. I want to communicate the way Terrae (Earth) is a timeless notion while we are appropriating it and consuming it as we speak. The cave drawings of Altamira and the ochre spirals of the Hypogeum, together with the sculptures found at Xaghra Stone Circle, along with our modern day rituals, are all the same in spirit.

It will also be an opportunity to show works on paper and conceptual studies, which have never been exhibited before. These have been accumulating in my studios since 2008 and served as part of my on-going research with the abstraction of the primitive form.

‘Mutter, Ggantija’ by Victor Agius
‘Mutter, Ggantija’ by Victor Agius

Over the last couple of years, plenty of local artists have taken it upon themselves to comment on the Maltese islands’ crisis of overdevelopment, in one way or another, and to varying degrees of political engagement and directness. Would you say that your work can somehow be classed among these attempts, given how the natural environment plays such a crucial role in what you do? 

All art can be termed as political. I’m afraid that the theme of Earth is often romanticised. We treat it only as part of our heritage and as a popular subject for postcards. Through my interventions at Heritage sites and public spaces I try to illustrate the cyclic element when man uses and consumes nature and the Earth around him.

My works, within the current scenario of concrete towers that are permanently rupturing our skylines and the heart of our village cores and sensitive ecological sites, pose a sublime reflection that nature and mother Earth are not just romantic and pastoral stories of the past, but are also stories of today and tomorrow.

The current development, which has been gaining momentum for a number of years, speaks volumes about our relation with Earth today, our greed and indifference to our future generations. It is extremely sad that this will also be the legacy that we are leaving behind.

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

The Maltese arts scene cannot be discussed while only mentioning artists galleries and museum
goers, we need to address the urgent need to educate the general public. It is very important that whoever is responsible educates about art in every sense of the word; from the basic norms of its visual language and how art has been used not only to communicate propaganda but also to fuel discussions and pose questions.

In recent years, a young generation of contemporary artists have been emerging and a good number of these are also continuing their studies abroad. Many of these artists, upon their return to Malta, are trying to express their work in a contemporary language. We need more exhibition spaces, together with logistical support to develop temporary interventions, not only in confined spaces inside galleries in Valletta, but also in the heart of schools and village centres.

Through this dialogue and collateral forums and seminars, and the community involvement, we may start to see some genuine interest through the hybridisation of bridging art between the creators and all the levels of the community so that we all have a sense of belonging.

What’s next for you?

At the moment I am working on a public sculpture and performance that will involve a number of locals from my native village. Then, I have something in the pipeline for 2019 that will be exhibited overseas.