When art becomes a necessity | Rik Van Colen

As the project goes on a winning crowdfunding streak, TEODOR RELJIC speaks to photographer Rik Van Colen about ART 4 WARD 2, a collaboration with the Deep Shelter Project and Valletta 2018, aiming to install art in the Sir Anthony Mamo Oncology Centre

How did the project first come about, and what led to the collaboration that made it possible?

I found out, through friends, about the Deep Shelter Project, which aims to bring art into the Sir Anthony Mamo Oncology Centre. I was immediately attracted to this idea for very personal reasons. My own mum is a retired oncology nurse, a breast cancer survivor and currently still under treatment for bone metastases.

That is only one (though obviously the one closest to my heart) example of how cancer has affected my life. I approached the wonderful Pamela Baldacchino, who runs the project, to see if she was perhaps interested in a donation of one of my works. After a few meetings, and visits to get to know the setting at the Centre, it quickly escalated into the ART 4 WARD 2 project it is now. My own mum, and the staff of Ward 2 inspired me to make this effort. I mean, when was the last time you heard someone say they ‘need’ art?

Given that the photographs at the core of this project will inevitably be serving a specific purpose, what kind of feel and approach did you take to them? Did you want to capture a specific mood or feeling?

None of the works were made with this project in mind. Most were done in a period of my life when I was spending time alone. I found the experience of being by myself, by the sea, taking my time to, painstakingly, create these long exposure seascapes to have a calming effect on me. It was mainly that ephemeral, almost timeless, feeling of being there in the moment that I wanted to express.

Each one of these photographic captures has a deep personal meaning to me. A meaning, as I found out when I started to show the captures, was understood, though often interpreted differently by others. As happens so often in art, the expression of the most personal turns out to be understood and interpreted through our common humanity.

Do you think there is enough awareness among the general public of the ‘healing’ or ‘restorative’ benefits of art and if not, what do you think can be done to improve this situation?

For starters, not all art has these qualities, and neither should it. Art can be an expression of the exact opposite, of pain, anger, anxiety, and many other things, or even of nothing at all. However I do think that as human beings we do have an inherent need to relieve our and others’ suffering, and art is one of the means we, historically, have used for this. African American blues music comes to mind as a perfect example.

Exposure to art is probably the best way to achieve a better
understanding of these qualities. Lower the threshold to make art more accessible, and encourage people from a very young age to discover instinctively, for themselves, the power of art.

You’ve opted to go for the crowdfunding route with this project. How are you finding it, and would you recommend this option to other local artists?

To be honest, I kind of fell into the crowdfunding way. This project escalated from, maybe donating one of my works, into a donation of ten works. To have a real effect on the place the works need to be printed big, and to withstand the rigours of hospital life, over decades, they need to be of excellent durable quality. Printing big and on durable material is expensive, and it turned out that there really wasn’t the budget for this.

At this point, I was already fully committed to donating the works and decided to take the plunge with crowdfunding, and to give it all I’ve got, to make it happen. It’s been stressful but also very rewarding. I did my research and got all the help I could get. I’ve been lucky to have a number of friends who offered their knowledge and skills such as graphic design, proof reading, consultation on quality and size of printing. Also, the team at ZAAR has been truly professional and helpful in every way possible. But every day, after work, I have to put together much of the content for the crowdfunding portal and then do all the promotion work.

It has taken over all of my free time. So, regarding recommending this route of crowdfunding, I would say you need to be 100% committed to go into it, and almost forget about doing anything else with your free time, while you are crowdfunding. Right now, I’m a hustler 24/7, I wake up with it, and I go to sleep with it.

Would you say that the Maltese cultural infrastructure has created a sustainable environment for photographers? What would you change about it?

Oh dear, tomes... books, could be written about this, but not by me. I’m not a policy maker, I’m just trying to do my little thing in my little corner. I do know that there have been some efforts, so far unsuccessful, to establish a photography museum and centre. Maybe that could be a good start?


A pop-up exhibition of photographs by Rik Van Colen to be donated to the Sir Anthony Mamo Oncology Centre will be held at The Mill in Birkirkara from May 31 to June 4. The exhibition will be launched on May 31 at 20:00. It will be open on subsequent days from 10:00 to 12:00 and 16:00 to 19:00. ART 4 WARD 2 is supported by the Gabriel Caruana Foundation and the Valletta 2018 Foundation. For more information on the project’s crowdfunding campaign, log on to: http://www.zaar.com.mt/projects/art4ward2/