A legacy of loveable monsters

As one of the founding members of the Gabriel Caruana Foundation, Raffaella Zammit speaks to Teodor Reljic about how the Foundation’s latest workshop-turned-exhibition, Kreaturi drew from Caruana’s legacy to motivate kids to create their own ‘biomorphic creatures’

The young participants of the Kreaturi project during the workshops held at The Mill in Birkirkara
The young participants of the Kreaturi project during the workshops held at The Mill in Birkirkara

What was the main spur for you to organise these workshops, and how would you think they commemorate the legacy of Gabriel Caruana? 

Back in 2014 I started actively helping out my dad, Gabriel, with The Mill and his studios, I assisted him and Kite Publishers in his latest book ‘Gabriel Caruana’. Over the years we had been discussing how to organise ourselves better and the idea of a voluntary organisation was always coming up. Last year Joyce Camilleri, an artist and art teacher, approached us since she wanted to organise a school activity at The Mill. 

Of course, we welcomed her and 80 children to The Mill, where over two days they learned about The Mill as an art and cultural centre, Gabriel Caruana, and also had the opportunity to express themselves through painting and drawing. This wasn’t the first group of children visiting the Mill, but it was my first experience organising such an event. 

We saw how receptive children were and how they enjoyed The Mill’s atmosphere. I started discussing with the Foundation and with Joyce the idea of developing a workshop and then we roped in Andrea Pullicino, and from there, Kreaturi was born. I started writing a proposal and it was chosen to be funded by the Creative Communities fund of Arts Council Malta. We also got co-financed by APS Bank, and supported by Spazju Kreattiv and ZiguZajg. We’re very grateful for the support received at every stage of the project. 

At the age of 88 years, even after some health issues, Gabriel still inspires and encourages us to be active and it is this creative energy that we want to honour and which inspired us to develop Kreaturi. We wanted to transmit this energy to kids, to provide a space where they can be free to express themselves through visual means. 

Could you talk a bit about Caruana’s biomorphic figures in particular? How do they fit into his overall oeuvre, and why did you find them so amenable for the purposes of this workshop?

Caruana is mostly renowned for his ceramic art, clay being his preferred medium. However, he is versatile in different mediums, he is able to transform mundane and discarded objects and imbue them with his expression and quite effortlessly turn into art. 

We focused on Caruana’s biomorphic figures because they are one of his easily recognisable motifs, which appear consistently in his oeuvre. Part of the Foundation’s work is also to develop Caruana’s Catalogue raisonne and this was a good opportunity to go through Caruana’s artistic development, so we made reference to works going back to the 1950s, to his time at the Accademia Belle Arti Pietro Vannucci in Perugia during the mid-sixties, and practically every decade henceforth. Since 2014, I have been organising the archive from letters, newspaper cuttings to artwork. Luckily dad has always made it a point to collect any relevant information and mum has organised newspaper cuttings in a number of folders in chronological order. It’s an ongoing process but it is very rewarding to unravel the life of an artist. 

In terms of the workshop we wanted to focus on a particular element so we chose Caruana’s biomorphic figures. We obviously did not want the kids to copy his work, but to develop their own style. Focusing on a particular aspect helped since we had to work within a timeframe, the space, and other practical considerations such as the kiln space and the glazing process. The idea was for the kids to become ‘kreaturi’ in their own right. 

How did the workshops themselves pan out? On what criteria were the creative team chosen, and how did you seek to engage the kids that formed part?

The workshops were held at The Mill – Art, Culture and Crafts Centre in Birkirkara during August. The venue was a natural choice. Since its opening by Gabriel Caruana in June 1990 it has hosted a number of exhibitions, seminars, literature nights, workshops and school visits. Before the workshops, the team consisting of Joyce Camilleri, Andrea Pullicino, Umberto Buttigieg and myself, devised the lesson plans. 

We spoke to Gabriel directly and made reference to his notes as an Instructor at Targa Gap, where he taught ceramic art and pottery. Each of the team members brought their experience and contributed towards the workshops. In terms of choosing the team, I have a close relationship with Andrea Pullicino, whom I have seen develop over the years. I love the fact that she is concerned with process, her experimentation with clay and her breaking the rules of ceramic making to convey her artistic expression. 

With Joyce, she approached us for a school visit in 2016 and I liked the way she engaged with children, the initiative she took and the interest she showed. Umberto has been involved in the Foundation from its start, he is enthusiastic, and has a sensitivity and an understanding that is very valuable, and he also has worked with kids. Back in 2014 he had approached us to set up and curate an exhibition for Gabriel in Gozo. The exhibition focused on works on paper and was organised by Fondazzjoni Belt Victoria and Il-Hagar Heart of Gozo. We were very pleased with the exhibition, how it was presented and organised. 

From my part, I brought my experience in project proposal writing and management as well as my personal experience of being Caruana’s youngest daughter and my experience of The Mill, having been there from its opening. From a young age, dad had always made it a point to involve us, by attending exhibitions both in Malta and abroad, meeting different artists, having access to his studios and learning about ceramics, glazing and how to operate a kiln. Travelling for us always meant visiting artists and their studios, going to exhibitions or museums, or art festivals such as the Venice Biennale or documenta, Kassel. My sister and I have very fond memories of the people we met, the places we visited and the events we attended. Art is another means of making connections and this is true on different levels. 

Raffaella Zammit
Raffaella Zammit

The workshops were open to children aged 10 to 13 years, we focused primarily on children from the Balzan and Birkirkara localities and approached schools within these localities to distribute the application forms. We also used our Facebook page to disseminate the application form (https://www.facebook.com/GabrielCaruanaFoundation/). We had a great group of kids who attended, and each lesson had a different aspect we wanted to concentrate on, from working as a team to focusing on sculptural forms, expression, emotions. 

The workshops weren’t about ceramic technique (we showed them the basics) but were more about self-expression and how to transmit this using a variety of mediums. We made sure that each workshop was interesting, engaging and different. At the end of each lesson, everyone was happy and looking forward to the next one. 

What kind of ‘end result’ to the workshop would you say the exhibition itself presents, and what do you hope visitors will get out of it?

 We want the exhibition to be a snapshot of the studio life, the workshops at The Mill, the creations of our Kreaturi and Gabriel Caruana the artist and the instructor. The exhibition at Spazju Kreattiv, St James Cavalier will run until December 10 and is curated by Umberto Buttigieg. We purposely wanted to have it in November to coincide with ZiguZajg Festival and we are organising two workshops as part of ZiguZajg Festival, which workshops were immediately booked. The idea is for kids to be surrounded by Gabriel’s work to be inspired and to create. We also have some elements that children of all ages can interact with, so the exhibition is evolving with each passing day. This was one of the reasons why we didn’t do a launch of the exhibition, but we’re planning a gathering in December.

The idea is for kids to be surrounded by Gabriel’s work to be inspired and to create

There is also something for the adults, as I said we went as far back at the 1950s and we have presented a selection of works that for the most part have never been exhibited and which also give an indication of Gabriel’s artistic development. This is not a retrospective but really a snapshot of Gabriel’s creative energy – which is infectious. 

What’s next for the Gabriel Caruana Foundation? 

We’re working on a number of exhibitions with a number of artists, designers and curators. The archiving process is ongoing and part of the website is dedicated to the submission of information about Gabriel Caruana and his art (http://gabrielcaruanafoundation.com/legacy/) where we are inviting people to submit relevant photos and other information into a database. This is an ongoing project and will eventually contribute towards the Catalogue raisonne. The website was part of the Art Links project, which was funded by the Small Initiatives Support Scheme by the Malta Council for Voluntary Sector. 


Kreaturi will remain on display at Spazju Kreattiv, St James Cavalier, Valletta until 10 December