An insider’s view of the postgraduate student art exhibition
The Master’s in Fine Arts course was opened by the Department of History of Art, University of Malta in October 2014, exactly two years ago. The course was designed by Dr. Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci who consulted with a number of foreign professionals from leading art academies.
The first group of students to graduate completed the course only a few days ago after successfully defending their dissertation projects in the presence of members of the Department and the external examiner Dr. Eliza Bonham Carter (Royal Academy of Arts, London).
The course was comprehensively designed to incorporate history, theory and practice for students to develop intellectually as well as technically. They were made to engage with contemporary aesthetic and philosophical debates and tackle these questions in their practical tasks. It was this main element of the course that posed the greatest challenge to the students. Dr Schembri Bonaci’s objective was to establish a wellrounded course that would encourage students to be knowledgeable, conscientious and highly-skilled.
I was given the opportunity to work with the students from the beginning of the course as I attended lectures and led tutorials on Maltese and international modern art. The students were incredibly dedicated and spent all their time deliberating aesthetic and socio-political issues, analysing how to translate these same issues into creative artworks. Watching them mature artistically, intellectually, and also personally, over a two-year period was really fascinating. The MA Fine Arts Final Projects exhibition showcased this ongoing process of research and practice. It was held between September 15 and 25 at Splendid in Strait Street, Valletta City Gate and the Addolorata Cemetery (the latter two closing on September 30 and October 1 respectively). The end result evinced their hard work and growth, but, more importantly, displayed their transition into independent creatives.
The group of five students produced artworks that contended with present-day values and ideas and their visual manifestation. Each one explored different materials and techniques to produce hanging works, installations and public art, working with a number of tutors who guided them throughout the process.
Jeremy Amaira’s series of charcoal drawings titled Appear Missing dealt with the subject of death and power by linking the inevitability of mortality and manmade systems that justify the killing of millions of innocent people. This intersection of the natural and the manufactured, that which was framed by Michel Foucault as biopolitics, exposes the subjectivation of the human body to power. Jeremy explored this philosophical question visually by blurring form and obscuring the vision of parts of the drawings by concealing them with transparent paper. He deconstructed boundaries and visual clarity, showing that, contrary to the seeming order of political labels, the human body itself is undefinable.
Mortality and human suffering were also integral to Clint Calleja’s large wooden sculpture Modern Irregular Argonauts installed at the Addolorata Cemetery. Clint visualised the unrelenting struggle of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea to escape violence and war in their home country by creating a wooden boat inscribed with Maltese surnames. Being aware of how people have become desensitised to the news of migrant crossings due to the ubiquity of such stories in the media, Clint turned an anonymous boat into something familiar, giving it a Maltese identity to provoke the local viewer to empathise with the plight of migrants. It was also a comment on shared histories of migration and the unfixed nature of human identity.
Noel Attard likewise produced a large public sculpture installed at Valletta City Gate called It-Taraġ. The iron and concrete piece addressed the current state of public monuments in Malta and how these have been used to promote ideas of national identity and the shaping of public space. The complex, upward-thrusting structure purposely defied figuration to underline the collective role of public art pieces. Noel tasked to liberate public art, and by implication also public space, of national references that are exploited for political advantage. It communicates with the universalising voice of abstract expressionism and maintains the relevance of abstraction within the current political context, despite the contradictory use of abstract art by political powers to pursue global dominance.
Rebirth was a piece presented by Matthew Farrugia which integrated abstraction and organised design. It was an analytic work that entered into the creation of art by means of natural processes. Matthew’s objective was to produce a work whose form was determined by chance, relying on the elements to manipulate his original piece. It underlined the artwork as a collaboration between artist and nature. This was linked to alchemical theories on the rendering of form and the philosophical implications of material properties and their malleability. A metal structure was built to link four sculptures to the central object to show the transference of energy from the four elements to objects, essentially ensuring the continuation of life and its manifestation in variable forms.
The last project was an immersive installation by Leanne Lewis which was profoundly concerned with nature and the destruction of the environment. Diaphanous consisted of hanging chiffon strips upon which were printed drawings of trees. Leanne used her personal experience of viewing the cutting down of a tree to comment on the global problem of environmental degradation due to rampant industrialisation and disregard for the world around us. The delicate embellished chiffon strips evoked a sense of tranquillity and serenity, an experience intended to remind us of the necessity of nature to human wellbeing. The work underlined the inseparability of man and nature. Environmental issues have become central to contemporary art that is critical of neoliberalism and climate change, and Leanne’s work, by participating in this international dialogue, emphasised the global preponderance of this troubling issue.
It is essential that art deals with local and international socio-politics and engages with its surroundings through aesthetic considerations. I do believe that all five students managed to achieve this difficult balance of creating visually and intellectually stimulating pieces. Having visited a number of exhibitions by fine arts graduates in London held annually by the leading art academies, it may be opined that the Maltese students were able to comfortably compete with students from the Royal Academy, the Slade, Central Saint Martins, and all the other major institutes.
A consistent attribute evident in the MA Fine Arts Final Projects exhibition artworks that I have not observed elsewhere is the approach to art as a politically-committed practice. One of the primary purposes of art is to make one think by exposing them to current issues, philosophical questions, or to new perspectives on recurrent subjects. These students were taught to be perceptive, to analyse and to be critically invested in their art, elements that are embodied by all these projects. If this is the result of their first exhibition as master’s graduates, then I am hopeful that they will continue to develop and produce good and intelligent works of art.
Noel Attard It-Tarag
Clint Calleja Modern Irregular Argonauts
Jeremy Amaira Appear Missing
Matthew Farrugia Rebirth