Christopher Saliba is a Maltese, contemporary visual artist. He sold his first painting when he was eight years old to one of his father’s restaurant customers and today he’s taken his art abroad – to a collective exhibition held at the outskirts of Perugia. But, like many successful artists, it hasn’t all been plain sailing.
Seven years ago Saliba’s art career might have been put on permanent pause when he was critically injured during a football match. A few seconds before the final whistle blew, the artist twisted his knee in a tackle and tore his anterior cruciate ligaments. If that sounds like a painful injury, it’s because it is. Excruciating.
“I felt demoralised, spent long and inactive hours indoors, gained weight and had no motivation”
Christopher Saliba, artist
“I still remember the acute pain I suffered there and then,” Saliba told us. “That was just the beginning of a three-year ordeal throughout which I had to undergo two major operations and an agonising rehabilitation programme”.
Before this crippling injury, Saliba had built a steady career around his love for creating art. He qualified as an art teacher from the University of Malta in 1996, and in 1997 won a 4-year scholarship to the Accademia di Belle Arti in Perugia. He then went onto a Masters in Fine Arts and came back to Malta to continue teaching and making art in his studio. But in 2010 his career took a back seat, and gaining full functionality of his leg became his top priority.
“I felt anxious about health issues, about being admitted to hospital etc. So the steps necessary to regain full recovery were personally traumatic,” Saliba told Lovin Malta, describing the feelings he had when he was first injured. “At first I showed slow recovery progress and I felt demoralised; I spent long and inactive hours indoors. I started to gain weight and found no motivation in resuming my art commitments”.
Before this self-proclaimed dark period Saliba was known for his vibrant and energetic paintings. But he spent a year following his injury unable to produce anything that resembled a joyous expression. A tumultuous and depressing year followed for Saliba until the thing he’d dreaded all along – a second operation – shook him out of his creative slump.
“I started to produce art again after my second surgery. By then something had shifted – I had changed my way of thinking and started to look at life more positively,” Saliba said. “This determination didn’t just boost my motivation in terms of recovery, but also my creative drive”.
“I changed my way of thinking and started to look at life more positively”
Christopher Saliba, artist
For Saliba, art was the most immediate manner in which he could present real life in its sheer crudeness. He created a series parallel to his utopian Maltese landscapes and lyrical abstracts and became more interested in the human body, its weaknesses and the complexity of life. By 2012 Saliba had embarked on a project that marked the beginning of a new chapter in his artistic oeuvre.
“Until then my predilection towards painting took most of my time and the outcomes were gratifying in many ways,” Saliba said in reference to his landscape works. “The injury made me increasingly aware that my paintings were in some ways an act of escapism from the harsh realities and challenges imposed by the real world”.
Ageing Mirrors was the result of Saliba’s transformative rehabilitation period. It’s a series which is still ongoing, focusing on existential concerns related to the changing self and society in general.
Throughout the series Saliba confronts many of the fundamental issues of existence: fear, hope, conflicts, violence, ageing, self-preservation and death. Part of the series included Broken Athlete – a collection of works which are partially autobiographical.
“The element of parody permeates my work,” Saliba noted, explaining its importance in compensating for the sometimes tragic, existential themes running through his series.
“For instance, one particular work illustrates a smiling self-portrait juxtaposed with the incumbent image of death,” he said. “It implies the acceptance of death as a natural process”.
Saliba has exhibited locally at the National Museum of Fine Arts, the Auberge d’Italie and St James Cavalier Centre for Creativity. His international shows include a collective exhibition at the Louvre Museum in Paris, collaborations with galleries in London, Paris, Palermo and Manama, and most recently an international collective exhibition near Perugia.
“What is the driving force that moves you to wake up each morning and to rest your eyes the following evening and do it all over again? Everyone has a different answer to this,” Saliba said when we asked him what he believes art can give to people, following his own personal experiences and career trajectory.
“Trying to find out can be fun, scary, exciting, exhilarating or thought-provoking. Art is a tangible medium by which human beings can explore and search for an answer”.