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Maltese Society Doesn’t Teach Us How To Read Art

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Lovin Malta talks to Ġulja Holland and Vince Briffa about the realities of being an artist in Malta. Holland is a relative newcomer to the art scene, whilst Briffa has been active as one of Malta’s highest profile artists for many years. Together they unpack the various facets of the art scene on the islands. 

“As in any other country, there is never one art scene. Even on such a tiny island the local art ecology is as varied as they come,” says Briffa when we put our most pertinent request to him – to describe what the world of art in Malta is really like. “The lion’s share of the scene is still taken by the more traditional and populist expression, syncopated by an ever-growing number of contemporary art initiatives of varying quality.”

Ġulja Holland may be categorised as part of these initiatives. She’s a young visual artist who studied for a BA Fine Art at Leeds College of Art and has been steadily building a name for herself back in Malta – she’s been part of a few local and international collective exhibitions and is about to open her second solo show. Her view on the art scene in Malta is more pragmatic – a survivalist perspective.

“The competition for exhibition spaces and artists grants isn’t as fierce as it is in other countries,” Holland says. “Studio rent is generally low and with the booming estate market theres no shortage of people looking to buy art for their properties.” 

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Holland touches on a dichotomy that most artists face – wherever they’re working – the internal battle as to whether they are creating art for a living, or for art’s sake. 

“The term ‘art’ in a sense has a finite ring to it,” Briffa says. “Something that is finished and exhibited. My personal process may end in a final work or body of work, but it may also not. I am invariably more interested in its process.” 

Briffa’s process is what he describes as ‘fixed’. His work – which includes video installation, sculpture, found objects, and more – is steeped in conceptualisation and rests on ample research. His finished pieces are the result of lengthy gestation of thought and sustained critical reflection. 

But the question is – can all artists who are looking to make a living have the luxury of being more ‘interested in process’?

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Vince Briffa, Body of Glass – After Caravaggio, dual video and stereo audio and water installation, the Johanniterkirche, Feldkirch, Austria, 2006

“The best part and hardest part about working as an artist is that you’re your own boss, you decide how much work to put in and how much to promote yourself,” Holland says. “It’s much easier to be a commercial artist – ultimately its better business.”

Holland even admits that having part-time work on the side is probably a better deal for an artist who is looking to create meaningful work. “I’ve worked odd jobs and held down part time jobs for a couple of months at a time,” she says. “I personally prefer doing so over accepting commissions, or lowering my prices and producing more bulk.” 

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“Deciding to become an artist also means nurturing an uncompromising sense of commitment”

Vince Briffa

Briffa agrees that there exists an inherent compromise for artists who are looking to make it in the world – and that ‘success’ is a relative term. He distinguishes between two aspects of success:

“If you look at it from a commodity market perspective – that is if you are selling paintings, sculpture, prints and any other artwork – then your product needs to appeal to the market, and therefore you need to get to know the people who drive that market forward,” Briffa explains. “If, on the other hand ‘to make it’ means that your work is strong enough to gain access to local or even foreign funding for its execution, then knowing the right people is not the be all and end all of your artistic success – but nevertheless, knowing the right people is important.” 

“Deciding to become an artist also means nurturing an uncompromising sense of commitment.” 

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Vince Briffa, After Sagan, site-specific neon sculpture, IT Services Building, University of Malta, 2013

Briffa touches on something which is intrinsically connected to the Maltese art scene – the people who make it up. Aside from having to decide whether their art is ‘commodity’ or ‘conversation’, Maltese artists also have to grapple with the nature of their local audience. Does the fact that a lot of the people who are looking at your art know you, or know of you, make a difference to how you measure your success?

“With the exception of family and a few close friends I think people who know an artist and aren’t interested in their work wouldn’t bother going out of their way to see it,” Holland says, “and it’s not necessarily the attendees who are most interested in my art that invest in it.”

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“For a country as small as our own we have an art scene to be proud of”

Ġulja Holland

“Part of being committed to being an artist in the local context also includes knowing how to talk about your work, how to exhibit it, how to market it and also how to make the right connections with the right people,” Briffa adds. 

“Just like any other brand, an artist’s name and its success requires not only that the artist’s work is relevant and of the right level, but also that it is consistent and regular in its sharing with its audience. Gaining reputation locally is reasonably manageable and fairly doable. Internationally however, this is an entirely different ball game.”

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Vince Briffa, Hermes, video and audio loop, soil, lights, Malta Pavilion, 48th Venice Biennale, 1999

“For a country as small as our own we have an art scene to be proud of,” Holland says on the subject of art appreciation on the islands. “Of course the quality of the art isn’t as high as it would be in other major capitals –but thats to be expected.”

“This does affect the quality of the discourse about contemporary art too. Much of the art we showcase as being contemporary wouldn’t be classified as such abroad. There doesn’t seem to be as much appreciation here for producing entirely original cutting edge works,” Holland says, touching on an issue which might seem obvious to the niche art crowds on the islands, but remains quite prevalent in terms of popular tastes and resistances.

Briffa blames these barriers on lack of training. “Reading art requires no blue blood the world over, and Malta is no exception,” Briffa says. “Unfortunately, society does not teach us to read, understand, think about and contest the ‘image’. We teach our children to read words, sentences, vocabularies and texts, but not images.”

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Ġulja Holland, Future island, Oil on canvas 60 x 50 cm, 2017

So how do we solve the problem? How do we get people to understand and be interested in contemporary art? 

“I think we should be spending more on acquiring contemporary art, or at least modern, or postmodern art – especially if we want to entice more people to our public museum,” Holland says. “Its great that we have such an extensive collection of Mattia Preti, and I do understand how important he is to the Maltese especially, but people also want to see good art that’s relevant to today.”

In this respect, how do situations like the recent near €400K spend on a Mattia Preti make working local artists feel? 

“Mattia Preti, like any other artist has a price, and his work like any other commodity is established by the market. It would really make for an entertaining debate if the same money were spent on a modern work,” Briffa says, “A Picasso, Rothko; or a more daring piece such as a shark in formaldehyde by Damien Hirst or a flower puppy by Jeff Koons. It is not the price of the work that is in question here, or indeed the quality and historical value of the artist. Really it’s the establishment of a policy and agenda for national acquisitions, and its bearing on the country’s investment in the artist and the cultural industries.”

“It would really make for an entertaining debate if the same money were spent on a modern work”

Vince Briffa

Briffa and Holland are two artists at opposite ends of their career spectrum, yet they give an uncannily similar diagnosis of the art scene in Malta. In brief – it’s varied, it tries it’s best, but it still can’t assimilate the contemporary discourse that’s happening beyond our shores. 

And that’s not because it’s an elitist scene, nor because art caters only to the privileged. It’s because there’s little investment in breaking down resistance and getting past existing critical constructs. 

We have started investing in contemporary art and artists who can help achieve this, and we’ve also started giving more attention to art education. But we seem to be far away from a context where contemporary art is accessible enough for our understanding of it to grow. So, clearly, we’ve got some more investing to do. 

Vince Briffa is an Associate Professor and Head of Department of Digital Arts at the University of Malta. 

Ġulja Holland is a full time artist. Her new solo exhibition ‘From A Distance’ will be showing at Lily Agius Gallery, 54 Cathedral Street, Sliema, from the 27th of May until 27th of June.

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