Two highly promising art students – Rebecca Xuereb and Asma Dekna – have just had their first joint exhibition put up at St Edward’s College. I met up with the two budding artists to find out more about the creative passion that led them to spend their every waking hour preparing for this event. All photography in this interview was taken by Darrin Zammit Lupi for The Times TV Guide.
As I walk into one of the communal halls at St Edward’s, I realise that it’s a flurry of activity. I’m greeted by Denise Papagiorcopulo, head of the Creative Arts department at the college. She points towards two young ladies who are busying themselves around the hall, fixing that entry and the other. These are Rebecca Xuereb and Asma Dekna, two students who opted to follow the highly intensive arts course as part of their International Baccalaureate diploma. The course was introduced at the College two years ago and, unlike many other academic diploma, involves a very hands-on approach to the subjects of choice.
“The focus on creativity is very intensive. Both Rebecca and Asma were required to create a piece a month in order to complete the course, translating into a total of some fifteen pieces each. The results are what is being exhibited here,” Ms Papagiorcopulo explained.
Looking around me, I realise that the exhibition covers different media from installations to photography to elemental art, sculpture and more. Ms Papagiorcopulo nods and explains that the idea is to give students a good grounding in various media. The course in fact includes drawing, painting, sculpture, fashion design, textiles, photography, installations and more.
“We give installations quite a bit of importance, also because in Malta people don’t seem to have grasped their relevance as yet. Apart from the studio pieces that reflect that practical aspect of the course, students are also required to carry out intensive research work. All the background work is gathered in their portfolio – from first sketches to field work and research… It’s quite a long process before they arrive to the exhibiting stage,” Ms Papagiorcopulo continues.
At the end of the course, the students choose their best studio work to include in this exhibition: a group of external examiners are called in to assess the works, with the students being given the opportunity to defend the creative process behind each piece and the technique applied. I walk around the exhibition space and stop by a piece that seems to represent a mask. This is a product of Rebecca’s creativity and she explains that the piece was inspired by Europides’s tragedy, Medea.
“Every piece of work in the exhibition reflects a particular theme. I myself was very inspired by themes of literature – hence the mask – family and freedom,” Rebecca tells me. “We are asked to choose themes that reflect our own personality and I found myself coming back to these three themes. To give you an example, Ceremony is intended to show that everything is part of one whole. Because of this I decided to take the elemental art approach, using pieces of nature to create something new. The end result uses pebbles and other material I found, all coming together in a sort of spider web to show that all nature is linked,” Rebecca tells me.
For this exhibition, Rebecca created thirteen themed pieces and three photographic batches. She explains that she found this course particularly appropriate for what she had in mind, given that she was still at a stage where she wanted to explore all media available.
“It’s a very time-consuming kind of course because you don’t simply carry out a bit of academic research, produce one work and that’s it. And of course, you always want each piece to be as perfect as possible, so deciding when to draw a line and move on to the next piece can prove difficult. But it needs to be done! “
Rebecca has always been into the arts in general. She tells me that she had already studied some architecture and interior design – this course was the next step.
“I believe in being given freedom to explore when following an arts course. This is what art is all about, after all. Research is important, of course, but you also need to be given the opportunity to express yourself. Freedom of creation is the focus here.”
Rebecca tells me that her favourite piece from the exhibition is a massive sculpture entitled Freedom, which is a joint project with Asma. The piece brings together the two artists’ cultures and countries – Libya and Australia. There are traces of aboriginal art, the koala as a representation of Australian identity while the bird and the horse to represent that Libyan ideal of freedom and of national pride. Asma agrees that this is also the piece closest to her heart.
“The horse is considered a symbol of national pride in my country. Besides traditional Islamic art I also included elements of art from Malta… this piece is really about bringing all our cultures together,” Asma tells me.
This feeling of national pride is also reflected in many of the rest of Asma’s pieces; there is an outfit made using traditional Libyan fabrics that are given a modern re-interpretation – instead of using the ornate jewellery that the Arab culture is known for, Asma uses fabric with a golden shimmer. Another piece, that was created using decaying flowers and other stuff found in the school gardens, is meant to represent the decay of Arabic traditions and rituals. Then there is the Tree of Bullets, made using photos of people whom Asma knew who died during wartime.
“I want people to write their own notes and append them to the tree, so that it will ‘blossom’ once again,” she tells me. “I tried to experiment with different themes but always found myself coming back to the issues of identity, my country and how the Arab Spring affected us all. I found that certain thoughts were coming out even if I didn’t really want them too!”
Perhaps darkest of all, is Asma’s Angel of Grief, which was inspired by a still-birth her sister suffered. The clothing that was used to create the piece was all bought for the little girl everyone was waiting for, another item of clothing is one that was passed on from mother to daughter, that was also meant to be passed to the little one. The piece depicts a cradle that is also a coffin, as the angel of death stands by.
The exhibition closes with a two installations that are put up further away down a corridor; the first installation is related to Asma’s interpretation of the war, taking the viewer down the path to hell as it were. Eventually, however, the viewer is rewarded by Rebecca’s work, a re-interpretation of dreams, the shows us that eventually everyone emerges from the hell.
Clearly, these two students have grasped the significance of art and the cathartic effect it can have on our souls.
This interview was published on The TV Guide (The Times of Malta).