The creator becomes the subject as 10 artists come together for Wiċċ imb Wiċċ – images of the self, a Malta Arts Festival exhibition that focuses on self-portraits. Interview with curator Austin Camilleri. An edited version of this interview appeared on The Sunday Times.
Translating your own essential identity onto an artistic medium is probably one of the toughest challenges faced by any artist.
Some – perhaps most notably Frida Kahlo, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol and Vincent Van Gogh – succeeded in turning self-portraiture into an experiential, even experimental, art. These artists were as prolific in their self-portraits as in the rest of their art, creating a series of (sometimes weird and wonderful) representations of inner and outer self.
Others, like the equally prolific Louise Vigée Le Brun, preferred the more classical approach, while others still – like Albrecht Dürer – allowed their flights of fancy to be reflected in their self-portraits.
Part of the fascination of self-portraits is that, while it is an intimate style, it offers the artist the freedom to look at himself without the limitations of a prescribed form or even medium. There is no knowing where a self-portrait will take you.
This is precisely the raison d’être behind Wiċċ imb Wiċċ – images of the self, a visual arts exhibition that is being curated by Austin Camilleri as part of this year’s Malta Arts Festival. The exhibition brings together a total of 10 Maltese and foreign artists with the aim of presenting self-representations that raise questions of identity within social, historical and gender-related contexts.
“Not many artists are keen on doing self-portraits. Traditionally, the style has not been given much importance in the history of art. I find the idea of self-representation extremely intriguing, partly because it is impossible to present yourself in your totality,” Camilleri said.
He explains that this does not apply only to art, quoting James Joyce’s semi-autobiographical novel, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as an example. “In the novel, Joyce represents his fictionalised self through different segments. It’s almost impossible to capture yourself in one instant, one totality.”
The participating artists are John Paul Azzopardi, Vince Briffa, Joseph Calleja, Raphael Vella and Elisa von Brockdorff. The other five are Zarko Baseski from Macedonia, Dominique de Beir from France, Jessica Harrison from Scotland, Davor Ljubicic from Croatia/Germany and Åsa Riton from Sweden.
All 10 artists have their own distinctive style, with the pieces and the media chosen sometimes contrasting with each other.
“I wanted to introduce an element of friction to the collective,” Camilleri said. “There is a marked difference in the way each of them approaches their idea of self.”
To anchor this idea of friction, Camilleri introduced three unrelated points to the exhibition. The first is a classic work from the Museum of Fine Arts, Giuseppe Hyzler’s self-portrait. The portrait, Camilleri said, says a lot about Hyzler’s status, position in life and personality. It is as real as they come.
“This work shows us that Hyzler knew exactly who he was, both as artist and as human being.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the exhibition includes a collage of self-portraits created by six- and seven-year-old schoolchildren.
“It’s a known fact that when we reach this age our creativity starts dying. I wanted to catch the children while
still young enough. I showed them Hyzler’s portrait, explained the idea behind it and then asked them to draw a picture of themselves, however they wished. At that age there is no burden to create as an ‘artist’, their identity is at the opposite spectrum as that of Hyzler.”
In between these two opposite ends are the 10 artists’ works and a guest work by Tracey Emin, Something’s Wrong. Emin has explored self-portraiture in various media.
Her much debated My Bed and Everyone I Ever Slept With installations are also considered another form of self-representation. Emin is arguably the self-portrait specialist and many view the majority of her work as a diary-like manifestation of her self.
The rest of the works that are being shown in Wiċċ imb Wiċċ have never been shown in Malta; most were created specifically for the event.
“I worked very closely with both the Maltese and the foreign artists, so that we could shape the exhibition.
This exhibition is really all about the artist, it is fascinating to see how the dual role of artist and subject emerges.”
Each participating artist is known for his/her particular style. Zarko Baseski’s hyper-real sculptures; Raphael Vella’s depictions from different stages of his life; Vince Briffa’s photography, morphed onto a series of monitors; Joseph Calleja’s facial representation, partially created using pixels depicting his friends’ Facebook profile pictures.
Camilleri said the above are, to a certain extent, the realist representations.
Other participating artists, like John Paul Azzopardi, focus on the totality of being, using a variety of experiences and materials to create his representation. Davor Ljubicic takes the performance art perspective; Jessica Harrison creates disturbingly realistic miniatures of furniture made from her hand imprints; Dominique de Beir, fresh from a Louvre exhibition, is known for using unusual tools to cover paper with perforation before transforming the paper into a new work that represents her life journey; Elisa von Brockdorff uses personal belongings to create an unstaged representation of her self.
Wiċċ imb Wiċċ – images of the self runs at the Upper Galleries, St James Cavalier, Valletta, till July 22 and is open between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. The exhibition is supported by the British Council and Heritage Malta and is accompanied by a catalogue with critical essays and images of all artworks.