‘I felt compelled to deny everything that was Maltese and become something else’

Years after she left the island, artist Alexandra Aquilina has reclaimed her Maltese heritage with work that reflects a nuanced understanding of the culture she tried to escape.

When artist Alexandra Aquilina left Malta years ago, she did it because she felt stifled – not only artistically, but as a human being.

“It felt like I couldn’t just exist without someone telling me what I could and couldn’t do. As a result, I felt compelled to deny everything that was Maltese and become something else. Of course this didn’t work. You can’t deny such a huge part of your identity and I soon realised that in censoring such a massive part of myself, I was letting the ‘entities’ who were stifling me continue to suppress and limit my growth, even from so far away,” she explains.

I’m interviewing Alexandra ahead of her first solo at MUŻA, titled Shrine,  a multi-media collection that she describes as being all about readjusting perspectives, merging the context of art space and sacred space to create a private chapel.

“I see Shrine as a space where you are free to be sombre and playful at the same time. A space to explore yourself while indulging in nostalgia. The collection brings things from one context into a new context, so as to give them a new life and meaning. Hopefully that external shift will also create some sort of internal shift in the viewer, allowing them to adjust their own monotonous and possibily rigid perspectives,” she says about the works.

Maltese cultural staples are very much present in each piece, but not quite as we know them. Alexandra explains that this approach was a result of starting to reflect more on her own identity and taking more agency.

“How much of who I am was a response to what others imposed on me, versus what was truely me. This shift in thought gave me the opportunity to look at Malta and my heritage differently, to research and reclaim it on my own terms. Being so far from the humdrum of living in the same place for so long and being in such a different climate and culture, allowed me to look at things differently and to notice things which we often ignore, or take for granted.”

To her surprise, she discovered that her mind missed the smell of fuel in the marina, the bells tolling the Ave Maria, even the free bread handed out before any restaurant meal.

“As a result, I developed a new fascination towards what makes me Maltese. Being in Berlin allowed me to develop a shared sense of community with my Irish friends and their own strained relationship with the Catholic relgion and the UK. It gave me a sense kinship towards the Turkish communities, with their over the top wedding attire and pimped out cars. I felt strangely at home when the Arab cashier asked me ‘Int għarbija?’. It allowed me to re-examine and appreicate the Arab and North African side of our heritage which was very much ignored in my years at school, where the infidels were demonised and the blonde coloniser fetishised,” Alexandra explains.

Viewing Alexandra’s works for Shrine, and even listening to her speak, I get the impression that there’s a bit of a love/hate thing going on. But she says that her art has been a huge catharsis in this respect.

“There is no hate there. Only observations. And it is up to the viewer to make and take what they want out of my observations.”

She adds that her work is very much influenced by her own identity, including being a woman, born on an island which is an ex-colony, with one of the oldest histories in Europe and 99% Catholic.

“The Church is enmeshed at all levels of Maltese society, there is no escaping it. Like any greatly successful brand, the visual identity that comes with it is as inevitable as it is impactful. The Knights left, who the greatest architectural and artistic impact on the islands, were the appointed European defenders of the Catholic faith and their legacy is felt everywhere. The visual elements of the Catholic church are as part of the Maltese identity as the neolithic temples and the fat lady, the sun, the sea, pastizzi and ġbejniet.”

Shrine includes works in various media, from sculpture to screen printing, resin, embroidery… Alexandra considers herself a concept-driven artist who starts out with an idea and continues to develop it until she’s satisfied with how it can be best brought to life.

“I use all the tools in my arsenal to convey my thoughts, many times learning new skills in the process. This results in many test pieces: one version might not work at all and be scrapped and developed as something else. Othertimes I start something and it doesn’t feel right and will just hang it on the wall for a couple of months till my brain clicks into place and I find the missing link. Other times I just hit the jackpot and its simply amazing.”

She describes herself as living for the ‘Aha’ moment, adding that there’s a lot of that in her work and that she hopes that viewers also have fun exploring and adding their own moments to the work.

“There will also be a guest book with a difference, where people are encoruaged to contribute and engage by scribbling or writing or sticking stuff, during the exhibition. Hopefully it might be turned into a ‘zine some day.”

Some of Alexandra’s works – in particular the Juliet Series, My Body. My Blood and Bleed Like Me, give me a strong feminist vibe. Alexandra acknowledges this response. However, she adds, being a woman is as much part of her identity as being Maltese. For this reason, she does not identify as a feminist artist.

“I’m not trying to make political statements with my art, I am simply ‘painting’ my own experience as a human, and I hope viewers will identify with that, as would any other artist dealing with other topics and experiences,” she concludes.

Shrine is now open and runs until August 13 at MUŻA, in Valletta. The exhibition is curated by Lisa Gwen.

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