Aux Armes is an exhibition of contemporary drawings, installation and sculpture at St James Cavalier, Valletta, open until next Sunday. The Sunday Times speaks to Maltese artist Raphael Vella and French artist Baptiste Debombourg.

The exhibition has a revolutionary title, Aux Armes (To Arms). This is a clear reference to La Marseillaise, the French National Anthem. What does the title Aux Armes mean to you as an artist?

It is important to take a global view of all the constraints imposed on us by society and to focus on more human, environmentally friendly fundamentals

RV: I think the title is deliberately ambiguous. On one hand, it cannot avoid being identified with a kind of irony. To fight or even die for a cause sounds unrealistic in the western world.

One cannot help thinking there exists no ideology sacred enough to merit such an undertaking, especially one that involves a revolution on a grand scale.

On the other hand, as we have seen in the recent Arab Spring, the dream of being able to define one’s own future as a people is far from extinct, especially in oppressive circumstances.

I think these dual connotations are evident in the texts that accompany several of my drawings in this exhibition and also in the fact that practically all the imagery in my drawings is appropriated from shallow photographic and internet sources and yet is ultimately manipulated manually.

BD: The title clearly refers to a collective demand for freedom, to the idea that people must be responsible for their own destiny, rather than a third party, politics, economy, and so on.

There is a notion of the ‘handmade’, of people who free themselves from all forms of authoritarianism. Today it is important to take a global view of all the constraints imposed on us by society and to focus on more human and environmentally friendly fundamentals.

Do political and other current events often affect your work? Do you think the work you are showing in Aux Armes has been influenced by any historical or political undercurrents?

RV: A number of themes have recurred in many of my works over the past decade or so, like the use of texts and books, politics and the media, the veil or other forms of hidden things, including self-censorship.

In Aux Armes, I decided to show some examples from a series of works related to the burka, especially as we encounter it in commercial sites on the internet, and another series of portraits of boys who grew up to become famous presidents, terrorists, popes and other religious leaders.

I showed these Big Boys in Tokyo in 2011. All these individuals look quite innocent as children. One of the portraits shows a very young Kim Jong-Il with his statement: “Great ideology creates great times”. He died one week into the St James Cavalier exhibition.

BD: Of course, I am a citizen before being an artist, and the Arab Spring we are experiencing nowadays is a good thing for our world, because people are rediscovering their freedom... but it isn’t over yet unfortunately.

The series of drawings ‘Tradition of Excellence’ (drawings of weapons that have architectural plans on the inside instead of their regular mechanisms) were started in Sarajevo, Bosnia Herzegovina during an year-long artistic residence.

When I came into contact with people and places that had experienced the war directly, I felt like expressing something more optimistic and also reflect about this silent and traumatic violence of the past. But this residency was, above all, a human experience: it led to a series of drawings and other works.

I think an artist should confront different realities. Sometimes the comfort of the gallery or the museum is not conducive to creative things. It’s good to leave its boundaries; in my view, this is the role of art in society.

St James Cavalier, is itself a historic location with a military function. What do you think about the venue in relation to your work? Was it difficult to integrate your work in the Upper Galleries of St James?

RV: The military function of the building became incorporated into the exhibition fabric. Baptiste and I conceived each room in the Upper Galleries as an aesthetic whole, with works by both artists coming together to provide visitors with a sequence of works that generate conversations among themselves.

We had a preliminary plan about the layout, but this was revised once we had all the works on site. One could say each piece has a specific function and reason for being in that particular area of the galleries.

BD: The idea of exhibiting our work in such a historic and prestigious place represented a very interesting opportunity for our works. I think we wanted to respond indirectly to the political baggage carried by such a site. This functioned very well. Our works inscribed themselves in this history of power and also expressed a liberty that transcends this power.

Working in tandem with another artist is always a challenge. What were your experiences of this challenge in the context of Aux Armes?

RV: I feel there is an affinity between some of Baptiste’s works and mine, and this is what led me to invite him to come here and participate in a joint exhibition with me.

I have produced works that referred to weaponry in the past, so I was naturally very interested in his Tradition of Excellence series.

I think all the work in the exhibition – both Baptiste’s and mine – deals with power and how we come to terms with it.

For instance, the power of social institutions, the power of political discourse, or the power of commerce.

Then there is the book I designed for the exhibition, which has a sort of flip book concept, and texts by Clare Azzopardi and Anais Delmas. So, actually, the exhibition also engaged other creative people.

BD: There were many challenges. First, the most challenging question was how to bring together the work of two artists in such a way that would not give the members of the public the impression that they were entering a duel between two artists.

Collaborating with Vella was a pleasure because the exhibition came together in a true artistic exchange of ideas, which is extremely rare nowadays because many artists are very individualistic.

Secondly, St James Cavalier director Chris Gatt supported us a lot and allowed us a lot of freedom, a sign of trust and respect in our regard. I think we had all the right elements to realise a beautiful project.

Once the exhibition is set up, it doesn’t belong to us any longer, it lives without us. It’s up to the audience to judge.

What other plans do you have for the near future?

RV: I am planning a solo show abroad this year, and will participate in a collective exhibition of artists’ books that will tour the US and the UK.

I am also looking forward to an exhibition of emerging artists that I will curate this summer, and the publication of some texts and catalogues I have been working on for some time.

BD: I am planning several personal exhibitions in Paris, Cologne and Quebec, as well as various collective events with other international artists.

In art, as in a revolution, one must strike while the iron is hot.

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