JA: Your art teems with references to Malta’s pop culture, ranging from the historical to the contemporary. Warhol once said: “You need to let the little things that would ordinarily bore you suddenly thrill you.” Is your art meant to ‘thrill’ the mundane out of its iconographic lethargy?
AA: Definitely. Life is overwhelming and depressing enough as it is. Allowing the ordinary to become extra feels like a necessary counterreaction to all the negativity and disenchantment. It’s all about shifting contexts and meaning. Giving new life and new interpretations.
I began exploring and elevating the “mundane” around 15 years ago when I first began exploring screen-printing as my artistic tool. Some of my first artworks using hand-printed illustrations and typography featured the Maltese Ħobż biż-żejt in a ‘I love NY’ style and Tużżana piżelli u tnejn irkotta. A few years later, I illustrated and printed the iconic Frutana juice pack (one of which was also purchased by the Delicata family and found a home in the birthplace of Frutana).
There is a sense of nostalgia in this shift of perspective. A going back to reclaiming the awe and innocence of how we viewed the world when we had fewer responsibilities. A time when the news was something for grown-ups. It is also an easy way to feel pride for identity and nationality without being crass.
Things that were once important to us when we are younger begin to fade away, and as we grow older, we become more jaded and preoccupied with the “boring” stuff. We lose the magic and joy of the world around us. The things that excited us shift to the sidelines, just out of reach.
Let’s spread some light and enthusiasm. Life is much more interesting that way.
JA: The pastizz, as in Pastizz Imqaddes, refers to staples in our country’s pop imagery. However, the term pastizz is also a vulgar vernacular reference to the female external genitalia; thus, an unintentional homonym has been coined. Do you feel that this portrays the confusion and mess that is at the root of Maltese contemporary society, a melange of chauvinism, neo-liberalism, an anachronistic hunting lobby, racism, misconceptions and gender-related incomprehension?
AA: How unintentional is that homonym really and truly? The pastizz (snack) takes on its second meaning (vulva) because of the shape, and the third meaning (weakling) comes due to the association in society that women are weak and pathetic (same way the word ‘pussy’ is used within an English-speaking context).
The visual of the pastizz has appeared in my art for many years. Originally exalting it as a tasty snack, however, more recently, I started to play on this double entendre and later I extended the symbolic imagery of the vulva as the divine feminine to create a sort of Madonna-like figure using the prehistoric divine feminine imagery of the Venus of Tarxien, shrouded in a crispy pastry veil.
Art doesn’t have to be serious and sombre all the time. It can also be visually fun and playful while having a deeper meaning
JA: Does Content & Repent refer to the incongruous dualities propagated to disturb what used to be referred to as our conscience, our immortal soul? Does the iconography refer to our religious upbringing in which mixed messages were often delivered?
AA: From a creative and thematic standpoint, I explore a lot of dichotomies and dualities in my work. Life is full of them, as are the teaching of the church.
One of the dichotomies I often revisit in my work is the Virgin Mary/Mary Magdalene virgin/whore dichotomy. This piece in particular, however, explores the concepts of death, forgiveness and the afterlife. We are taught that if we are bad, we will receive eternal damnation.
The two pieces are only activated when their internal light is turned on. When their light is off, you can only see your own reflection. When the light is on, you are confronted with illuminated text and symbols. As a result, it encourages the viewers to look into themselves and their own actions and life approach.
What does it mean to repent? Is it just going to confession and saying a couple of Hail Mary’s and doing the same thing the next day? And what does it mean to be content? Are you (the viewer) truly content with your life? If you died tomorrow, would you be proud of your legacy?
JA: The Baptism of Venus is a reference to Botticelli’s famous Renaissance painting. The fat lady of the Temple Period of our prehistory is recontextualised as a Madonna of sorts. Do you feel that art is just a constant recontextualisation of motifs, and your groupings of kitsch elements are an honest representation of contemporary disarray?
AA: Kitsch has evolved from its commercial and profane notions. Art doesn’t have to be serious and sombre all the time. It can also be visually fun and playful while having a deeper meaning. The duality is possible. In life, so in art. I couldn’t purport to represent a zeitgeist of contemporary disarray.
What I produce is honest to myself; otherwise, there is no point of doing it. However, that being said, in the same way that history repeats itself, so do certain tropes cycle back into the artistic realm, though retold from a new perspective of the new time they are now living within. And perhaps now, within this artistic point in time, we are seeing a moving shift in the use of certain visual elements to find a deeper spiritual meaning to make sense of the state our society currently finds itself in.
This piece is not only referencing Botticelli’s Venus but also the Catholic imagery of the seashell used to pour holy water on a child at baptism. Consequently, I am, in a way, giving birth to a new interpretation of the Maltese Venus through her baptism.
Shrine, curated by Lisa Gwen, is on at MUŻA until August 13. Follow the Facebook event page, the MUŻA website/social media and Studio Aquilina on Instagram for updates on any upcoming events tied to the exhibition.