The chic magic of Parisian cafes has long captured our imagination as emblematic of a culturally rich time where creativity is rife and enigmatic conversation is to be had on any corner that can fit a table and two chairs under a street lamp. The French Belle Époque and its revival of enlightenment ideals is the main inspiration behind a new Valletta exhibition.
Qatra Qatra is a new exhibition featuring the work of illustrator Francesca Grech. A graduate of digital arts, Grech works full time with a design agency. Her fascination with the playfully otherworldly and fantastical is a common thread that underscores most of her work.
“I’m constantly doodling ideas down or keeping up with drawing challenges to keep my creativity challenged,” she says, “And I’ve tried more habitually to take to a blog to document and share the work I’ve been doing.”
The idea behind Qatra Qatra comes together as a series of graphical representations of beverages, each complimenting the other in both style and character. The striking female figures, curious and intricate in their construction, also instigate a playful undercurrent to the era which informs their style.
“The late 18th century was a time of social and political revolution, among other areas that underwent radical and technological change,” Grech says of the period which inspired her work. “Most notably that of women being given more importance within society.”
In this exhibition, Grech has tried to capture a more playful take on these ideas of burgeoning female emancipation and distinct emergence of character. The characters that star in the show were all rigorously researched to showcase different traits and personalities as represented through drink, and whether these can fully capture the drink’s own personality as well as the drinker’s. To capture this, the work also draws inspiration from classic film stars such as Audrey Hepburn and Billie Dove, as well as the work of some of the titans of illustration, such as Kay Nielsen and Aubrey Beardsley.
“The works carry with them a series of designs, depicted in different parts of the artwork, such as in their clothing, hair or accessories that pertain or are in some way associated with the brewing, consuming and sometimes even historical anecdotes of the drink. These characters have been injected with a personality within their own world and context, where they are given the role of a sort of ‘guardian’ for their assigned drink, sometimes also reflecting contexts pertaining to nationalities and different cultures.
The works carry with them a series of designs, depicted in different parts of the artwork
“The story of each character evolved throughout the process of sketching and designing, and there are traits of these women I am still exploring and finding out, but it is all a matter of seeing the beverage as an individual and imagining what the drink would actually say or do in a situation that makes the experience all the more fun,” says Grech.
While digital illustration doesn’t make frequent appearances in gallery type shows, it further marks a departure for Grech, who has previously worked traditionally, as a new working mode. While the development of Qatra Qatra sees every final product presented from digital work, each piece still underwent a series of pencil and ink sketches and studies.
“I find that (digital illustration) allows you to be rather flexible in that it gives a more efficient means of experimenting in various line styles, textures and colours very easily,” Grech says. “However, there is a certain connection with pen and paper that I still feel a digital tablet cannot capture. The lines feel more personal and tend to carry a certain degree of character through different physical media
While ‘working artist’ might seem like a lofty goal for some aspiring to jump start their careers, Grech seems to have struck a humble balance between producing art commercially as part of her work and going after projects that are creatively satisfying and challenging.
An earlier show saw Grech going down a far more unconventional route. Her installation Distorja took its cues from shadow puppetry, silhouette art and tunnel books, taking the traditionally flat surfaced work of illustration and re-imagining it in a three-dimensional interactive space.
The installation told the story and an underground world inhabited by tiny creatures whom humans could not see but are instrumental to powering and sustaining the human city above the ground.
Blending the fantastic with the prosaic is something of a fixture in Grech’s work thus far, and something she seems intent on exploring further in future projects.
“I find that it helps to explore the mundanity of life and attempting at making that a point of relation for the viewer,” says Grech, “Fairy tales and children’s stories in particular, have always been a main source of influence throughout my work, and even though the ideas stem from childhood motifs, I am constantly looking for ways to make the work more relatable.”
Qatra Qatra will be on display at Café Society, Valletta, until the end of December. Opening hours are from 5pm onwards.
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