The phrase “deep in the bowels” is commonly used with reference to a ship or a building. “Deep in the womb”, however, would be more appropriate for the exhibition ĠUF currently on display at Spazju Kreattiv in Valletta.
Encompassed within the strong walls of the city’s St James Cavalier fortifications, the bold new solo exhibition ĠUF (Maltese for ‘womb’) by Rebecca Bonaci explores and celebrates motherhood.
It draws on the contemporary experience of motherhood informed by her own personal situation and today’s cultural expectations, on the changes in the position of women and the value of childbearing and motherhood over millennia, and the prehistoric goddess figurines found in the Maltese archipelago.
Previously, Bonaci’s paintings focused on the landscape, the beauty of our surroundings and the way the world nurtures us. In this show, curated by Sarah Chircop with project advisor Ryan Falzon, Bonaci’s new work is increasingly personal, developed over the last three years since Bonaci became a mother.
For ĠUF, she has painted women – women with strong feminine shapes and soft sweeping curves, unashamed bodies in the rich earthy hues of chai, honey and caramel, reds or soft peaches and cream where their luscious limbs or the planes of their broad open faces catch the light.
“Becoming a mum was amazing and yet scary. I was still the same person and yet, suddenly, I had a new identity and different priorities,” explains the artist.
“I kept a journal of my feelings during pregnancy and, in that first year, sketched the overwhelming emotions I experienced. Although everyone’s experience and circumstances are different, these feelings were common to mothers around the world and through the ages, and I wanted to create the face of a generic woman through time.”
Bonaci explained that she began with self-portraits which, while capturing her own likeness, where also of her mother, grandmothers and the women before them, and also represent her daughter Nina and those women who will come after them.
“We are all raising future generations through the love and protection we give our own daughters today,” she said.
Visitors to the exhibition are greeted by Conception in Constellation, in which a woman has reached into the sky to catch a star. It depicts a life-changing moment, a celestial representation of conception and the beginning of new life, and yet goes beyond that single instant. Instead, like the whole exhibition, it encapsulates those recurrent thoughts and transitions in generations of women.
Symbolism is important to Bonaci and so, interestingly for a project focused on motherhood and at odds with tradition, there are no babies in her paintings.
Instead, new life is represented by a star or an orange.
One work shows a woman cradling an orange, evoking a mother and child; however, this could equally be interpreted as mankind holding close anything that is precious.
New life is represented by a star or an orange
“The concept of motherhood is subjective, and broader than that of a biological mother,” continues Bonaci. “It’s the maternal figure that gives love or a home, support and advice. My sister is eight years younger than me, for example, so I felt like a second mother to her, and always wanted to keep her safe.”
Motherhood is a monumental subject in cultural, historical, philosophical and psychological terms, and, interspersed with smaller drawings, the paintings in the four rooms of Spazju Kreattiv’s Space C, and the figures within them, are both intimate and monumental.
“She’s soft and squishy to hug,” smiles Bonaci, “but strong to protect you; and as a generic mother, she’s everlasting.”
A number of beautiful antique vessels in the show are an alternative representation of the body that carries a child. These and other artefacts are on loan from Palazzo Falson Historic House Museum, thanks to the museum’s curator Caroline Tonna.
Alongside there’s also a gemstone, a contemporary good-luck trinket, a gift to Bonaci from her sister when she was first expecting Nina. It’s included without explanation, adding an element of intrigue.
“There’s always an element of the unknown in the world,” says Bonaci, “and there’s a mystical thread through the whole show. It’s the magic of timelessness; motherhood is like the eternity of the sea or inspires the awe of the equinox at one of Malta’s ancient temples. My art is a dialogue between that ancient past, the present and the future.”
ĠUF culminates in a celebratory depiction of women, their arms interlocked in solidarity, their collective gaze drawing one into their midst.
It’s the community of mothers that Bonaci joined with the birth of her daughter, and the rebirth of both her identity and artistic practice is clear in this exhibition. The background motif of oranges places us in the heart of the Mediterranean, reminding us of the warmth and power of both the sun and motherhood, and the life-giving qualities of women.
Opposite, a simple drawing of a single orange reminds us once again of the circle of life, our humble origins on earth and the mother’s love that helps us all blossom.
ĠUF runs until December 2 at Spazju Kreattiv, Valletta, and is supported by Arts Council Malta. A publication to accompany the exhibition will be launched later this month.