Guest Post #3: ‘I have lived his life for the past three years...’
22 November 2018

Maria Eileen Fsadni catches up with Maria Cassar, curator of the Willie Apap: Revelations exhibition, which is currently on show at the Victor Pasmore Gallery, Valletta,
until the end of November 2018.

An artist herself Maria Cassar, explained to me that her love of art dates back to her childhood, long before she took an academic interest in the subject. It was a passion that she bonded over with her husband who, as she put it, ‘has an eye for beautiful things’. Her passion for art was immediately clear as we sat down to begin our conversation in Maria’s charming Balzan home, each wall adorned with works of art she has collected over the years.

She first learned about Willie Apap around 15 years ago, together with her husband, when they were searching for something new to add to their collection. They stumbled upon a work by Apap online and instantly fell in-love with it. Maria immediately recognised that ‘this person has something different from the other Maltese artists’. Apap did not return home after his studies in Italy. He spent almost 30 years travelling the world, painting in Rome, Sweden and Brazil among other places. Apart from the influence he picked up from his travel, what sets him apart, for Maria, is his ‘painterly technique’. It is the skilled way in which he represents texture and drapery folds along with his intelligent compositions which often play with ambiguity, allowing the viewer to complete the narrative in his pictures.

This was a journey which would force her outside of Malta retracing Apap’s steps; she explains ‘it was not exciting in Malta'. Apap was known for being a portrait painter on the island, a shadow being cast over his other work because he spent his adulthood overseas. Maria’s research unlocked new information about the artist’s life when she stumbled upon a Swedish family who knew Apap intimately. Apart from the numerous stories they shared with her, the family also retained two important diaries written by their father, an amateur artist who was close friends with the Apap. These diaries divulged important details about the artists who ran in Apap’s circles, allowing Maria to re-create an image of an artist she never actually met.

Of course, 15 years ago she could not have foreseen this exhibition, which marks the artist’s 100th anniversary of his birth. The event that turned her passion into something more serious came in 2010 when she decided to pursue a degree in Art History at the University of Malta. Graduating from her Bachelors in 2013, Maria was unsure whether she wanted to continue a Master’s degree, feeling that she exhausted the subject of her first thesis, baptismal fonts. She recalls the light-bulb moment when she settled on the theme of Apap’s work for her Master’s, ‘I was swimming and thinking about how beautiful Apap’s paintings are.’ She rushed back home, called the university and thus began her research journey.

Her Master’s thesis was the launch pad for this exhibition which showcases 18 of Apap’s works, carefully chosen to represent the artist’s final years. The works are complemented by a photographic walk-through which guides the viewer through Apap’s biography, from his days at the Government School of Art in Valletta to his artistic endeavours abroad. The title ‘Revelations’, Maria explains, was chosen to represent the other side to Apap as an artist. The exhibition ‘goes beyond his portraiture’ for which he is best known in Malta. According to Maria, his portrait commissions ‘were an economic necessity’ for the artist and she used this exhibition to showcase his personal work.

What struck me most about this exhibition is the inescapable involvement of the viewer in Apap’s work. The viewer is forced to have a conversation with the artwork. His figures often remain anonymous, ballerinas and clowns are captured back-stage without the glamour of performance and his nudes are mid-way through dressing or undressing. As you walk through the exhibition you attempt to fill in the faces of his unknown figures, you question whether the performers are about to take the stage or have just finished and you try to decide what the next step is for the nude women. This ambiguity and unusual portrayal, Maria believes, is a reflection of Apap’s sadness. Something which was confirmed from her conversations with those who knew the artist. Apap’s psychology is unveiled in his canvasses, the glamour of the single-artist’s life is countered by uncertainty in the work.

Maria explains that she could finally ‘read [Apap’s] art because I understood his character...I have lived his life for the past three years.’ She recounts an anecdote which was uncovered during an interview with an Italian man who knew Apap in his youth. Apap told him ‘I miss my mum and I’m painting her on the walls.’ Apap, then only in his 20s was serving a jail term due to false charges brought against him during the war, broke a terracotta bowl during breakfast to use as a pigment for his mother’s lips. When he finished the portrait, the image was adopted as the mother of all the inmates, almost as an icon of the Virgin Mary, as a symbol of hope. Maria continues that a security guard remarked that ‘This person has to be a very good person…otherwise he would not have painted such a good image of the Holy Mary.’

The tale is a perfect backdrop to understanding Apap’s sacred work. Maria is quick to tell me that ‘silence always imbues his sacred art,’ when questioned about the large drawing of St Francis. She explains that the clutter of figures, putti or scenery which Apap would have been familiar with in Maltese and Italian churches has been stripped away. Instead, we are faced with a single, St Francis, his raised arms are surrounded by doves who guide the viewer’s eyes to the heaven’s above. Apap, not a church-goer himself, still imparts a genuine sense of spirituality through his sacred art. Not simply through the bands of light, known as strisce, inspired by a barred window in his prison cell, that flood his work but as Maria points out it is the ‘silence’ that provokes thought and reflection. ‘You can talk to Apap’s sacred work. You become part of it.’ A statement which I believe is indicative of all the works on show.

Willie Apap: Revelations is open to the public until 30 November 2018 (Mon-Fri 11.00am-3.00pm; Thurs 11.00am-8.00pm) at the Victor Pasmore Gallery and Annexe of the Central Bank of Malta, Valletta. Entrance is free of charge.

Written by Maria Eileen Fsadni