Having a vested interest in art from a young age, Rupert Cefai started his professional career as an interior designer, gradually shifting his focus from design to painting. “My father was a cultural organiser within the Department of Culture,” Rupert says, counting himself fortunate to have been exposed to art, in the form of exhibitions and cultural events, from his childhood. Under the tutelage of Alfred Chircop and Harry Alden, Rupert studied painting “the traditional way” as he calls it, rather than by attending a specific course. “I also knew Vincent Apap very well, and he indirectly had a big influence on me and my work,” the artist says.
“I take one topic and focus on it deeply over a couple of years. It gives you time to think, and time to look at things in a different way. These projects provide good opportunities to evolve as an artist.” He explains that he prefers to explore different themes regularly and he lets me in on his current focus. While religion seems to play a prominent role in his current work, his focus is actually on the ritualistic aspect. “I’m equally interested in someone taking part in a procession and an old woman hanging her clothes every Tuesday morning from her balcony in Valletta,” he explains, adding, “I’m fascinated by any kind of ritual – the human being finding solace or comfort in creating patterns of behaviour.”
Rupert maintains that another fascination lies in exploring to what level of abstraction you can go with a painting or an object, until people stop recognising what it actually is. “When it comes to technique, I like to play with mistakes. There’s a lot of dripping in my paintings – classically, it’s a mistake, but I like for my paintings to develop in a way that I’m not completely controlling what’s going on.”
“I’m not really interested in the detail, though if you’re far away enough from the piece, you can see detail – if you go closer you start missing it. Like with this piece,” he says, motioning to a nearby unfinished canvas, “if you stand close to it, all you see is smudges, but if you move away, you begin to see a crowd forming.”
Asked whether his artistic technique has evolved over the years, Rupert maintains that it has, and will undoubtedly continue to do so. “What I’m doing now will definitely have changed in a few years’ time. I don’t know where I’ll be going. Still, I won’t stop producing what is within the parameters of classical work,” he says, pointing to a realistic self-portrait. “The technique does evolve, but it also reflects the subject I’m working on. I use technique not as an end in itself – I see it as a vessel to send a message, so the technique has to change according to what that message is.”
As with every professional artist, Rupert has a defined creative process when it comes to producing his pieces. “In the morning, the first thing I do is spend a couple of hours browsing art websites. I try to expose myself to what’s happening in the art world – I believe that is a must. The actual process of creating an artwork usually begins with an idea, but that doesn’t mean that the idea is tied to one particular piece. I then study and sketch a lot, especially when it comes to the human figure. At a certain stage when I’m close to finishing a piece, the artwork takes over – that’s the fun bit, after a lot of hard work!” he laughs.
Rupert also has a unique way of beating that fear that so many creatives will recognise: the blank canvas. “I’ve been doing this for most of my life, but I’m still scared of a blank canvas. The way I tackle it is by having 15, 20 and even 30 pieces already started. I plan a number of paintings, start them off and then re-visit,” he reveals, with a caveat, “and I always finish them.”
Having exhibited work in Rome and London, the artist maintains that it’s not the personal successes that he considers the highlight, maintaining, “I will never accept that something that already happened is my highlight, because that will put me in a position that I need to top, and leads to the question: what if I don’t? Rather, the accumulation of all that has happened so far, with the good parts and the bad – being in this interview is thanks to all that, so this becomes a highlight.”
Offering a word of advice to aspiring artists, Rupert affirms, “listen to what every older artist has to say and ignore it.” Smiling, he explains that while you have to respect and try to understand the older generation, technological advancements have made the reality in which young artists operate today completely different. “Ultimately, the most important thing for an artist is to be passionate about their work. If you’re not passionate about it, and that includes spending a good amount of time working, you cannot become a good artist. It’s not easy, and today, life is easy – there are many other things you can do very easily, but art is not one.”
Turning his attention to upcoming plans, Rupert reveals that 2018 is set to be a busy year. “As Chairman of Fondazzjoni Kreattivita, preparations for Valletta 2018 are taking up a substantial amount of my time, although the real work there took place in these three years before. On a personal level, next year I’m also planning to have a major exhibition,” he maintains, revealing that the idea behind it will be identity in all its forms. Admitting that it is not a subject that hasn’t been explored, the artist believes that it is also a theme with which you can never reach a conclusion. “Identity is always in a state of flux. As a nation, for example, what we understand by being Maltese now is not what we understood by it 20, 50 or 100 years ago. Identity is a topic I’ve always been interested in, both from a broad point of view, but also in terms of what being an artist means. Sometimes you need to stop and take stock, and ask yourself – is this really what I want to do? Is it what I’m meant to do? What relevance does it have? You need to question yourself all the time. The answers will change, but at least for today, I know where I am, or rather, I know where I’m not – which probably is more important.”
You can read the full interview with Rupert Cefai in the online edition of The Commercial Courier