Growing up, graphic designer and visual artist Pawlu Mizzi was surrounded by creatives. “My mother was a seamstress and my father used to design posters, so I’d say that the urge to express my creativity was within me from early on.” In his adolescent years, Pawlu kept his eye on art and design in his studies, and attended the Emvin Cremona Art and Design Centre in Valletta. “I always wanted to pursue that road. When I was a teenager, a lecturer of mine, artist Alfred Camilleri, had told me ‘you don’t have to be shy to assert that you’re an artist’. I’ve tried to apply that throughout my life, exploring different forms of art and using them as a communication tool for life in general.”
Learning art academically and pursuing it professionally happened in parallel for Pawlu, who spent 15 years working as a graphic designer when he decided to read for a Master of Fine Arts in Digital Arts, under the supervision of artist and lecturer Dr Vince Briffa. “The artistic process for creating a work of art is not just about inspiration, but also a lot about research, that whatever it is that you’re presenting has a narrative that can be communicated with a basis in research,” he explains. “So I’d say that art has existed in my studies and my career simultaneously. I also spent the last four years working for the Valletta 2018 Foundation, pushing for community-led projects.”
Her Majesty. Photo - Clint Scerri Harkins
While having dabbled with various forms of art, including installation art, Pawlu’s work is largely digital – “if I had to describe it in simplistic terms, it’s working on a computer using digital software to create images,” he asserts. “The method I use is called re-appropriation, which is the recycling of existing images to create new ones from it. The recycling and recontextualising of recognisable objects in the contemporary world we live in today is the way forward. Of course, the style and execution will change over time.”
This couldn’t be more evident than in the stark contrast of styles between Pawlu’s 2015 exhibition held at the Akkademja Kulturali Pawlina in Valletta, titled Her Majesty, and his current exhibition, Kobba, both curated by Simon Sultana Harkins. The images of the former are darker, almost disturbing, with lots of layers and textures. “It was a therapeutic process for me at a difficult time in my life, allowing me to deal with it and move on. Kobba, on the other hand, was a reaction to Her Majesty – the style is minimalist, and each artwork is made with basic shapes and colours.”
For Kobba – a travelling exhibition with 11 different works and 45 limited edition prints of each – Pawlu says he didn’t have a destination in mind when he first started working on it. “I started experimenting around the time that Her Majesty was being exhibited, creating simple lines and shapes, until a number of things came together that led me to the concept for this series. The first was a poem I wrote that talked about ‘kobba’, which conjures to my mind a ball of red yarn that has no beginning and no end, that gets tangled and that is impossible to restore if it comes undone. I translated it into a metaphor that triggers reflections and discourse about relationships,” he explains.
Kobba at Gleneagles in Gozo
“Later, I came across a Japanese legend called ‘The red string of fate’, where, according to this myth, the gods tie an invisible red cord around the little fingers of every individual when they’re born, connecting them to someone else for life. Both concepts deal with red string, one unravels and the other brings people together, and thus the concept for Kobba came to be. The red string raised many questions for me relating to relationships: who are we related to? How are we related? Do we want to be related? I wanted the visual of the red string to trigger questions for others too.”
Pawlu says is not always clear in its direction, or if it even connects the figures together. “Someone who visited the exhibition observed that although the series deals with connections, there’s a certain solitude in the images, which was interesting. As for the style, the works have a light, pop art feel, which contrasted with the concept I was dealing with.”
Contrary to his previous exhibitions, Pawlu made Kobba a travelling project, hosting seven exhibitions at seven different locations. “I wanted this exhibition to be completely different to the previous one, so rather than wait for people to turn up, we took the work to the people instead, and set up the exhibition in spaces like pubs, restaurants and private residences.
Prominent in most of his work is the female figure, a subject that Pawlu has kept central to his artistic language so far. “It is a metaphor through which artists have always spoken about their intimacy, their social lives, and their own lives. I’m following suit.” The works for Her Majesty highlighted these aspects, as related by the six artists, professors and researchers who contributed to the publication ‘Her Majesty – Essays on Pawlu Mizzi’s Visual Art Exhibition’, published in 2015. “My installation works focus on more political themes, such as activism and social justice,” he added.
With his current exhibition nearing its end, Pawlu says one of the greatest satisfactions of exhibiting his art is knowing that it affected and touched people in one way or other. “Of course, I won’t deny the satisfaction of having people buy your work, but the best reward is people’s feedback,” he says. “It’s also really interesting when other artists get inspired by your work; there was a woman who visited one of my exhibitions and got inspired to write a poem. Collaboration between artists is great, and we need more of it.”
Looking ahead, Pawlu says he wishes to take his art beyond the island and into overseas communities. He also wishes to publish his writing next. “I’ve started working on some sketches for potential future works but I don’t know where this is heading yet. All I can say is that it feels different to Kobba.”
This article originally appeared in The Commercial Courier