Kenneth Zammit Tabona’s life and art have many things in common – both are colourful, brimming with charisma and defined by a love for things Maltese. His home, which is where we met for this interview, is a showcase of beautiful objects that inspire him and that he holds dear, from fine furniture and collectibles to mesmerising pieces of art and books. And as artistic director of the Manoel Theatre and the Valletta International Baroque Festival, his different roles are all part of his world, one which is defined by art and culture, and an appreciation for beauty, be it in the form of an opera, a poem, or a painting.
As we settle in the sitting room of his St Julian’s home, Kenneth tells me that his love for art has been with him since childhood, but a full-time career as an artist wasn’t always on the cards. “I doodled all my life – as a child, whenever I saw a piece of paper and pencil lying around, or even a wall, I’d doodle, sketch and create,” he says. “Throughout my years in college, art became peripheral – in my generation, the last thing we were encouraged to do was become artists; if you knew how to draw, it was a ‘hobby’, and that’s what it remained for me until the 80s, when a very important meeting in my life took place between myself and Nicholas de Piro.”
While their meeting had nothing to do with Kenneth’s art, Marquis Nicholas de Piro, who resides at the stunning 16th century palace in Valletta, Casa Rocca Piccola, encouraged Kenneth, who at that time worked at a local bank, to pursue art professionally. “Nicholas de Piro was and still is a great authority on art, architecture and Maltese history. He is the author of many books, including one which we worked on together, ‘Lost Letters’. I illustrated the book, which I very much enjoyed doing, and went on to illustrate a few more since then,” says Kenneth.
A turning point in Kenneth’s journey came about when Marquis de Piro’s cousin, Peter Apap Bologna, opened Melitensia Art Gallery, giving Kenneth the impetus to host his first solo exhibition, which took place in 1992, followed by another exhibition in 1995. “Peter Apap Bologna is very much responsible for my name as an artist because in those days, the art scene in Malta was a very closed shop, and a watercolourist like myself was looked down upon. A memorable accolade I got many years later, from my dear friend and divine artist Pawl Carbonaro, known as ‘Il-Profs’, was “int ma dhaltx mil-bieb imma dhalt mit-tieqa”, which I thought was great fun,” he quips.
Kenneth’s art is a reflection of his surroundings and his primary sources of inspiration: Maltese landscapes and interiors, painted in fluid watercolour. For his landscapes, he’s inspired by the rugged and dramatic coastlines of Malta and Gozo. “Rocks tumbling into the sea, rough seas, and strange cliff formations – they’re all very dramatic to me, and some of the locations I’m most fascinated by are Fomm ir-Rih, Hondoq ir-Rummien and Filfla. I used to do al fresco work, which is very challenging but rewarding, as your work takes a completely different tack when working under pressure due to rain, sun, wind, insects and all sorts of unpredictable elements. But you learn to work fast, and painting outdoors is extremely exciting.”
As for his other source of inspiration, Maltese interiors, Kenneth needn’t look very far. His home is a treasure trove of fine, striking objects and collectibles, similar to the ones in his paintings. “Beautiful tables, Chinese porcelain, Maltese furniture, Maltese tiles, Majolica, coloured walls – whatever you’re seeing here is a reflection of me, and so is this genre, which nobody else does in Malta,” he says. Dubbed ‘fuoridentros’ by the late Fr Peter Serracino Inglott, the name of the genre is a twist on ‘room with a view’, where the paintings incorporate a variety of objets d’art within a Maltese setting, with a landscape seen through an open window.
Asked what attracts him towards these particular themes, Kenneth says “you paint what you feel, enjoy, and absorb from your surroundings. Very rarely do I get inspired by a landscape or a subject that is not Maltese – I’ve done a few Moroccan paintings which I enjoyed, and a series of Indian paintings as I fell deeply in love with the country the first time I visited, but apart from those, it’s always been Malta.”
Kenneth’s medium of choice is watercolour, inspired by his childhood mentor, Giuseppe Arcidiacono. Following his illustrations for ‘Lost Letters’ in pen and ink, the artist experimented with gouache for a while, before switching to watercolours when he started painting al fresco, satisfying both his imaginative side as well as his love for colour. “Watercolour is wonderful but also very unforgiving, in that what’s done is done and cannot be altered, so it’s a challenge every time. Of course, my work today is the result of experimentation – every painting is an experiment, and every time you’re faced with a blank paper, whether or not it will work is an experiment. However, refining your style, technique and colours is truly a case of practice makes perfect. I don’t think there is a self-satisfied artist – you are your own worst critic.”
Despite the resemblance between his own home and the interiors depicted in his paintings, Kenneth doesn’t paint from still life. “I suppose I could but I prefer to do my own. I’ve always hated copying anything, and whatever I paint is from my own imagination,” he explains. “The Chinese vases in my paintings, for instance, are my own. I observe, I study, and then I create my own. It has to be a creation, it cannot be a copy. Even when I painted al fresco – my landscapes were an interpretation of what I saw in front of me.”
Kenneth made the transition towards a full-time artist in 2001, after leaving his job at the bank where he worked for 29 years. He pursued his artistic career professionally for 10 years, and today, divides his work as an artist with the role of artistic director at the Manoel Theatre and artistic director of the Valletta International Baroque Festival. “Both of these roles are creative; when I’m designing a festival or a season for the theatre, it’s like painting a picture,” he explains. “As an artist, people often ask how long it takes to finish a painting, but the answer is that you never really start or finish; what you put into a particular painting is a culmination of everything you’ve learnt, all the techniques you’ve mastered, all the ideas you’ve absorbed throughout your life, and it’s the same with my other roles. I believe it’s the same with all the arts really, which is why I find both my jobs to be so congenial.”
His first solo exhibition in 2001, which took place within weeks of leaving the protected environment he worked in for so long, was a defining moment for the artist, as well as a leap into the dark. “Suddenly, I was on my own and dependant entirely on what I was creating. The success of that exhibition, which took place at the Malta Chamber of Commerce in November 2001, offered the reassurance that hard work pays off. Art is hard work, which people might not always realise. There’s this idea that artists float through life on a cloud, occasionally producing work, similar to the 19th century poet living in melancholy wearing stained shirts and funny berets – it’s not like that at all. 20 per cent is inspiration, another 30 per cent is knowledge, but the other 50 per cent is blood, sweat and tears.”
With the sixth edition of the Valletta International Baroque Festival kicking off in January 2018 and the recent re-opening of the Manoel Theatre, the artist admits that, although he’s not painting as much as he would like to, he’s still happy to be creating a form of art that can be shared and experienced. “At the moment, the creative side of me is happy doing what I always felt Malta deserved with the Manoel theatre, as well as through the Valletta International Baroque Festival which I conceived and is now in its sixth year. All my roles are creative and ones I’m passionate about. So as long as I’m being creative, I’m happy.”