In the studio with Gulja Holland, whose psychologically charged works explore themes of identity, love, human conflict and her growing concern for the natural environment. We met with Gulja to tell us more about growing up in Malta, her greatest influences, and what Gulja hopes to explore in the future.
When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?
Art has always been a big part of my life. At school, I probably spent more time drawing than writing in my copybooks so it was always my preferred means of communication. I began to more confidently assert myself as an artist once I began exhibiting in my twenties.
Where are you from and what was your upbringing like?
I am from Malta and have spent the majority of my life there. I had a very happy childhood with fond memories of playing in the outdoors on picnics, hikes and beach days. I remember how beautiful my island was and how quiet and safe. You could play for hours in the side streets before a car would come by. The smells of my childhood are of carob trees, wet earth, church incense, and traditional fresh bread.
The smell of concrete is an adult memory but an increasingly pervasive one. Malta was once the envy of the Mediterranean; for its geographical position and climate but also for its beauty, with clusters of honey-coloured townhouses interspersing virgin Garigue land. In my lifetime I have witnessed much of the remaining unprotected countryside and historic architecture be replaced by slum-like high-rise apartments.
The changes I have witnessed impact my general outlook on life as I watch most countries also employing GDP as the core metric of prosperity over environmental and educational indexes. While great art is never overtly moralistic and illustrational, I truly believe art can inspire hope and reformation. This belief underpins my artistic ambitions.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
I would describe my aesthetic as verging between symbolism, surrealism and expressionism. The emphasis in my works seems to be as much on drawing as it is on painting as I love for those initial marks on the canvas to show through. I feel that they add visual interest and lend a sense of urgency to my paintings.
Some people comment on my aesthetic being dark at times but I think they are confusing aesthetic with the concept. Or maybe the two cannot be separated? Art offers us something entirely unique in its ability to aestheticize the ugliness of life without necessarily glamorising it. I believe that if you can aestheticize an inconvenient truth then people might be more willing to confront it and contemplate it. It’s a bit like that aphorism of critic and film historian Cecile Starr: “If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh or they’ll kill you” . . . With art I think, you’d better make it pretty.
Who & what are your greatest influences?
My concern for the environmental crisis is a recurring influence and was also a central theme in my previous solo exhibition. As the crises worsened in Malta I felt compelled to hone in on my scope. Compositionally, my paintings are very much informed by the internet sourced imagery of the hundreds of trees that have faced the chop in the last half-decade. My choice of visual references is very much influenced by the conceptual scope of the series I am working towards. In my recent ambition of becoming more political, I looked towards Anselm Kiefer and Philip Guston for inspiration. Both artists produced some of the most moving paintings that deal with the tension between private conscience and public responsibility. In terms of style, their influence has encouraged a more subtly symbolic approach.
An unexpected source of inspiration?
Religious imagery. I grew up in a devoutly Catholic country. Though my immediate family are atheists, I spent many Sunday mornings in churches. Though I found the outdated sermons unrelatable I could not help but be extremely impressed by the opulent art in churches and realistic larger-than-life depictions of a crucified, haemorrhaging man. I think subconsciously I understood how a violent depiction could lend power to an image. For me, the true essence of spiritual connection is more closely linked with a closeness to nature than to a man who was crucified two thousand years ago so in my art I invariably tried to transpose this religious aesthetic to my depiction of nature. My formal artistic training in Malta also dealt mainly with religiously inspired Renaissance and Baroque Art. I especially loved the paintings of Giotto di Bondone, Duccio, Fra Angelico and Cimabue with gold-ground panels paintings and gold accents on the halos of saintly figures.
What do you want people to take from your work when they view it?
Upon first glance, my paintings seem pleasant and charming because as I mentioned, the aesthetical component is very important to me as a tool for drawing the viewer in. I think that especially in our times when our political and environmental reality is so ugly, we want light-hearted art to entertain us. And as a full-time artist, the temptation is certainly to make apolitical work. But I think I make art with a few people in mind who understand the importance of communicating something salient.
In an interview with art critic Mark Stevens, Philip Guston explains the disappointment and indifference with which his famous figurative works were first received. He said
“At the opening, only two painters, David Hare and Bill de Kooning, acted differently. It wasn’t necessarily that they liked it. De Kooning said something else. He said, ‘Why are they all complaining about you making political art, all this talk? You know what your real subject is, it’s about freedom, to be free, the artist’s first duty.’’
I hope this is recognised in my work. They are as much about the uncensored freedom afforded to artists to depict the truth about our current predicament as we truly see it. I want people to be able to identify reality in the images. I want to be true to myself and my reality and not simply create superficial things to distract ourselves with.
What events in your life have mobilised change in your practice How has your art evolved?
Most recently, my time on my at the Royal College of Art studying for an MA in Painting has had a tremendous impact. Art colleges in the UK seem to encourage an overarching aesthetic style and at the RCA the general emergent style is surreal, loose-figuration with a serious engagement with both drawing and painting. During my time there my style has certainly been influenced by this brand of painting helped to improve it. Even if the content is conceptual, we are encouraged to produce work that is tender and aesthetically felt. I have also since gained the confidence to go large-scale. The increasing emphasis on the drawing in my work was also influenced by my tutors’ encouragement to approach my paintings as I did my sketchbooks; as large scale drawings. That being said, I have always been drawn to the aesthetic of pentimenti and therefore it seems natural that my drawing has evolved into an element that is deliberately left in a finished work.
What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?
In the research phase, ideas are triggered by associations and chance encounters. I’d have randomly placed two digital images next to each other and they’d spark a new idea. That’s why I love a cluttered desktop. I never print out reference images so my desktop functions like the digitized version of a Francis Bacon studio. Exhibition visits can also do this. This entire series of works was catalyzed by a quote I can across at a William Blake exhibition “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way… As a man is, so he sees.”
In terms of painting, I have good days and bad painting days and I can often tell which one it will be from the moment I wake up so for me the ideal condition is my state of mind. I’ll wake up feeling energized and inspired, with an idea in mind that will immediately get me going. Good lighting, great studio mates and plenty of coffee also help.
Tell us about the inspiration behind one of your works?
‘When Your Voice Shakes, 2021’ is my favourite work and is central to the series.
The painting utilizes the same name as my exhibition series title and it references a quote by American activist Maggie Khun, founder of the Gray Panthers: “Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind – even if your voice shakes.” This same phrase was spray-painted in 2019 on a wall in Msida, above the date of October 16, 2017, the day when investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was brutally assassinated. Caruana Galizia had become a big threat as she was working on a government exposé’ shortly before her death so it was more than a little convenient.
This painting and all the works in this series links the seemingly unrelated subjects of nature and political dissenters as both are met with hostility and rebranded as public safety risks. Anything or anyone that stands in the way of the government’s idea of progress is ridiculed, threatened or eliminated. Daphne’s murder and the disfigurement of my country are ultimately both reflective of a massive political crisis.
In the centre of the canvas runs a coil and claw assembly, similar to one found in a claw machine. It’s reminiscent too of an industrial metal claw used in scrap yards. This one shifts through the debris of personified trees and bay leaf branches. Shortly after her assassination, a protest march was held in her name and Daphne’s sons donated pizzas to all the attendees. Each pizza had a bay lead in the middle of them and their delivery came with a message which read:
“Bay leaves are a symbol of strength and courage,” “These are from our mother’s garden. With our support and gratitude.” Daphne herself was aware that her name derived from the Greek word for bay leaf and had planted the trees in her garden for this reason.”
To me, this painting, and the entire series function as a dedication to Daphne and a reminder to remember my roots and use my voice even when it has been shaken- so it is a hopeful painting really.
Something in the future you hope to explore?
I want to continue to hone in on my story and my personal experiences. I have often been tempted to keep my themes general and less specific to my circumstances but I am realizing that specificity does not mitigate relatability- if anything it makes the paintings more intimate and authentic.
I have already begun bringing human figures back into my work and am pushing with an increasingly surreal style. I’m looking more at the works of Hieronymous Bosch and the way in which he was able to depict the dynamic between nature and humans without one subject overpowering the other. He’s also a relevant reference in my utilization of religious symbolism and reversal of scale of subjects which gives his paintings such a wonderful otherworldly feel.