‘It is my facebook,’ she says, pointing at the many portraits hanging on the wall of her studio. More paintings are lined up on the floor. ‘Two artist friends and I make one portrait every week.’
Of a live model?
‘Yes, and when people come to the studio and see the other portraits, they’re often surprised to recognise familiar faces.’ Malta is small. And Celia is one of the leading artists: one of the first things I first saw when arriving on the island, was one of her works: a sculptural installation on the ceiling of the airport’s arrivals hall.
What is it like to be an artist on Malta?
‘There is a school of art, an artist community. And there are a lot of people who paint, Sunday painters. In general the public is pretty conservative when it comes to art, though it is improving: the younger generation is better, more open. Still, people put me down as ‘stramba’, strange, but to be honest I always liked being like that a bit. At the same time I’m pretty conventional in the things that I do, I have a normal family life, my husband is a lawyer, and my work is not that experimental or contemporary.’
Thank goodness, because being an artist is maybe stramba, making experimental art would make things worse, I guess
‘Yes, and Malta is not only small, but also an island, mind you, you can’t escape, it’s more difficult to stand out, maybe that affects art. But it has its good parts, people know each other, know when you’re ill or something, there’s this sense of belonging,’ she says in her sing-song English accent, which almost sounding as if she’s holding in her laughter.
Another strange thing about her is her remarkable career switch. ‘I’m a late starter: I used to be a pharmacist, until I was 35. The art started off because I needed something different from pharmacy, which is so exact and this is a really nice thing to do. I turned the knob, and use another part of my brain, really. And then that side took over, and I was doing less and less of pharmacy and more and more art.’
And then came a point when you could call yourself artist
‘Yeah, though the word artist is really difficult. I mean, I didn’t exhibit for many years. I’m 57 now, just 10 years ago. I didn’t want to, it didn’t want to show them. Not even my family.’
Were you shy?
‘Yes, and I couldn’t see the point. But it’s wrong, because it’s important, because you’re communicating something through your art and you get the feedback from the persons who have seen it. Now I like it, but it’s not the most important thing. The first is to make things. That’s the most fun. Secondly, if it turns out to be something I quite like, I get that lovely feeling of satisfaction. Third is if somebody else likes it, if they want to buy it. That’s nice as well.’
What does government do to help art and the cultural life?
‘There are art funds.’ She thinks. ‘But that’s only recent. What’s happening at the moment is the stress on promoting the young ones, which is okay, but a bit at the expense of the established artists – who are established for a reason.’
Because they’re good
You also exhibited in Brussels
‘Yes, once at the European parliament, with 5 others. And another time, there was a Malta Week, there was a kind of a fair between the parliament buildings. Promoting art, but also other things.
And they bought art for their permanent collection.
Did they pay well?
‘Yeah, all right,’ she laughs. ‘Eventually. Had to wait long for my money. But it was quite an honour, especially when the president, what’s his name, well, he has some connection with dockyards…’
‘Not him… anyway, he chose that painting for his office. Because my painting was about ships.’
She means Jerzy Buzek, the president of the European Parliament, she would tell me later.
Do you feel European?
‘Always. I was born in Oxford, spent my childhood there, and then moved to London. And we have a strong connection with Italy: we had Italian TV and radio, we could pick that up here. You know, when you’re so small, there’s a lot of foreign countries, a lot of Europe.
And what about Africa? You’re close to Libya for example.
‘I have to be crude about it: Maltese are racists towards Libyans… you didn’t want to marry your daughter an Arab,’ she says with a lower voice. ‘Now we have this immigration, and anyone black-skinned is considered second rate, since ten years. It’s a big problem. They get stranded in the sea, because they put them on these rickety boats and they have to be rescued. And they arrive here. Human beings.’
You have to rescue them. But at the same time the island is small.
‘They are more or less arrested, put into detention camps for a couple of years, under pretty bad conditions, some lived in tents.’
It’s a European problem?
‘Yes, since there are no internal borders, someone who enters here illegally is everyone’s problem. You might start in Malta, but may easily end up in Finland.’
Do we Europeans have something in common?
‘Yes, we have our common history. We had these knights here, you know? They gathered here, we had the EU here. Auberge d’Aragon, Auberge de Castille, the Italian knights. But let me see, what makes us European… what’s different from an American… I don’t know. The Americans are European as well. I don’t know, maybe the Americans look at their states, the way we think about our countries. Every state has its own characteristics and yet it is part of something bigger. I think it is nice for countries to have their differences and at the same time we need the security of being part of a bigger union. It feels safer.’
In Germany or Holland, you don’t see EU flags on the streets. Here you do, also in poorer countries like Bulgaria. How come?
‘Maybe because they see the funding, the positive. Most people on Malta are proud to be part of the EU. We are still net recipients, we’re soon not going to be. I wonder if that’s going to have an effect…’