An Abstract View of Malta


Maps are everywhere these days.  We have them in our pockets on our phones, they’re in our cars telling us which road to take and they’re on our tablets always ready to guide us when we look for that new place we’ve just heard of.

Yet, as with anything that we become overly familiar with, often we don’t really take the time to notice them; to appreciate them.  Which is just what David Xuereb has set out to do with his Rooftopography series of abstract works of art where the protagonist is the outline of different localities and their roads.

“It was something that I had been mulling over for quite some time,” he explains in his Mosta workshop.  “I’ve been working on it for around twenty months.  My thinking came out of the desire to put out something that is Maltese without going for the usual Maltese landscape.  I wanted to do something where people could see where they live or the place where they’re from.  There’s a big Maltese link.”

“So I started thinking about maps.  I asked myself ‘what if we took a village and took away the buildings?’  The more I spoke to people about the idea the more I got feedback that it couldn’t be done.   The more I felt that I had to do it!”

“The end result,” he says “is an abstract work of art.  The forms that emerge are so beautiful that I don’t see a village when I look at it but rather an abstract work of art.  There are no buildings or landmarks which make up the locality, just the roads.  In fact, in naming the pieces I didn’t go for the name of the locality but instead went for the number allocated to each local council.”

The process itself is quite something.    “I etch out the shape of the roads in silicone which is used to create two moulds, one of plaster and the other of wax.  The latter is used to create a resin based sculpture whilst the plaster one is used so that melted aluminium is poured into it.”

“Plaster is ideal because it starts to crack as soon as it faces the heat of the aluminium.  However, it holds together just enough for the aluminium to set.  Afterwards I can chip away the plaster so that only one artwork is exclusively of aluminium.”

Indeed, this ends up forming one of three different versions of the same sculpture; the one that Xuereb defines as “The Code Complete because for me it is the best one and the most prestigious.”

“The second one is made of resin whereas the third is a large circular sculpture that I call the plate.  I etch out the route in that one and I then paint it.”

So far, the overwhelming reaction has been positive in spite of the initial diffidence.

“The drawback when you introduce something new is that it takes time for people to get used to it and start looking for it,” he details.  “Also, I haven’t done many pieces.  Still it has been very well received.  I’m happy with how things are going.”

Whilst sales do not equate to success, it is always an encouraging sign when someone is so impressed by a piece of work that they request one of their own.  This is what led to David working on the Cospicua, when a boutique hotel owner commissioned the creation of the rooftopography of that locality.

Cospicua thus became the fourth locality to be included in this series.  “The first one that I made was for Attard, which is the place where I grew up and I have fond memories of”.

“Then I did one of Sliema that is a place which is so desirable among both Maltese and foreigners. It is somewhere that a lot of people visit.  Then I did one of Siggiewi which I chose simply because I was curious how it would look when I’d finished it.”

With time and experience, the process has become easier.  “The process is still a long one but now I have a certain degree of knowledge so I can now do a couple at the same time,” he explains.  “This also means that there is less wastage when you’re melting aluminium.”

The big benefit, however, is that “I can now do two at the same time.  This is how I came to do Valletta at the same time as Cospicua.”

“At the same time I started thinking about having a 3D printer so that we could do some other projects.  In fact we’ve scanned the Valletta sculpture and are currently experimenting printing it with different materials.  The result is an exact replica of the main sculpture.  We’re hoping to have some corporate souvenirs that can be given out during V18.”

This latter idea is indicative of his forward thinking and desire to experiment.  At this stage, however, his main ambition is another one.

“My main idea is to do a Rooftopography of every locality on the Maltese islands.  It is difficult because you need a lot of finances that currently I do not have.  But that’s my wish.”

“It isn’t often that I start working on something that I want to keep on doing.  These however are different and I think that when I have the money to do another locality I will do so.  I hope that I manage to do them all.”

“I believe that every local council should own the piece with their locality!”

For Xuereb, this is the latest project in a lifelong passion for abstract art.  “It is something natural.  I don’t know why it is but this work has always attracted me,” he says of his interest in this form of art.  “In abstract art you have a lot of leeway for experimenting.  Let’s say that there aren’t rules – there are – but it is not the same as when you have to do a landscape.  That work bores me.  If I had to do it I could but it would be under duress because it truly bores me.”

“In abstract you have more feeling, you feel that it is a good work of art.  There is a feeling of satisfaction.  Other people and artists might not see it in the same way and I accept that.  But that is how it is for me.”

There is also the element of interaction with his art that drives David.  “You have a certain degree of control and also the inclusion of certain things that happen when you are working.  I try to put these things in the fore rather than hide them because that is something which won’t happen again.”

“For instance, I don’t work with paint brushes, I work with what I find around me meaning piece of cardboard, or a spreader or a palette.  Again, I know how to use brushes but opt not to.”

“I like to work with sprays.  There are the different shades, colours within colours, colours on top of colours.  You need to be fast with that material.”

“You need to experiment to come to a particular place of mastery.  If you don’t make a number of attempts and throw away some of the outcomes you won’t make it.  I can’t emphasise that enough.  A lot of people go to learn from someone and spend years learning from the same person.  That’s not healthy.  You need a couple of years with someone, then a couple with someone else and then with another person.  From each one you take some elements and then you come to your own style, your own touch.”

“If you go to learn from one person for a long time you end up doing the same work that he does.  That is not the way for an artist.”

Xuereb’s own artistic path was quite circuitous.  “I was always scrawling away from an early age; I was always interested in design.  Whenever I got stuck on some bit of homework I would turn the page and start drawing.”

“When I got older I got into the technical institute and if someone else was doing a cabinet I would try to see what I could come up with by using a machine lathe.  From the whole class I was the only one who worked using that.  I really liked it, it was something different.”

“In my time art wasn’t appreciated.  It wasn’t given any importance and they used to ask what you were going to do with it, how you were going to earn money.  And, partly because they used to tell us that, I rebelled and wanted to even more of it!” 

He was also extremely lucky in that he got to meet some of Malta’s finest modern artists at an early age.  “I was very fortunate because Anton Agius worked at the same school so every time I had a spare moment I would make my way to his office.  He was very helpful.  I met other inspirational figures like Esprit Barthet and Harry Alden at the polytechnic.”  

“You learn from such people and keep on building your repertoire.  From Harry Alden I learned a lot about design.  He used to put a lot of emphasis on that.  Esprit Barthet gave us greater leeway to express ourselves.  It is not that he didn’t focus on the design stage but he was always happier when he saw someone doing something different.”

It was a philosophy that Xuereb was naturally inclined towards and which he has taken to another level.  As a frame-maker – his primary occupation – sprays were part of the job when some retouches were required.  “Then I got thinking if I’ve got all these sprays why don’t I try to do something with them?” he picks up.  “One of the technique that I’ve worked with is a water effect with spray.  I work with water and use it to create a design.  You pray on to it and then suck the water out with an injection.”

“When you’re creating it is all in 3D but by the time you finish the effect is that it is as if you have a number of layers; as if it is embossed when in truth that isn’t the case.”

“I really like that element of cheating!”

“It is a fast process and you have around ten to fifteen minutes because otherwise the colours seem off-key.  You have water that works against you because the paint dries faster.”  The effort is well worthwhile, however, with the result being vibrant, colourful works of art that retains an eternal sense of freshness and fluidity.

An example of Xuereb’s constant desire to experiment and learn from mistakes is his work with pyro kinesis.  “I don’t remember what I was doing but I had some thinner and I decided to apply a match to it which resulted in a huge flame.  I grabbed the closest sheet of wood and threw it on the flame to put it out.”

“When I removed the wood the design that the smoke had left was beautiful.  So is started to experiment with paper and canvas as well as with different flames.”

“It is hugely satisfying.”

“I want to play a bit more with it.  I want to incorporate colour.  I’ve already done something but need to find the right way to do it.  It is a big challenge but I’ll get there.”

All of this is work that requires a high degree of patience.  “I’m patient in work,” he says before adding “but there’s a limit to everything!”

“If there’s a piece of work where I’m not happy with the end product, the likelihood is that I’ll leave it there.  If it’s a disaster than I throw it away.  However if there is anything that I think can be re-used I’ll work on it.”

“Still, it is difficult to correct a piece of abstract art if it isn’t coming out right.”

This leads to the discussion of what makes a ‘good’ work of abstract art.  “You’ve touched on a delicate subject here,” he says “because for me there isn’t anything that is good or not.  Either a piece of work comes out how I want it or not.  A lot of the times that is what is good.  It is very difficult to choose what is good and what isn’t.”  

“Often a lot of the work has some element which is good.  Perhaps it is not right in so far as balance is concerned or you picked a colour that doesn’t fit in well or you had a mishap when you were rushing to do something because the material were forcing you.  Sometime this works in your favour and you can work around it.  Sometimes you cannot.”

“What I do say,” he continues “is that a piece of work isn’t up to a certain standard.  But that’s rare, very rare unless you’re experimenting.”

“There are certain element that instinctively you look for.  The balance, the set-up, how the colours blend in together and how you’ve blended them together.  Personally, in abstract pieces I look for the flow.  Sometimes you see abstract works of art that seem to have been put together using two different techniques.  That for me is senseless.  Work has to start and finish in harmony.  That is very important for me.”

“There are other things like where the sharp details are or the shading of colours.  There is a lot of work and it is hard to get it right.  How you look at the work, whether it leaves an impression or not.  Then there is your own personal taste.”

“What I strongly believe is that when you’re working on an abstract work of art the mind and the hands have to be synchronised.  That is what gives you the feeling.  When that doesn’t happen, when the two aren’t working together, then there is no feeling.”

This is a very zen way of looking at work.  “You’re so lost in what you’re doing that the work flows instinctively.  It gives you the feeling that everything has come out as you intended it.”

Yet there are many who struggle not only to distinguish between what makes a competent piece of abstract and what does not, but also to see the value of such art.  

“I think that people are willing to make an effort but they don’t have enough knowledge.  They are missing teaching and talks about abstract art.   I’ve seen a huge improvement in that respect but many still go for the traditional idea of art.”

“The most important thing is that whoever is about to start drawing or who wants to get a better appreciation of art should keep an open mind.  Don’t simply try to see a picture.”

“When people drew life-like pictures that was because the need was there.  Today there are cameras that can take better pictures.  The work of an artist is to create something rather than copy what is there.”

“It is very important that an artist is free to work on what he wants.  Naturally, if you want to earn a living you have to do what people want but you don’t have to sell out.”

“Paintings of luzzu or churches have been done to death.  We need to do new things.  That’s where I want art to grow.”

Miniature copies of the Valletta Rooftopography are now available in bronze and silver.  More information about David Xuereb's work, and any exhibitions he is hosting in his gallery, can be found here.

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