Art reference

Turn plates into works of art

In his current exhibition, Once upon a plate, Vic Manduca explores the possibilities of the ceramic plate as a means of artistic expression. The artist talks to Joseph Agius about some of the underlying stories and concepts.

JA: Plates are basically pieces of tableware, meant to hold food. However, artisans throughout the ages have viewed them as a medium to be exploited and embellished with intricate creative designs, blurring the lines between art and craft. Have you stripped your plates of their prosaic and humble use or do you still plan to use them as they originally were, artwork notwithstanding?

MV: I would be very happy if someone used the plates for food as long as the food is of exceptional quality; the plates deserve no less, or so I think. In truth I don’t recommend using these for food as the majority are not the traditional enamel plates but a mixture of oil, acrylic, pens and whatever else I can find before they are varnished. I have no idea how this conglomerate would react to food, cutlery and the dishwasher, but I won’t try to see. I will not be held responsible for anyone who does either. So the answer is no, in my case the plate is the protagonist, showing what it can be without the perishable foods that we love.

Portrait after Arnolfini

JA: In the 20th century, Pablo Picasso elevated the plate to the rank of pure art. In a Maltese context, Gabriel Caruana exploited the geometric properties of plate to produce his signature abstract compositions. These two artists used the plate for the propagation of their concepts. Did the plate format give you more creative possibilities?

MV: Yes. I find working on a hard flat surface helps. The plates also give me the ability to write and engrave comfortably; the engraving especially would be difficult on canvas or cardboard but it works well on plates. There were downsides, chipping a plate, stepping on a plate (yes) and a few disasters that came out of the oven but presented new opportunities that worked out well in the end.

I also experimented and it didn’t always work. I primed a plate with ink that I used for lino printing; a few months later it was cracked and chipped. The creative opportunity is often the challenge of recovering something that is wrong; know what to correct, how to correct and work until you say “done”.

And just like thatAnd just like that

JA: The title of the exhibition Once upon a plate suggests a narrative dimension, attributed to fables. Fifty-two plates make up the collection, one each for the 52 years of your age. Does this also refer to an autobiography in plates?

MV: Each work has a story. Most artists choose a theme, a style and produce a collection that can be linked together. I prefer to bounce from one genre to another, from one style to another, from one theme to another; without any pretension, without having to conform or please anyone. The important thing for me is to enjoy creating, nothing else really matters.

sleeping tattooed ladysleeping tattooed lady

JA: Some of the plates relate to art history – Van Eyck, Velasquez, Warhol. Others relate to the prehistory of our country, as in your sleeping tattooed lady. Plaque for Ukraine is painfully contemporary, referencing the turmoil affecting this country right now. Can you tell me more about the dynamic of the narrative you are pursuing?

Plaque for UkrainePlaque for Ukraine

MV: I always take my art books and go through them. I often stop at something that I’ve probably seen a hundred times and decide to interpret it. Lunch on the Neton (a play about On the grass) has its own narrative because the picnic is engulfed in concrete – so the narrative is clear. At Van Eyck’s Arnolfini portrait, there is no story, just an interpretation. Very often, I don’t really think about where I’m going to go with a work. I start and I see where it takes me. I often title the work only after it’s ready and sometimes on a whim, sometimes because of a song I’m listening to while I’m working. For me, the visual is the winning factor, not the story or the technique; just something you can watch, relate to, and hopefully enjoy. I certainly enjoyed creating the plates.


“There are, of course, factors like the current war that cannot be ignored. Everything else seems so insignificant. I made a promise to donate part of all my sales to help the people of Ukraine . It’s the least I can do.”

JA: Your last previous exhibition Once upon a plate was titled fifty shades of color and fifty shades of blackan ironic reference to EL James’ trashy novel Fifty shades of Grey. The number 50 is a common denominator in the titles of both exhibitions. Is there any numerological relevance to this?

MV: This is my sixth personal exhibition. I know I’m not going to do 50, so I have to use the number some other way. I’m not really bothered by numbers or age, it’s just another day.

JA: What triggered the transition from traditional painting to using plates as a metaphorical canvas?

MV: I didn’t make the decisive decision to start a plate thinking it would be the start of an exhibition. I don’t even think I bought the first plate I painted. It must have been my daughter’s but I found it, unused, and painted a blue Guernica. It was October 21, 2019. On my Instagram post, I said I would buy a few plates and fill them, first with art, then with food. I never got to the food part, of course, but I ate a lot along the way…

My exhibition project was thwarted by COVID so I teamed up with Christine X Gallery, in Sliema until it was time to launch an exhibition. Once the decision was made, then, early in the morning, late in the evening, it was time to prepare the plates.

Zija MimiZija Mimi

JA: Contemporary artist Grayson Perry also uses plates as one of his means of expression, in addition to vases and other vessels. He is considered a chronicler of contemporary life and, in addition to history, his work deals with issues that trouble and torture him. His artistic production is also sometimes autobiographical, also looking at his troubled childhood. For him, an object accumulates intellectual and emotional baggage over time, giving more relevance to the story told. Are you related to this?

MV: It would be great if I had an exciting story that would give the exhibit a strong narrative but, no, nothing to report. I can relate to people who inspired me, taught me, old masters and contemporary artists I read/follow. There are, of course, factors like the current war that cannot be ignored. Everything else seems so insignificant. I promised to donate part of all my sales to help the people of Ukraine. It’s the least I can do. I must thank my sponsors, my family, Pia Sapienza, Hannah Grech Pirotta, Lara Bugeja and her staff at the Malta Postal Museum for all their support. The exhibition is open until April 16 and I will start working on my next exhibition the next day.

Room with a viewRoom with a view

Once upon a plateorganized by the Postal Museum, Archbishop Street, Valletta, is open until 16 April. Check the event’s Facebook page for opening hours.

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