Sculptor Mario Agius’ forthcoming exhibition il-ħajja encapsulates the human condition in a series of striking sculptures.
Words by Finesse Group | Extract taken from May's 2022 Il-Bizzilla Magazine | Read more here
A trunk is nothing more than part of a tree for most, but for Mario Agius it is full of exciting possibilities. The Gozitan sculptor has been transforming wood, stone, and marble into works of art for decades, and he has no intention of slowing down.
Agius believes he inherited his artistic sensibility from his mother. “She was illiterate, but I’ve been told that she would sit in the village square where she would occasionally give tourists directions,” he shares. “She would memorise the patterns on their clothes and reproduce them in knitting within a day or two.”
Agius showed an interest in art from an early age, but he chose sculpture as his medium after observing a neighbour who used to sculpt outside his house. It didn’t take young Agius long to start experimenting, and eventually he started taking lessons with Mgr Mikelang Apap and later with renowned sculptor Anton Agius, who took him under his wing. He also furthered his studies in the UK with sculptor Ian Norbury.
Many of Agius’ sculptures are made using olive wood, with the occasional use of carob and chestnut. “Wood is the most difficult material to sculpt, because you have to work with the grain,” he explains. “The nodes in a trunk will also determine how it is sculpted.” Apart from wood, which is the material he seems to favour, Agius also sculpts in marble, both Gozitan and Carrara, and in Globigerina Limestone. Globigerina, also known as tal-franka, is a soft golden limestone used widely in the local construction industry. However, the limestone preferred by Agius is harder to source.
“About 15 years ago, I was walking in the San Dimitri area with my wife when I saw a lot of Globigerina that had a honeycomb texture. Nobody I knew of had sculpted this particular type of stone before,” Agius recalls. “It turns out that the honeycomb effect is created by centuries of weathering, and it isn’t that easy to come across, so I scour valleys in the hopes of finding pieces that would have fallen off a wall or cliff face.”
Agius draws inspiration from the world around him, and his observations of the human condition occupy much of his work, most notably his upcoming exhibition Il-Ħajja. This series of sculptures in wood, marble, and stone depicts man in all stages of life. It also taps into the many different conditions people learn to live with. One of the most poignant works, Imħabba sal-Aħħar, was inspired by a conversation the artist had with his wife about dementia and how widespread it seems to have become. In it, an old man leads his wife by the hand, and the woman’s eyes are fixed on their intertwined hands. “When a person suffers from dementia, the bigger picture disappears,” Agius elaborates. “All this woman can see is the hand that is guiding her, and not the man she shared her life with.”
Other times, inspiration comes from a branch, a node in a trunk, or the shadows cast by a cloud. In Seeds of Innocence, a crack in a chestnut trunk led to the sculpture of a pregnant woman. “She is an innocent 14-year-old child who falls pregnant,” says Agius. “Because of her young age, she must give birth by a Caesarian section, which is why the crack in the wood runs down her abdomen.” It is clear that, although sculpting is undoubtedly physically demanding, most of the work Agius puts into his creations is done before he even picks up his chisels. “I always have two or three works going on at the same time,” he says. “I need to switch from one to the other so I can refresh my brain. The amount of thought that goes into each sculpture can be tiring.”
There is no denying that Agius’ work is beautiful, but what really sets it apart is how emotionally charged it is. The fact that most of it is literally made out of pieces of his beloved Gozo is a bonus.
Il-Ħajja will run from 28th April to 19th May 2022 at the Art Galleries of the Malta Society of Arts, Palazzo de La Salle, 219, Republic Street, Valletta. Entrance is free.