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Follow your art! Manuel Farrugia illuminates Malta's artistic landscape from Gozo to international acclaim
At just 35, Manuel Farrugia has emerged as one of Malta’s brightest artistic talents. Dean Muscat speaks with the Gozitan artist, tracing his journey from humble beginnings to prestigious commissions for notable churches and prominent figures.

GMM Team

Not every artist discovers their calling early on. Some stumble upon it unexpectedly, through a workshop they take on a lark or a chance encounter with a great piece of art that speaks to their soul. For others, there comes a gradual realisation that they possess a unique talent, one that might warrant deeper exploration. But then there are a select few for whom the artist’s path is almost predestined. Divine intervention or genetic coding, call it what you like, but for these special, dare-say lucky few, a life in the arts seems undeniable from the start.

Speaking with Gozitan artist Manuel Farrugia, you can’t help but sense the latter applies to him. It’s not as if he emerged fully formed from the get-go. Dedication, graft and countless hours of practice have refined him into one of Malta’s premier painters in the naturalistic style. Yet, as he acknowledges, there was never a eureka moment in his journey. The desire to be an artist has been ingrained in him for as long as he can remember. The subsequent years have simply been a process of moulding his life so he can freely pursue his passion with purpose.

Manuel Farrugia art

Growing up in Rabat, Gozo, a young Manuel didn’t come from particularly artistic stock. His parents and siblings showed no major inclination toward the arts, yet the 35-year-old hints at more distant relatives who may have wielded brushes before him.

“I actually started off with clay sculptures, creating little models of animals, cars and saints. It was my aunt who suggested I try my hand at painting. Taking her advice, I bought some acrylics and began my early paintings. My parents were also incredibly supportive when they saw how invested I was in my art and continued to encourage me. I’d find inspiration from the people around Pjazza San Frangisk, observing their facial expressions and characters. I’d go home and try to paint them,” he recalls fondly, going on to explain he has always leaned towards painting the human figure, which gives him a deeper satisfaction in expressing himself through this form.

Then during secondary school, Manuel had the chance to opt for art as a main subject. It was during this period that his artistic skills truly flourished. “I would paint every day. Once I got home, I’d just sit down in my room and get lost in painting for hours. It was never a chore like studying, but was just pure enjoyment for me,” he reflects.

Manuel Farrugia art

As he approached higher education, he was resolute in his decision to enrol at the School of Art. However, his parents initially expressed concern. “Understandably, my parents worried about my future in art. Malta has never had a thriving art scene, and the only apparent career path seemed to be teaching. But I was adamant about my choice,” he says. “It took some convincing, but once they understood just how passionate I was about this, I think they relented a little, and I haven’t looked back since.”

Over the next five years of studying history of art and refining his skills, Manuel also secured a vital apprenticeship with fellow Gozitan artist Pawl Carbonaro. Reflecting on these formative years in his professional development, Manuel says: “these remain some of my fondest memories, as I was living and breathing art. I’d head to Pawl’s studio in the morning and

then attend school in the evenings. In summer, we would sometimes head down for a swim, then go back to work, painting for hours on end. It was a huge honour for me to be accepted as Pawl’s apprentice. I learnt a lot from him, and we remain close friends until today.”

At the same time, the budding artist began to attract a devoted niche clientele of his own. Word-of-mouth began to spread, and one connection led to another, soon finding himself with a steady stream of commissions coming his way. Initially, local parishes and band clubs sought his paintings for their festi. As he showcased his talent and skill, larger projects began to trickle in. He was entrusted with creating pieces for prominent churches across Malta and Gozo, including the main apse at Christ the King parish church in Paola. Remarkably, he completed this, one of the largest canvas paintings in all of Malta, at just 29 years old.

Manuel Farrugia art

Since then, he has been sought after for special portrait commissions of notable figures, spanning from influential business leaders and church dignitaries to an official portrait and bust of President George Vella, both displayed at San Anton Palace in Attard. With each commission, clients have placed increasing trust in Manuel’s vision, granting him greater liberty to render their portraits or paintings in his increasingly distinctive style.

Arguably, Manuel’s most notable work has also, unwittingly, been his most controversial. His poignant painting of Lassana Cisse at St George’s Basilica in Rabat, Gozo, commemorates the 42-year-old migrant worker from the Ivory Coast, who tragically lost his life in a racially motivated shooting in Ħal Far. The piece is part of a series depicting the Acts of Mercy, particularly the New Testament quote ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’. In the painting, Lassana is embraced by a priest on one side, while on the other, a bystander holding a smartphone symbolises the influence and role of social media in shaping public opinion when news of his death emerged.

When the painting was unveiled, it garnered both admiration and ire from certain quarters of the public. “I remember a news segment about the paintings airing on the national TV station at the time, and suddenly there was this bombardment of comments and backlash on Facebook,” Manuel recollects. “Some felt that the inclusion of a migrant figure in a local church was a step too far. I was taken aback, as fundamentally, through these paintings, we purposefully blended religious symbolism with modern themes to highlight the enduring relevance of Jesus’ teachings. Looking back, I feel this incident really highlights that art can still spark discussion and debate. Overall, I’ve come to see that most people were supportive, and the painting conveyed its intended message effectively.”

With a packed schedule ahead, including local and international commissions and an upcoming project in a Sicilian church – details to be revealed soon – Manuel confesses that at heart, he remains as passionate about his craft as he’s ever been.

“Beyond my commissioned work, I make it a point to dedicate time for personal projects,” he explains. “It’s essential for me to have that creative freedom, to paint and sculpt stories and subjects that genuinely interest me. It also helps me evolve. At the start of my career, I started with more classical techniques, but over time, I’ve incorporated more contemporary elements into my style.” Reflecting on what the future may hold, he adds, “I never stop dreaming, so I believe there’s still plenty more to come.”

The article first appeared on Guide Me spring/summer 2024.

22nd June 2024


gmm team
Written by
GuideMeMalta.com
This article was written by a GuideMeMalta team member.

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