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The beauty of salt painting: Malta’s ephemeral Holy Week art form
We speak to Laurence Hili, who started the tradition in Malta 50 years ago

Marie-Claire Grima

In 1968, a group of Maltese people got together to recreate the image of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper for Good Friday using grains of cereal. All was going smoothly until it came to recreating the tablecloth; they needed a food stuff that was naturally pure white in colour, and none of the cereal which they were using fit the bill. Table salt – which was then new to the Maltese market – was suggested, and it worked perfectly.

Laurence Hili. All photos courtesy of Laurence Hili

Laurence Hili. All photos courtesy of Laurence Hili

Laurence Hili, one of the people who was involved in the creation of the piece, was fascinated by the use of salt, and its wider potential for artistic use. He started experimenting with it at home, monitoring how it reacted to food colouring, different weather conditions and more.

A year later, he had created Malta’s first-ever artistic salt plates to be exhibited during Holy Week. “They were an immediate success, and they’re still very popular nowadays, since we never stopped perfecting our technique and learning,” Mr Hili, a member of the Domus Pius IX Club in Bormla, told GuideMeMalta. “This kind of salt-painting is rare outside of Malta – many of the tourists who visit the exhibition tell us they’ve never seen anything like it.

The creation of these painstakingly precise salt plates, which are always religious in theme and prepared for Holy Week, begins with an outline of the picture on the plate. Then, a palette with the different colours that will be used in the picture is prepared.

All photos courtesy of Laurence Hili

After that, using a teaspoon, the artists start carefully depositing small quantities of salt on the sections of the plate where they need to go. “The teaspoon takes on the role of the paintbrush,” Mr Hili explained.

The length of time it takes for each plate to be finalised depends on a number of factors – the size of the plate, the weather (humidity can make the salt difficult to use), and of course, the artist’s own precision. Mr Hili and 10 other people work as a team, creating plates made with salt as well as with grains of rice.

“We learn from each other, and every time our support has been sought in different localities, we’ve always given it. We even established an educational section to teach this skill to children!”

The lifespan of these salt and rice artworks is very short. They’re made from perishable items, so after Holy Week is over, they have to be thrown away. But despite its demands and the impermanence of the art form, Mr Hili and his friends say it’s a pleasure for them.

Photos - Laurence Hili

 

“For us, working with salt is a way to relax and rest from our daily routines. What I like best about this art form is the challenge to make salt yield to what you need from it. The results of our work as a team are incredibly satisfying.”

The exhibition featuring work by Mr Hili and others was officially opened by the President of Malta last week at the Domus Pius IX Club in Bormla. Besides the individual colourful salt plates, there is also a unique 2m x 1.5m translucent salt artwork on display during the exhibition.

“Pure white salt is used and the piece is illuminated from beneath, so that the image emerges according to the thickness and density of the salt layers,” Mr Hili said.

Photos - Laurence Hili

 

The exhibition also features the Golgotha (a diorama showing the passion of Jesus), Spanish-style Good Friday statuettes, and a life-size station of the Washing of the Feet.  

Check it out at Domus Pius IX Club, 13, Triq Matty Grima, Bormla.

15th April 2019


Marie-Claire  Grima
Written by
Marie-Claire Grima
Marie-Claire is extremely curious about everything, with a special interest in the wonderful quirks that make the Maltese islands so unique.

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