Cultivating ceramic mastery in Malta
Each handmade piece is highly labour intensive and also requires a high energy consumption to get it fired and glazed. However, this does not excuse us from needing to fight for the preservation of this very important sector of our cultural heritage.
The apparently ubiquitous discipline and its products appear to be everywhere, and never once would we imagine that jars, jugs, pots and other decorative items made out of ceramic material would ever fade from our daily life. But while mass production has made its stamp on this practice too, we should never forget about the more home-grown and heritage-rich variants of ceramic produce.
This, at least, is a view firmly held by Joan Haber, who is one half of the force behind Alka Ceramics – a local institution in the field, co-run by her husband Paul. In fact, the couple first bonded over a mutual love of the craft, a collaboration that only intensified after their wedding in 1974, when they continued to cultivate their ceramics practice in the basement of their Attard home.
“Paul is a true master of the craft and he is very much in tandem with the clay, he shapes it in a very intuitive, flowing manner. Whereas my own style is, you could say, a lot more ‘confrontational’! I fight with it, I beat it, I improvise, and the same is true for my students: we do our best to force the clay to do what we want it to do,” Joan says with a smile. But the flexibility – and literal malleability – of clay is what makes the practise so appealing for Joan, and a lot of the students which she continues to teach with great enthusiasm to this day.
“It is so, so therapeutic. Because it is so forgiving. Clay allows you to just squash things back into place and start again if you make a mistake or choose to change direction with a piece. It’s much harder to do that with marble, or wood, for example,” Joan says.
Paul’s continued success with ceramics exhibitions eventually attracted international attention, a reputational boost which ultimately led to the couple opening Alka Ceramics in 1980, producing contemporary ceramics for the American and Northern European markets. Joan is ready to admit that living and working side-by-side with an accomplished ceramist like Paul Haber was daunting at times, but that she gradually learned to “appreciate” her own work, and to bolster her enthusiasm for the practice through the time she spends with her students.
“It’s fascinating to see how everyone is so different – some students work in a very ‘rough’ way, others are more meticulous. But that’s the beauty of clay – it can really accommodate so many varied approaches,” Joan says. Such flexibility - and openness to adaptation - may be key to the practice’s long and enduring history on the Maltese Islands. Joan speaks with learned enthusiasm about how archaeological evidence of Malta-based pottery stretches back thousands of years… with Birkirkara emerging as a very specific fulcrum for the practice on the islands.
“Malta has been influenced by neighbouring countries such as Sicily as our neighbours and Northern Africa since they were the ones who revived the craft in Birkirkara,” Joan explains. “We have a very rich pottery and ceramics history, and one can find prehistoric pottery dating as far back as 5,000BC.” While a lot of these findings were functional in nature – consisting of either practical utensils or materials intended for ritualistic use – Joan stresses how our ancestors nevertheless “took pains to beautify their pottery, by painting designs with different coloured clay, burnishing with a pebble to make it shiny and engraving designs typical of the particular period”.
Of course, the onset of globalisation and mass production has presented both conveniences and challenges, for ceramics as with any other artisanal practice.
“Ceramics factories are dwindling, with many resorting to cheaper imported ceramics, because locally raw material has to be imported, each handmade piece is highly labour intensive and also requires a high energy consumption to get it fired and glazed,” Joan says. However, this does not excuse us from needing to fight for the preservation of this “very important sector of our cultural heritage”.
“Master craftsmen should be incentivised to pass on their knowledge to younger practitioners to preserve this 7,000-year-old trade. Our appreciation of genuine Maltese crafts also needs to be strengthened and local products looked at with more pride and loyalty,” Joan says.
Luckily, she also sees a ray of hope emerging from self-motivated independent artists who remain passionate about ceramics irrespective of overarching commercial trends, resulting in a scene that she describes as “very vibrant”.
“Although there is more to be done, our level of achievement in the branch of ceramic art can be favourably compared to other countries with a much longer history of ceramic production and ceramics in formal education,” Joan proudly claims.
If you are interested in learning more about the therapeutic and decorative artform that is ceramic work, then make sure not to miss Joan’s workshop on Saturday the 13th of June during Għanafest Online. For more information visit www.festivals.mt/ghanafest