By Maria Galea
Ten years ago, Malta lost a gifted artist and extraordinary woman, Isabelle Borg. A decade later, Isabelle is still with us, her influence embedded in her art, artistic journey, bold statements of the moment, and last but not least the treasured moments with her friends and loved ones.
Today we value her importance more than ever, a truly iconic figure in the Maltese artistic community.
Isabelle was known for her expressive works, her boldness, travels, friendships and continuously contributing to the contemporary art scene in Malta. As a painter, her stunningly bold style, daring and particular perception of her subjects distinguished her from the rest and made her one of Malta’s greatest successful contemporary artists.
She studied painting at the Camberwell School of Art, London, and, after obtaining her Masters, she became a lecturer at the University of Malta and the Junior College. In her artist statement, she also describes how she spent a period of her life actually living out of a suitcase travelling between London and Berlin, before choosing to come back to Malta.
Her character was cheerful, remarkably brave and outspoken with a passion for life and justice. She set up the Movement Mara Maltija (Maltese women’s movement) in the late 1980s, to speak out against injustice and inequality.
“Standing up for herself is something Isabelle knows a lot about. She even extended this mighty talent to stand up for other women”, described the late journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in an article written on the Sunday Times, 1994.
Isabelle’s first exhibition in Malta was in 1985 at The Museum of Archeology in Valletta where she has exhibited one of her most iconic works’ The lovers in the bull’ today found in a private collection. Her final exhibition ‘Strange Cargo’ in 2008 at the Museum of Fine Arts depicted different views from Isabelle’s character and life, from vivid landscapes to motorbikes to her remarkable leather suitcases later becoming almost her trademark. The title of her exhibition almost refers to her eclectic lifestyle as a traveller, artist, adventurous spirit and bold personality. In 2017 a retrospective was organised in Valletta highlighting some of her strongest themes and works.
Her underground studio in Floriana was almost like a hidden gem filled with stories, travels and acquaintances all portrayed through her works. Space was more than a studio, a meeting place that gathered artists and friends to paint, discuss and criticise each other’s works. Isabelle depicted her studio in many of her painting, such as Standing Nude, Exhibited in The Nude in Maltese Art, Malta 1995 and Malte, L’Isle Aux Tresors, Paris 1996.
Her sketchbooks are a reflection of her spontaneity and the urgent need to capture sights, notes and ideas on paper. Her colour palette is subtle yet bold at the same time. Be it landscape, figurative, abstract or primitive one can recall the consistency in her colour pigments, geometrical compositions, as well as the classical proportions of a minimal style which flows through her works.
Prolific would be an understatement, her continuous urge to create and exhibit her work both locally and internationally throughout the years shows Isabelle’s determination to be and do what she was born to do; art. Apart from various exhibitions, she also contributed to local art literature through various publications.
Her students till this day remember her as the person who helped many appreciate art. She surrounded herself with special friendships, the ones which would last and be remembered forever.Her friends keep her alive through vivid memories of their chats and her sense of humour, some also live through her portraits and artistic expression.
One can not mention her partner at the time – Graham who cared for her with his heart and soul. He also appears vividly in Isabelle’s works such as Graham Cooper with Marsa, Exhibited in Maltese Landscape, Din l-Art Helwa, Malta 2006. They enjoyed a life filled with love, adventure and travels. One of her most important values was love, and she has truly lived it embraced in together with her soulmate.
I was introduced to Graham by one of Isabelle’s closest friends Lisa Gwenn. The first time we met I was completely stunned by his dedication to Isabelle’s documentation of her life and work. His eyes lit up every time he would recall the stories and adventures they lived together, I was never tired of listening and imagining how wonderful it all was.
I got to experience and learn about Isabelle through her works, diaries, press releases, images and friendships. If there is one word I would use to describe Isabelle would be ‘strength’. It takes a lot of strength, perseverance and ambition to be and do what Isabelle has done through her artistic career. This is who Isabelle was – a person full of colour, full of courage and strength to stand up for what was right, her continuous work to grow as an artist beyond our shores has set her apart and led her to new opportunities. Every time I read and research about Isabelle I feel overwhelmed and driven at the same time.
Isabelle is a pure example of who and what an artist should strive to be, and especially female artist who still in this day and age experience inequality in the art world.