The last time I had occasion to review a work by Jennifer Lonfat was when she put up her installation at the Golden Sands beach in late 2005, to coincide with the Commonwealth summit at the nearby hotel. That was quite a memorable occasion to view and assess the intrepidity of this artist. Apart from that, Lonfat has to date participated in a number of collective exhibitions. As far as solo exhibitions go, she had one at the Grand Hotel Mercure San Antonio in Bugibba and at the Nostalgia restaurant in St Paul's Bay. She is now putting up another solo exhibition at the Art gallery in Victoria (in Library Street near St Augustine Square) with 12 paintings in oil except for two which are in acrylic, and four sculptures, three of them in bronze. All exhibits have been left unfilled since the artist would like visitors to draw up their own personal conclusions with regard to the subjects or at least the ideas that are involved.
Lonfat tries to be as unconventional as possible in her undertakings. A small but telling detail that proves itself to be quite an original idea can be made out in the invitation card where one reads that, in the absence of any particular personality invited to open the exhibition, Lonfat writes that it was being "opened by YOU", meaning that
the presence of the guests themselves was enough to have it officially open.
The concept of the present collection, and in particular of the sculptural section, revolves around the artist's vision of people belonging to third-world countries, especially in certain pans of Africa, whom we often look upon as miserable specimens, of mankind because of their dire straits.
When I met the artist a couple of weeks ago she explained that, contrary to what we tend to believe, Africans are in fact a happier people than we are with our relative affluence that has come to irretrievably erode our values and interrelationships. So in effect whenever we look at her sculpture in particular, except for that metal piece which vaguely resembles a praying Madonna, with those very spindly figures because of their innate chromosomes but also due to malnutrition ghadma u gilda (skin and bones) as we say in Maltese - we have to keep in mind that these people have enough resources in them to keep them going in the face of physical under-nourishment, though there is a limit to that.
The message might not be as clearly defined with the paintings, which carry with them some tenuous symbolism in their semi-abstract character. In one particular painting, in the form of a triptych, Lonfat indirectly muses upon the affluence in Western society with the vertiginous heights it has reached through computers, mobile phones, the Internet, aviation and so many other marvels that have facilitated our everyday needs and lifestyle but which have failed to contribute to a better kind of happiness. The point is that happiness, as we know, is not derived from wealth but from the richness of the spirit, irrespective of whether we are inhabitants of some splendid city or of some anonymous and deprived outpost in the Kalahari Desert!
Otherwise, quite apart from the subjects mentioned, some of the paintings reveal the artist's love of the sea, with their treatment of the water's reflection as it fragments the image of things into a multitude of colours and undefined outlines.
So, despite the apparent divergence between this subject and her "African" sculptures, Lonfat is here indirectly saying that recognising the beauty of nature, even in such small details as reflections in water, is often enough to uplift our spirits. Obviously that can only happen if we are spiritually disposed to such transformation.
One exhibit, half-sculptural (through the use of clay) and half-painting, shows the face of an elderly man, with his nose and ears in high relief. He looks quite satisfied with and philosophically disposed to life, stemming from the wisdom that age brings with it. In effect, he confirms how people from third-world countries possess a dignity which makes us stop to ponder about it.
Primitive tribes, as still surviving in different parts of the earth, are so distant from technological advances. Taking the cue from what Lonfat herself told me, they do not even know what a sweet toffee is, and yet they are capable of adjusting themselves to life. In the course of our conversation I admired Lonfat when she told me that she will soon be flying to Kenya with her two young children so that they could have the opportunity to see how people in that part of the world spend their life without the so-called benefits that have become part and parcel of western societies. Without in any way suggesting that we should go back to our primitive roots and live just like Stone Age people, it is true that through the strides of progress we have become too spoilt and demanding in our expectations and in the process do not fully appreciate what we have. It is only when we compare our lot with that of the so-called "less fortunate peoples" that we can start not taking things for granted.
Lonfat has taken up these subjects, on which she intends to work further in future, not just as an exercise for illustrating ethnic types, but as the harbinger of her real interest in humanity. Lonfat is more concerned with the message in her work than with any particular artistic technicalities. She tends to view herself - and here I fully agree - as a person who invests a lot of thought in what she does. Still, my opinion is that the paintings generally fail to reach what we can gather from her sculptural examples, which are more figuratively conceived and executed. Irrespective of whether we agree with her main thesis here about the superiority. So, without suggesting that we should revert to a primitive state of existence - something that is both impossible and unwise - her point is to help us identify a healthier programme for our future.