“I didn’t always find Maltese doors fascinating,” Maltese artist and graphic designer Stephanie Borg muses. “I started noticing doors when I came back from living abroad. A lot of things that used to go unnoticed suddenly popped out at me.” Borg, who now runs her own studio boutique in Rabat, spent six years living in the Sultanate of Oman, and has also lived in the Bahamas, Florida and Italy.
Upon her return to Malta in 2008, Borg set about looking for a place to call her own after so many years living elsewhere. For her, coming home felt like a fresh start, rather than a chance to pick up where she had left off. “I had to start my life again. Being away for so long, I lost a lot of my contacts. When I was abroad, I found myself talking a lot about what makes the Maltese islands unique: our language, our history, our people. When I returned, I had an urge to bring back this awareness of what makes us different. And then I arrived and I saw people throwing things away — things that our forefathers made with their own hands. I started on this mission to preserve our culture and make people more aware of it.”
Borg’s mission started with explorative walks through the towns and villages that she knew so well, but now saw with fresh eyes. She took her camera with her and began photographing traditional Maltese floor tiles, doors, ironwork and façades. Whenever she could, she also salvaged discarded floor tiles from skips and began building a collection. “I have always been fascinated by Maltese floor tiles ever since early childhood,” Borg says, “but my interest in doors came at a later stage when I returned to Malta. I used to walk around little villages and take photos. If I saw a door standing ajar, I used to take a quick shot.” Her photographs served as physical documentation of the minute details of her surroundings.
As her search for a new home continued, her interest in the traditional Maltese aesthetic grew deeper. “I was looking for a townhouse, and they normally have these traditional Maltese doors. That means they have a wrought iron porch and simple door knockers. You also have different wooden panels in various designs. Searching for a house, I was obviously looking a lot at doors. They are the entrance to homes.”
When contemplating her photos of the various doors that she had come across, Borg decided to start her own collection of ink drawings that focused entirely on these objects. She did not include the façade of the houses that they belonged to; she wanted people to appreciate the details that they had become so accustomed to and which they would pass by without a second thought. “For me, the more I looked, the more I saw. The doors started speaking to me, literally as if they were portraits.” Borg was drawn to original doors as well as those that featured wooden panelling and louvres in more traditional colours such as bright red, green and blue. “I even drew my own door once I had found a place to settle down because it had a very original colour — a very light green. I called it ‘standing subdued’ because it got lost in the other colours.”
Every now and then, Borg would find a door with a difference, and she would have to get out her colour swatch book to find the perfect match. “I once had a commission, and the client had elephant door knockers and a purple door. That was very unusual. You don’t find purple doors in Malta. It’s not a traditional colour. I use acrylic-based inks, and there are only a limited number of colours in this medium, so finding the perfect colour wasn’t always easy.”
Borg applies the acrylic-based inks with a paintbrush, using a layering technique of different washes on top of each other. She builds up the opacity of the colour in each drawing by varying the number of washes. The standard size of the doors that she draws is usually about 20cm by 10 cm. “The process is very time-consuming,” she comments. “On average, it takes me around 40 hours to complete one ink drawing. It’s very meticulous. I go into a lot of detail. I try to be as faithful as I can to the original colour of the doors that I have seen.” For Borg, the most important thing is to raise awareness among the locals of the intricacy and beauty inherent in these features that make their homes and the buildings on the Maltese islands unique. “I want people to start paying attention,” she says. “When I get compliments, and people tell me, ‘Because of you, I started looking at tiles or doors…’, there is that sense of a mission having been accomplished, because I am making people take a closer look at what they had never noticed before. I used to take these doors for granted, and I didn’t want other people to do the same.”
Borg’s fascination was contagious, and fellow Maltese artist Sharon Naudi, who is also a great admirer of Borg’s work, began dedicating time and effort to painting, photographing and researching traditional Maltese door knockers during the first lockdown in Malta last year. She grasped this opportunity to observe the architectural details of the houses in old, quaint villages in Malta, such as Attard, Lija, Żebbuġ and Mdina. Naudi was keen to shift the focus to the door knocker — in the singular, not the plural — as she wanted to highlight the details and craftsmanship behind each individual knocker. Previously an abstract artist, Naudi discovered her interest in realism and fine detail in arts a few years ago. Maltese doors have long been celebrated online by Instagram pages like MaltaDoors, which now has over 21,000 followers. But the humble door knocker doesn’t have the same kind of online following; Malta Door Knockers still only has less than 900 followers. Naudi decided to hone in on these objects in an attempt to give them the recognition she believes they deserve.
Door knockers, known as ħbabat in Maltese, fulfil so much more than their function of announcing the arrival of a guest. In the past, door knockers used to tell a tale of what awaited the visitor on the other side of the door — the dweller’s social status, profession and family crest were all aspects that could be ascertained from the simplicity, elegance or form of the door knocker. Now, times have changed, and Maltese door knockers are appreciated as artistic objects of beauty rather than indicators of social standing. Typically made from brass or other metals such as copper, modern knockers are also made of different materials like ceramic. The demand for original knockers is growing. While you still see traditional designs like dolphins, lions, hands, crosses and fish, more unusual motifs such as turtles, seahorses and woodpeckers are also entering the market. If you look hard enough, you might come across some wackier designs — word on the street is that there’s even an octopus in a diver’s helmet out there if you keep your eyes peeled.
“I like to walk my dogs down the narrow roads in Attard, and I was always fascinated by these door knockers,” Naudi comments. “Everyone looks at the door, but the main focal point is the knocker. Some are hundreds of years old — there is so much history on our streets. I want to celebrate Maltese door knockers by trying to picture them in an original way, not in the way that we are used seeing them — in a more modern way.” In her door knocker series, Naudi applies acrylic paint in bright primary colours to the background of her pieces, so as to make her fine detailed pencil drawings of carefully selected knockers stand out. She begins by looking at the photos of door knockers that she took on her walks. She then blows them up to larger proportions. Each artwork takes several hours to complete as it entails the enlargement of every section of each photograph so as to carefully observe and draw each tiny detail. Naudi started off by simply drawing for herself and showcasing her work on social media, but interest in her project soon began to grow. “I have had many people sending me photos of their door knockers, and I am now doing door knocker commissions. Each commission has a story behind it that makes the artwork more meaningful.” Naudi’s work has even made it as far as Norway, as one Maltese expat picked up an offering at a charity auction, to remind her of Malta.
For both Naudi and Borg, the celebration of Maltese doors and door knockers is an opportunity to re-engage with their surroundings and encourage others to do so. “When you live in Malta,” Naudi remarks, “you are surrounded by majestic arts: the Neolithic temples, the architecture in Valletta, the historic statues on street corners, the unique shopfronts, the churches with the work of Mattia Preti and Caravaggio. You see art everywhere. You just need to open your eyes.”
So, the next time you take a stroll in Malta, take notice of the buildings that line the streets and the doors that act as passageways into the homes behind them. Artistic inspiration may very well come a-knocking…