Interview with Raphael Vella – Artistic Director of VIVA Festival, Malta | HERMAN BASHIRON MENDOLICCHIO

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Herman Bashiron Mendolicchio: Since last year, Malta has finally had an important event devoted to Contemporary Visual Arts. Could you please explain a bit more about the history of VIVA? How did it emerge and what are its aims and mission?

Raphael Vella: We started thinking in late 2014 about organising a Curatorial School, and then this led almost naturally to thinking about corollary events like exhibitions and films. The idea is to use Malta and Valletta in particular as a backdrop for contemporary artistic practices and debate. It’s important for Maltese artists to export their work and ideas, but it’s just as important to bring international artists, curators and other stakeholders to Malta.

HBM: The theme of the 2015 edition was: “Communities and Contexts”. Working with the community is certainly an urgent topic and, actually, one of the key points of the cultural agenda in Malta. Could you explain your vision about this?

RV: It’s a challenging idea and never easy to put into practice. On one hand, one wants to avoid elitism and on the other hand, there is the danger of initiating work in a community that doesn’t dig deep enough, work that skims the surface and only uses people. Ideally, work in communities needs to be long-term and this is not always possible.

HBM: One of VIVA’s main activities is the Curatorial School. Can you please explain its structure and its contribution to the local cultural environment? 

RV: The aims of this weeklong course are to bring international curators to Malta to make presentations about their curated projects and research and to give feedback to emerging curators in Malta. Occasionally, such contacts also lead to the creation of new networks and possibilities involving local and international stakeholders.

HBM: Generally speaking, the cultural and artistic sector at the international level is increasingly based on networks and collaboration strategies. What kind of partnerships and international collaborations are you working on through VIVA? 

RV: Apart from inviting international curators, we also bring international artists to Malta. This year, we also initiated a new collaboration with MADATAC, an audio-visual festival based in Madrid. Works by four Maltese artists will travel to Madrid in the coming months as a result of this exchange. And I was in Tokyo a few weeks ago to discuss with many individuals and organisations there the possibility of creating new collaborations with Japan.

HBM: Beyond your activities as a curator, you also work as an academic at university. What is the contribution of the university in Malta –and education in general– to the development of the contemporary art field? What are the limits, lacks and possible improvements?  

RV: I lecture in Art Education, which I understand as part of a continuum with art practice. I also teach postgraduate art students in other faculties within the same university. There are also other institutions like MCAST that contribute to the education of young artists in Malta. I think that this field has developed quite a lot in the last ten years, but there are obvious economic, spatial and environmental limitations. For instance, no lecturer here can provide his or her students with the kind of variety of cultural activities one gets in big cities elsewhere. Such activities form an essential part of one’s informal education.

HBM: How is the cultural field changing in Malta thanks to Valletta’s achievement of getting the title of ECoC (European Capital of Culture) 2018?

RV: There is of course a pressure to deliver, not only at the grassroots cultural level but especially at a political level. This helps to move people into action.

HBM: In Malta’s National Cultural Policy document, released in 2011, there is a point concerning the strengthening of the professional status of the artist. In your opinion, what is the professional situation of artists in Malta? 

RV: I don’t think it’s easy for artists in any art-form. In the visual arts, we still do not have a real market for contemporary art. Galleries are virtually inexistent. Serious art criticism is rare and important international exhibitions do not travel often enough to our shores. At the same time, new projects that are in the pipeline like MUZA (the revamped National Museum of Fine Arts) and MICAS (the proposed centre for contemporary art) may help to create better support for artists in Malta.

HBM: What are the next steps of VIVA? What about the future of contemporary arts in Malta? 

RV: It’s hard to predict. Some young artists and others working in the field of the visual arts are developing exciting and dynamic projects and ideas. We need more cultural entrepreneurs or curators to take initiatives that look at the broader picture of things in Malta and beyond. Otherwise, we risk creating products that only mirror ourselves and consequently tell us only what we already know.