The Development of Contemporary Art in Malta: An Overview | KATYA MICALLEF

 

Contemporary visual art in Malta has been undergoing a significant development since the turn of the 21st century. Artists have been the protagonists of this change, together with passionate individuals who have been ready to place such matters on the nation’s agenda. This transformation in mentality – with all its hiccups – has brought about a highly significant improvement in the visual art sector which, until two decades ago, practising artists and art followers could never have imagined possible within such a short time frame. These radical changes were due to important national and international events, which included the fall of the Berlin Wall and the release statement indicating the end of the Cold War, signed in Malta by George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989. National events which affected the growth of contemporary visual art were Malta’s participation in the 48th edition of the Venice Biennale in 1999, the introduction of the Cultural Act in 2002, European Union membership in 2004, the drafting and final document of the National Cultural Policy finalised in 2011, re-participation for the second time in the 57th Venice Biennale edition in 2017, and Valletta being selected as European Capital of Culture for 2018.

Contemporary visual art refers to recent art produced by artists who give memorable substance to their creative vision. Nevertheless, not all recently created works can be placed within this definition unless a convincing argument can be built around the artistic statement. Until the 1980s, the yardstick for measuring what contemporary art specifically focused on western art and its metropolitan centres. Following the momentous events of 1989, the perspective has changed. Terry Smith argues that the 1980s mark the apparent closure of the historical horizon of the avant-garde, even though different models such as the historical avant-garde and the neo-avant-garde were being introduced.[1] Smith makes it clear that 1989 can be seen as marking a new beginning. This importance of this watershed year is also extensively argued by Peter Osborne in Anywhere or Not at All: The Philosophy of Contemporary Art.[2] Evidence of this shift may also be seen in recent contemporary history and art theory publications such as Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art after 1980 – edited by Robertson and McDaniel (2010), Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985 – edited by Kocur and Leung (2005), and Contemporary Art: 1989 to the Present – edited by Dumbadze and Huson (2013).

Other factors related to this shift in the 1980s include the introduction of critical theory as an art discourse in a number of universities, especially in the United States, that soon became part of the everyday currency of the art world. Various theories from a variety of disciplines and intellectual perspectives including anthropology were applied to art history and theory. As Kocur and Leung emphasise in their introduction, when the context of art shifts and the role of art is measured against political, economic and technological transformations in society so theoretical discourses continue to develop and ground the thinking of art.[3] One of the most radical changes that took place in the late 1980s was the development of communication systems that became a worldwide phenomena via the internet. This has become an essential tool which offered the possibility for different regions on the globe to encounter and react to what was happening in the dominant cultural centres, in real time. Key publications supported or even envisaged this radical change of direction. One notably keen author in this regard was Hans Belting, who together with Andrea Buddensieg and Peter Weibel edited The Global Contemporary and the Rise of the New Art Worlds.[4]

Contemporary visual art today can be considered a global phenomenon, encouraged by a growing network of relations aimed at overcoming borders. Contemporary art practice and exhibitions, especially across international art biennials, have been responsive to this notion of globality and globalisation. Owing to the current geocultural landscape, contemporary artists have found themselves placed within a context where art from different origins and countries can experience all possible setups, including both western and non-western polarities. This is visible in the increase in visual art practices and exhibition mobility at regional as well as international levels, having been made possible through a variety of spaces, events, markets and media communications. Artists today are well aware of homogenisation and transculturation, especially since their work is presented inside, outside and alongside local, regional and global spaces.

The introduction of postcolonial art and theory also contributed toward globalisation by questioning western aesthetic theory and practices. One of the first instances that challenged the classic western institutions was the Venice Biennale of 1999. It started in 1998 with the decision that, rather than an Italian curator, the main curator of the Biennale should be from another country. This decision was taken at a time when globalisation was crucial and it occurred following criticisms that the biennale should be more international. This was also the year in which the exhibition area was purposely extended to allow more gallery space for new countries to exhibit in, including Malta. The curator to introduce this new concept and the general structure as we know it today was Harald Szeeman, who titled this edition of the biennial dAPERTuttO (meaning “everywhere”).

Two other very important exhibitions embracing the same concept were Documenta 11, held in 2002 and curated by the African-born international curator Okwui Enwezor, and Geography and the Politics of Mobility, curated by artist-curator Ursula Biemann in 2003. A more recent exhibition which greatly affected the research related to contemporary art and globalisation was The Global Contemporary: Art Worlds after 1989 (2011), held at ZKM (Centre for Art and Media) Museum of Contemporary Art in Karlsruhe, Germany. This exhibition, which was accompanied by a very influential publication, highlighted the merits of globalisation. Such curatorial research carried out from the early 2000s has radically changed our understanding of geographical locations, not only in terms of art production and related markets, but also the vital perception of how the world is experienced by individuals, communities and institutions.

In the context of this new geocultural landscape and the emphasis on globalisation, contemporary art in Malta has slowly developed in parallel to what has been happening in the wider international scenario. Before 1989, works reflecting a contemporary sensitivity were created by individual artists; nonetheless these were important but isolated events. Artists with strong contemporary concepts had to face local communities, which were strongly affected by traditional conventions reflecting Roman Catholicism and colonial influences. It was later, when artists aware of contemporary trends started regrouping again, that the introduction of radical change became a possibility.[5] It was not easy for the new community of contemporary artists in Malta to work and exhibit together as no infrastructure or cultural policy supporting the visual arts was available. Moreover, the one time Maltese artists participated in an international contemporary art event – the 48th Venice Biennale edition in 1999 – a number of serious difficulties were encountered, including the unfortunate and untimely death of the curator responsible.[6]

The barriers facing visual artists ended up being their source of inspiration. Stimulating examples are the exhibitions organised and curated by the START contemporary art group which started in 2002. This collaboration, which like many other groups started through its members’ pursuit of their passion for art, was initiated ‘in order to champion the use of new media, alternative spaces and contemporary theoretical grounds for their work.’[7] Apart from the introduction of new media based on contemporary concepts, START organised their collective exhibitions in spaces usually overlooked by the general public. The first exhibition was Uber, which was not originally a START exhibition, but acted as the catalyst for all subsequent events organised by the START artists. Curated by Mark Mangion, this exhibition gave both young and more established artists the opportunity to feature their work inside a large space beneath Portomaso Tower in St Julians, Malta.[8] This was a construction site whose rough concrete pillars and unpaved floor rendered it very difficult to conceive as an art gallery space.[9]

Über Leaflet, 2002.

The subsequent exhibition by the group was Cityscapes held in 2003, which would soon be identified as START.[10] For this exhibition, contemporary artists were brought together to transform an old house in Old Mint Street, Valletta, reputed to have served as a brothel in its former past. The curator of this exhibition was Raphael Vella. Visitors were invited to meet and talk with the artists, as well as to view their work in progress. This was a great opportunity for the general public to understand and appreciate the different processes involved in the making of art. Public talks by many of the artists involved were also organised for the duration of the exhibition. The artists’ group continued to organise exhibitions and art projects until 2008.[11] For example, Borders, 2003, took place inside Pinto Stores, situated in Floriana’s Grand Harbour area. Borders carried several layers of meaning. To begin with, the exhibition site was located next to the sea terminal, with the disembarkation of thousands of tourists, and movements into and out of the Maltese borders, witnessed every year. The exhibition was organised few days before a national referendum regarding membership of the European Union. This situation may have been reflected in the choice of title for the exhibition, implying that some artists had reacted to the then current political situation in Malta – one that involved a decision about future borders.[12] Additionally, the artists associated with START were trying to break accepted artistic conventions in Malta, and to introduce new ways of interacting with a space. In this last sense, the artists were seen to transgress artistic borders.[13] Richard Davies co-curated the exhibition together with Raphael Vella.

Cityspaces, Catalogue Cover, 2003.

Borders, Catalogue Cover, 2003.

The last of START’s collective site-specific exhibitions, Blitz of 2005, entailed interventions through dialogue with an intriguing hidden space: a labyrinthine World War II shelter in Birgu. As in their previous projects, the artists fed upon the layers of history captured in this chosen site so that the spaces did not remain simple backdrops but became integrated into the works. Through appropriation, the artists once again succeeded to create a dialectics of art and site, harmony and contrast, sadness and humour, safety and discomfort. It was indeed an interesting outcome whereby visitors could appreciate the fusion of past with present.

Blitz, signage found in the shelter, 2005.

The project that followed was the Artifecture Art Project, in 2007 curated by Vince Briffa was set within a totally different dimension to those of the other contemporary art projects. No gallery or “alternative” space was required as in previous START exhibitions. Instead, the defined space was negotiated through the printed medium – with a local newspaper as the platform. The reader would come across a large full-page image of a local popular landmark, at which a closer look revealed unusual alterations. Several images of animated penguins and sharks, and controversial text or illustrations were deliberately edited in, while other images had unconventional compositions. Only the title of the works, the place where the photo had been taken, and the project title were included as captions.

Mark Mangion’s artistic project The Search for a Space, Questioning Spaces (2007) led to the opening of Malta Contemporary Art in 2008. Better known as MCA, founded by Mangion himself, it served as a space and also a foundation for contemporary art since no place was available yet. MCA foundation was committed to support ground-breaking projects by promoting local and international artist.[14] Unfortunately, MCA was short-lived since it only lasted until December 2010. Another artist who contributed and is still contributing a lot to the contemporary art scene is Alexandra Pace. In 2008 Pace inaugurated her own exhibition at No.68, an old house in Valletta that originally belonged to Pace’s family. Following her experience, she considered the idea of opening this new space for other artistic projects. For four years, No.68 acted as a space that was fully dedicated to contemporary art practice, and remained so until 2013 when Pace adopted a more wholistic approach within the same lines, renaming the space Blitz. Both MCA and Blitz are very important for the local art scene since they both developed a space where to host and experience local and international visual contemporary art.

Alongside these artist-led developments, other significant initiatives were launched. The St James Cavalier Centre for Creativity was inaugurated by the Government, and shortly became a meeting place for artists.[15] It was here that the final National Cultural Document was launched in 2011, following other drafts published in 1999 and 2002.[16] Annual arts festivals and cultural institutions started including contemporary works in collective exhibitions. The inclusion of experimental contemporary art was also subject to a number of exhibitions organised as part of the European Membership festivities held in 2004 where Maltese artists were invited by contemporary art curators to exhibit alongside other European artists. Internationalisation was already evident prior to this date, but with Malta now having become a full member of the European Union, everyone had the possibility to study and work elsewhere – including artists and students who wanted to specialise in the arts. This freedom of movement created a generation of people specialising in areas of studies that were not yet available in Malta. In this regard, awareness of culture and the arts grew among larger groups of people, and consequently in 2008 and 2009 we find the first public complaints against censorship in the arts.[17] Around this time, the government created the Creative Economy Working Group which began redesigning a National Cultural Policy that reflected current requirements.

National Cultural Policy Malta 2011, Detail of Cover.

It is interesting to note that in a few years, the private individual efforts of artists developed into something much bigger. Individual effort was first acknowledged by larger groups of people whose determination was later recognised by public institutions on a national scale. With a bit of luck and a lot of will power, one thing led to another; and as soon as the National Cultural Policy was launched in 2011, Valletta was selected as Europe’s Capital City of Culture for 2018.[18] The policy and Valletta’s title encouraged the same individuals and others to keep working towards establishing new goals. It was in this decade that arts government scholarships were introduced, together with full-time visual art courses at the local MCAST College and University.[19] Correspondingly, exhibitions with a focus on local and international contemporary art were commissioned by the government, together with the launch of the Valletta International Visual Art Festival (VIVA) in 2014 and Malta’s participation in the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017.[20] The visual contemporary art sector in Malta will continue to grow in the next few years, when large public infrastructures such as MUŻA, the National Community Museum, and MICAS, the Malta International Contemporary Art Space, will be up and running.

 

[1] Smith, Terry (2009), What is Contemporary Art?, University of Chicago Press.

[2] Osborne, Peter (2013), Anywhere or Not at All: The Philosophy of Contemporary Art, Verso Books.

[3] Kocur, Zoya and Simon Leung (eds.) (2005), Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985, Wiley-Blackwell.

[4] Belting, Hans, Andrea Buddensieg and Peter Weibel (eds.) (2013), The Global Contemporary and the Rise of the New Art Worlds, MIT Press.

[5] Art groups have been active in Malta since the early 20th century. The purpose of these art groups changed every few years, and unfortunately no stability was attained.

[6] Adrian Bartolo was the curator initially responsible for the Maltese Pavilion in the 48th edition of the Venice Biennale in 1999. Unfortunately, during the process he was diagnosed with a severe illness and passed away in that same year.

[7] Vella, Raphael (ed.) (2009), Cross Currents: Critical Essay on Art and Culture in Malta, Allied Publishers.

[8] The fourteen artists were Norbert Attard, Chris Bianchi, Ruth Bianco, Vince Briffa, Kurt Buttigieg, Pierre Camille, Austin Camilleri, Adrian Fenech, Madeleine Gera, Victor Grima, Mark Mangion, Margerita Megally, Pierre Portelli and Raphael Vella.

[9] Briffa, Anna, ‘Living on the Edge’, Times of Malta Weekender, 26.01.2002.

[10] The artists who participated in Cityspaces were Norbert Attard, Vince Briffa, Gabriel Caruana, Raymond Pitrè, Austin Camilleri, Anton Grech, Ruth Bianco, Charles Gatt, Pierre Portelli, Patrick Fenech, Mark Mangion and Raphael Vella.

[11] 8:18 was held at Malta Contemporary Art in Marsa in 2008, and was curated by Mark Mangion. This was the final collective exhibition of the START group, and it also introduced the start of new beginnings.

[12] A referendum on joining the European Union was held in Malta on 8 March 2003.

[13] The group of artists involved in this project were Norbert Attard, Ruth Bianco, Vince Briffa, Austin Camilleri, Savio Deguara, Patrick Fenech, Charles Gatt, Anton Grech, Mark Mangion, Pierre Portelli and Raphael Vella.

[14]A number of collective exhibitions by local contemporary artists-including members from the START art group- and international artists such as Flood-Paddock and Spartacus Chetwynd were held. Together with solo exhibitions by Rupert Ackyord, Stuart Croft, Cyprien Gaillard and many others.

[15] The St James Cavalier Centre for Creativity was inaugurated in December 1999 as part of Malta’s millennium celebrations. It started operating in September 2000.

[16] The first draft for the cultural policy was written in 1999, with the second draft published in 2002. After this date, a new working group was put together by the local government. The first draft was presented to the public in 2009, while the final policy was presented in 2011. The last three presentations were held at the St James Centre for Creativity.

[17] An example is when Pornolitics, a work by Raphael Vella, was excluded from a collective exhibition forming part of the 2009 Malta Arts Festival. 2015 saw the reform of Malta’s censorship laws.

[18] The process started with the pre-selection phase in January 2012. The final selection was in October 2012 and in May 2013, Valletta was officially declared Europe’s Capital City of Culture by the European Council of Ministers.

[19] No full-time art courses were available in Malta until 2010.

[20] Among the many contemporary exhibitions supported by the government, one can mention Wiċċ Imb’Wiċċ (image of the self) and Swim. Both were an extension of the Malta Arts Festival and Divergent Thinkers, launched in 2011.