A tour of Malta’s art galleries

Rosy Santella, photo editor of Internazionale

21 June 2019 15.44

At number 54 of Cathedral street in the Sliema district, in the north-east of Malta, there is a small art gallery. The street where it is located, almost hidden, has an English name, like many others in the area. English is also the second language spoken by most of the inhabitants of this fashionable and residential neighborhood, where properties are among the most expensive on the island.

The gallery is named after its founder, Lily Agius, who opened it in 2011. Agius is a curator born in London who has lived in Malta for over ten years. Together with the exhibition space, Agius has created the quarterly magazine of contemporary art Art Paper , where you can read interviews with artists, reports of exhibitions and reviews of events related to contemporary art that take place in Malta and beyond.

In April, when I visit the gallery, sixteen fake Christmas trees without decorations welcome us at the entrance. Entering you hear the chirping of birds and the smell of a pine-flavored air freshener. The walls are home to very large paintings displayed along the perimeter of the room, mostly extended in length and illuminated by dim lights and the natural one that enters from the entrance. Under some paintings there are inflatables in the shape of animals, including a piglet and a tiger cub. These are some of the props used by SJ Fuerst for the Forest fresh exhibition.

Due tele di Sj Fuerst durante la mostra alla Lily Agius gallery a Sliema. - Lily Agius gallery

Two paintings by Sj Fuerst during the exhibition at the Lily Agius gallery in Sliema. (Lily Agius gallery)

SJ Fuerst was born in 1987 in Connecticut, United States. He studied in Florence and London, and currently lives in Gozo, one of the three major islands that make up the Maltese archipelago. It is easy enough to exchange SJ Fuerst’s canvases for photographs. The young realist painter, who paints only women, first takes many portraits of her models, then chooses the clothes they have to wear and every other detail within the setting she creates.

Each work requires between six and eight weeks of work. “Everything I paint exists only in the way I represent it,” explains Fuerst, who takes inspiration from pop and contemporary culture, but is also the result of the “relative solitude that my small studio on the island of Gozo offers me”.

In his most recent works, Fuerst says he included landscapes against the backdrop of portraits, influenced by his life in Gozo: “I chose to stay here for the energy and tranquility that it offers me, so different from the chaos of big cities”.

Cars and wood
The tranquility described by Fuerst is not perceived so much on the island of Malta, where the roads are very busy. In the smallest country in the European Union, which is also one of the smallest in the world, a local guide tells us, with an ironic tone, that there are almost three cars per inhabitant, and that the Maltese like to get noticed by going around with those great.

It takes almost half an hour to cover the nine kilometers that separate the Sliema district from the Valletta suburb where the Valletta contemporary gallery is located. The street is full of buildings with the typical wooden balconies of the capital, widespread especially in the port area, where the galleries are located. These colorful balconies – often in red, blue or green – appeared on the island in the mid-eighteenth century, during the reign of the Order of the Knights of Malta, but according to many scholars they would have spread especially during the British rule – finished in 1964 when the island became independent – a period when wood was cheaper and the island enjoyed greater prosperity.

Un’opera di Nadine Baldow esposta alla galleria Valletta contemporary, aprile 2019. - Rosy Santella

A work by Nadine Baldow exhibited at the Valletta contemporary gallery, April 2019. (Rosy Santella)

At the entrance to Valletta contemporary we meet Joanna Delia, of the Meta foundation, the main funding body for the projects organized by the gallery. From the transparent windows that surround the entrance we can glimpse a work by the author on display: Nadine Baldow , born in Dresden, Germany, in 1990. It is a huge irregularly shaped construction made of acrylic, silicone and glitter. It hangs from the ceiling and is part of the Occupied objects work, a project in which the German artist reflects on how the human being has invaded every part of the Earth, forcing nature to adapt. In another room, one of these “creatures” is lying on a morgue table, a symbol of the risks that the environment runs through.

“The gallery was opened in 2018, the year in which they named Valletta European Capital of Culture. And it was built in a space that housed a barrel maker’s laboratory. We wanted to redevelop a less known and less touristy area of the city, and offer people a free space to experience contemporary art, “explains Delia.

Ugo Rondinone, The Radiant, 2018. - Patrick Fenech, Courtesy Malta International Contemporary Art Space (MICAS)

Ugo Rondinone, The Radiant, 2018. (Patrick Fenech, Courtesy Malta International Contemporary Art Space (MICAS))

The goal of redevelopment of historic sites seems to unite many of the island’s galleries. The Malta International Contemporary Art Space (Micas), a space that will open to the public in 2021, has incorporated into the project the fortification walls built by the Knights of Malta to protect the city in the seventeenth century. The Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone was the first to collaborate with the Micas, which already hosts some events even though it is still primarily a construction site. In the courtyard is his work The radiant , which he dedicated to the children of the island.

“Malta is trying to challenge its postcard image for the summer holidays and to reinvent itself, to offer people new places for culture,” says the guide who accompanies us to the maritime museum in the Burga district. Here we meet Vince Briffa, a Maltese artist born in 1958.

Travel and landing
Briffa is one of the three protagonists, along with Klitsa Antoniou and Trevor Borg, of the Maltese pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale , curated by Hesperia Iliadou Suppiej. The three authors worked individually on the theme of Homer’s Odyssey, reflecting on the link the poem has with the present: from people’s journeys across the sea in search of a refuge.

In the video shot in the deposits of the maritime museum, Briffa recreated some scenes through the actors where Ulysses is a man trapped between the security of an island and the danger of crossing the sea. Using Ulysses’ disorientation, Briffa explores the concepts of identity and homeland, questioning them. The dust that covers the objects and artifacts preserved in the backstage of the maritime museum – ship wrecks, mannequins, clocks and statues – suggests the passing of time, but also the immobility of the protagonist.

Il padiglione di Malta alla Biennale d’arte di Venezia 2019. - David Levine

The Malta Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2019. (David Levine)

Klitsa Antoniou, of Cypriot origins, started from her refugee experience – forced to run away with her family during the Turkish invasion in the seventies – to reflect on the conditions of today’s migrants, fleeing conflict and poverty, and the difficulty of find a landing place.

In his installation the videos of boats and rafts that cross the Mediterranean, obtained by the coast guard, are shown. Over all it built a 250 square meter cross made of seaweed: “It is the metaphor of a bridge, a place that unites the countries overlooking the sea. I took inspiration from the project of the German architect and philosopher Herman Sörgel, who in the 1920s had theorized a utopian continent called Atlantropa , formed by Europe and Africa, which would have eliminated the problem of the migration of peoples “, explains the ‘artist.

Il padiglione di Malta alla Biennale d’arte di Venezia 2019. - David Levine

The Malta Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2019. (David Levine)

Trevor Borg, a Maltese born in 1976, also reflects on a utopian world. In Cave of darkness – Port of no return took inspiration from the quarry of Għar Dalam, in the area of Birżebbuġa, famous for the discovery of many remains of prehistoric animals. It is a place that the artist often frequents since he was a child and in Venice he rebuilt the quarry, the remains of animals and those of other finds.

Borg’s work invites the viewer to go through Malta’s prehistoric past confusing the boundaries between reality and imagination, real and construction: “I wanted to create a sense of disorientation: the viewer is faced with objects that resemble something real, but actually they are reproductions. I went in search of real carcasses of peasant and butcher animals, and then of vases and other artifacts that I cleaned, reproduced in 3d and then repainted in white, “he explains.

The three artists exhibited in Venice have reflected on what it means to travel and what it means to find a refuge, referring to Malta’s past and present. A country where you can breathe the traces of the different cultures that have crossed it, and that today has to deal with those that try to cross it to create a new future.


Artists featured: SJ FUERST

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