View on precarious fishing huts around Valletta_s coastline, image by Manuela Zammit

In Europe: Malta – How artists redefine the Maltese cultural heritage

Issue no2
april - mei 2022
platteland & biënnale gids

While we are all desperately waiting for museums and exhibition spaces in the Netherlands to open their doors again, Manuela Zammit was lucky enough to visit her home country of Malta and pass by its national community art museum MUŻA. In the museum, and across the capital city’s coastline, artists are claiming space for social gathering and experimentation for a project titled Hold On To the Air in Your Pockets.

Hold On To the Air in Your Pockets is a project that looks into how individuals and communities engage with a force majeure that threatens to displace them, being it a political or a natural force. The ongoing multidisciplinary initiative led by artists Aidan Celeste and Johannes Buch, takes numerous forms; from public workshops, to artistic interventions on Valletta’s unruly coastline, an installation designed to interact with the museum’s space, and a forthcoming publication.

The process also involves collaboration with experts from the fields of heritage, maritime history and geology, as well as conversations with the local coastline communities. Part of the project was a residency that took place from November to the first week of January at the National Community Art Museum (MUŻA) located in the island’s capital city of Valletta.

Rubble Orbit, Grand Harbour, Valletta, Johannes Buch, 2018

I visited Malta for a couple of days before Christmas. Soon after landing, I receive a text message from Aidan; 'Come to the museum, check out what we’re up to, have a cup of tea.' Hardly an hour later, I am standing among friends and acquaintances in MUŻA’s community space, a room dedicated for public use.

Artist Keit Bonnici had just finished working on a large structure made of wooden lengths, steel pipes and textile. The structure, previously used as an exhibition wall, was lent by the museum on the condition that it could not be dismantled, only added to. Interpreting this constraint as a design challenge, Keit turned it into a multi-use arrangement for the group, incorporating bookshelves, display cabinets, a workshop bench and a ‘deckchair’. The pattern on the fabric used for the chair, created by Rakel Vella and Abigail Agius, is based on 3D images of tracery patterns left by molluscs on seaside boulders.

Snippet from experimentative workshop with sacrificial mortar at MUŻA led by Samuel Ciantar, image by Manuela Zammit

Deckchair, detail from multi-purpose structure, fabric designed by Rakel Vella and Abigail Agius

A small group led by Samuel Ciantar, a student in conservation and built heritage, was experimenting with different consistencies for a limestone-based mortar used to glue blocks of limestone during construction. Limestone has been quarried and used for architectural construction in Malta since prehistoric times. It is a defining characteristic of the Maltese Islands’ geological composition and architectural landscape. Samuel told me that the mixture is called ‘sacrificial mortar’ because, being more porous than limestone, it quite literally sacrifices itself to save the stone by turning into salt crystals in order to preserve the solidity of each block of limestone.

While having these conversations, the occasional startled visitors would stumble in and look on inquisitively. It was quite refreshing to see a community of artists at work in a museum during opening hours, especially since Maltese museums tend to be rather stuffy and traditional in their approach. 'The museum has been learning to live with us,' say Aidan and Johannes. 'At the start, we weren’t allowed to use any construction tools. 'That’s the directive "from above", we were told. When we asked why, no one really seemed to know or understand higher authority’s reasons. Over time, concessions started being made and there was more room for discussion.' Inhabiting the museum as artists-in-residence and claiming space for social gathering and experimentation is one way in which the project explores how individuals and communities act in relation to a force majeure - in this instance, the institutional framework and the wider political structure and physical context in which it operates.

It was quite refreshing to see a community of artists at work in a museum during opening hours, especially since Maltese museums tend to be rather stuffy and traditional in their approach

MUŻA’s literal and figurative position in the heart of Valletta is rather intriguing. The museum, itself a government-administered institution, is immediately surrounded by the country’s most important political institutions - the prime minister’s office, the Maltese parliament and several ministries. Together with the Dutch city of Leeuwarden, Valletta held the title of European Capital of Culture in 2018 and MUŻA was announced as the flagship project for this event. Since around this time, Valletta has experienced a boom of economic revival and gentrification which deeply affected the city’s social fabric and the kinds of communities that are able to live and thrive here.

The aftermath of gentrification is most visible and tangible in peripheral and marginal zones. Since Valletta is built on a promontory that runs, a bit like a tongue, to the middle of a bay, the city’s peripheral zone is its coastline, located just a short walk away from MUŻA. While the city center has been taken over by business interests, small communities of residents still have a very visible claim to the seashore. Through a number of artistic interventions carried out in Valletta over the last five years, Aidan and Johannes developed a rapport with the coastline communities and the coastline itself. It is here that the other part of Hold On To the Air in Your Pockets takes place.

Valletta’s fortifications and the Grand Harbour are regarded as priceless historical heritage and a must-see for any tourist who visits Malta. But the rocky coastline separating the bastions from the sea remains relatively unattended and unstructured (for now). Here is where small communities of Valletta residents decided to claim pieces of land and build ‘fishing huts’ that would become their home. Occasionally, these precarious structures will get swept away by violent sea storms, but over time, the communities have learned to self-organise; everyone steps into their self-assigned role and starts rebuilding. Yet the communities’ situation is not only precarious from an elemental point of view. They are illegally occupying land in one of the island’s most sought-after locations. In all likelihood, if the government suddenly decided to remove them - to exercise political force - they would not be able to negotiate their position.

Who is catching who in this play of forces?

Insights gained through spending time on the coastline in conversation with members from these communities, were turned into a set of site-specific interventions on the shore. My favourite was a wooden, see-saw-like swinging structure placed at the edge of a small cliff, weighed down on the land side by a stone, and equipped with a bucket to catch the tide on the other end. The participants hold on to a rope running through both ends of the wooden plank in order to swing the bucket further up or down. Who is catching who in this play of forces? Is it the humans catching the waves, or the waves catching the humans unprepared?

Surveying the landscape around the Grand Harbour, Valletta, 2021

Seasaw, Collective Installation, Grand Harbour Valletta, 2021

While the history of the bastions and the port is defined by ‘great’ human endeavours - sieges, wars, trade and politics - the history of the coastline is defined by meteorological events in which humans are not the protagonists or the instigators. What would a history that does not only exclusively commemorate human achievements look like? How can it be traced on the landscape? While walking on the rocks, one is bound to encounter a number of large boulders that the sea pushed onto the shore over the years. Maltese geomorphologist Joanna Causon Deguara was invited to share her research outcomes about boulder displacement on site. Studying boulder movements makes it possible to date great waves that hit the island over the decades. What if these boulders were to be treated as objects of cultural and historical importance? The nearby bastions are regularly restored in order to preserve them for tourism and future generations, but the boulders are periodically cleaned up by the local authorities, along with any historical clues they might have contained.

www.temporary.show, documentation, 2021

www.temporary.show, documentation, 2021

All the knowledge, insights and inspiration gained by Aidan, Johannes and their group of collaborators during walks and conversations by the sea, are taken back to ‘their’ room in the museum and turned into a set of objects that together make up a ‘coastline narrative’. Their work reflects on how humans are (dis)placed by forces greater than themselves. At this point it is interesting to mention that the seashore and the sea seem to significantly shape the individual creative consciousness of most (if not all) Maltese artists and creative practitioners. Considering that Malta is such a tiny island and the sea so prevalent in all aspects of the islanders’ daily life, it is perhaps inevitable that this is the case. In this instance, the stormy sea, the boulders’ (dis)appearance from the shore, spurred an ongoing thought process about displacement, adaptivity and joining forces.

About Aidan Celeste:

Aidan Celeste is an artist whose practice is rooted in research, publication and a set of artistic interventions. Aidan developed this approach while being part of the curatorial team for ‘Data in the 21st Century’ in 2015 (NL).  His work aims to ask better questions and engage critically with the world around us. In Malta, this included interventions for Maren Richer’s exhibition Dal-Baħar Madwarha (2018), his contribution to small projects such as Elaine Bonavia’s [V]room of Requirement (2021), as well as to other peer networks of artists, including Fragmenta Malta (2015), and Momentum (2019).

About Johannes Buch:

Johannes' practice includes graphic and exhibition design, photography, and curation. Johannes curates with the urban fabric by designing essential details. This often takes the shape of in-situ sculpture, among other disciplines, such as his contributions to the studio, FoAM Filfla, ‘Anna's Weekend’ at Blitz Malta, and the curatorial collective Fleeting Territories. Johannes studied Graphic Design at ArtEZ Institute for Art & Design Arnhem (NL) and Art & Communication Design in Enschede. He also holds a Master of Arts in Exhibition Design from HS Düsseldorf where he graduated by developing a multichannel cinematographic exhibition about Ethnographic Music and Film.

About MUŻA:

MUŻA is Malta’s National Community Art Museum and one of Heritage Malta’s national sites and museums located in the Auberge d’ Italie in the capital city of Valletta. MUŻA also manages part of Malta’s National Collection, boasting more than 15,000 works of art and artefacts.

About temporary.show:

www.temporary.show is a virtual art space that can be sublet to/by different collectives. Outcomes from ‘Hold On to the Air in Your Pockets’ are currently hosted here. The material published from March 2021 onwards was developed by a loose collective of Malta-based artists with the support of Arts Council Malta. Together with fellow artists, Aidan Celeste and Johannes Buch will run this part of the show, “Hold On”, until March 2022.

Manuela Zammit
is a writer and researcher

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