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2014 in review: A three-legged horse to rule them all

Standing majestic and proud despite its evident ‘lack’, Austin Camilleri’s Zieme was the runaway highlight of Malta’s cultural life in 2014.

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
29 December 2014, 8:30am
Zieme by Austin Camilleri
Zieme by Austin Camilleri
Winner of the Junior Eurovision Song Contest: Italy's Vincenzo Cantiello (centre). Also pictured is Malta's Federica Falzon (left). Photo by Ray Attard
Winner of the Junior Eurovision Song Contest: Italy's Vincenzo Cantiello (centre). Also pictured is Malta's Federica Falzon (left). Photo by Ray Attard
Mario Philip Azzopardi
Mario Philip Azzopardi
Toni Sant: “There are a number of creative people who have never set foot in  St James Cavalier – neither as artists nor as visitors. We want to make sure that they feel this could be a home for them”. Photo by Ray Attard
Toni Sant: “There are a number of creative people who have never set foot in St James Cavalier – neither as artists nor as visitors. We want to make sure that they feel this could be a home for them”. Photo by Ray Attard
Carnival got its satirical bite back this year. Photo by Ray Attard
Carnival got its satirical bite back this year. Photo by Ray Attard
Chrysander Agius in Simshar
Chrysander Agius in Simshar
Nicole Scherzinger performs at Isle of MTV last summer. Photo by Ray Attard
Nicole Scherzinger performs at Isle of MTV last summer. Photo by Ray Attard
Though it may sound like the herald of a bad year when you first hear it, the fact that Austin Camilleri’s three-legged horse statue, Zieme, was the highlight of this year’s cultural happenings is cause for celebration.

Crowning the first edition of the Valletta International Visual Arts Festival (VIVA), Zieme was significant, not because it was a lovingly rendered equestrian statue boasting a poignant lack, but because of its strategic position by the nearly-completed Renzo Piano City Gate. Standing proud and facing parliament head-on, it was perhaps a too-schematic provocation, but still a necessary one. The tone of light mockery was certainly welcome in a state-sponsored artwork of this prominence, and coupled with the high-caliber attempt that was VIVA in general, it was a call for both elevated artistic standards, and accompanying discourse.

While many local culture-vultures ‘face-palmed’ their way through the bemused online commentators who saw nothing more than a one-legged horse cluttering up the city gate entrance, the fact that even the then freshly-instated Culture Minister Owen Bonnici recognized the potential satirical bite of the piece suggested a more sensitive, mature approach to public art from the government – whether this is genuine and truly felt is a completely different story, of course.

Government-sponsored initiatives within the arts always run the risk of turning into propaganda, of course, and this danger perhaps grew keener this year, as among the hand-picked and firmly within-the-Labour-camp cultural stalwarts like Jason Micallef and Albert Marshall, Mario Philip Azzopardi was made Artistic Director of the Valletta 2018 Foundation. Azzopardi’s international experience as a film director and producer may give him added clout, and despite middling results since the runaway stage hit Jiena Nhobb, Inti Thobb, his theatrical impetus to produce plays in Maltese is essentially a good one. But even if we shut an eye at the elephant-in-the-room fact that he’s yet another Labour-friendly appointee (he had directed televised campaign videos for the party in the run up to the general elections), an anti-Islamic rant has problematized his appointment somewhat.

Admittedly uttered on Facebook months before his appointment was announced, Azzopardi’s blanket attack of Islam was pointed out to the Culture Minister during an otherwise innocuous press conference, and soon enough, calls for Azzopardi’s resignation started to pop up, Azzopardi all the while making it clear that it was ‘extreme’ forms of Islam that he criticized in his now-infamous Facebook missive.

It’s another reminder of the pitfalls of social media, but it also puts into relief the still somewhat hazy role of the Valletta 2018 Foundation. If Valletta is indeed to become a hub of culture in 2018, attracting a healthy dose of cultural tourists in the process, can it be so brusque about sensitivity towards other cultures and religions? Azzopardi’s rant also flies in the face of an ambition expressed by Jason Micallef, his own chairman at V18.

Speaking to MaltaToday last June, Micallef stressed that combating racial prejudice is one of the Foundation’s key aims.

“I think bringing people together has been one of the Foundation’s greater successes. Diversity and tolerance are important aspects of what Valletta 2018 is about.”

A less fraught appointment was that of multimedia archivist and podcaster Toni Sant as Artistic Director at St James Cavalier. Speaking to MaltaToday, Sant said that the Centre for Creativity will be taking on a more long-term approach towards its programming, while also seeking to make St James more of a welcoming home to all those interested in culture.

“The fact is that there are a number of creative people who have never set foot in St James Cavalier – neither as artists nor as visitors. We want to make sure that they feel this could be a home for them to go to. That makes for a rethink of what the criteria should be for these proposals. If we’re rethinking the criteria then we have to find ways to incentivise people who are creating work that has been under-represented, or audiences who still haven’t found the kind of work that appeals to them,” Sant said.

This year may also prove interesting to any future anthropologists interested in tackling Malta’s cultural landscape vis-à-vis cultural identity, as the Fondazzjoni Celebrazzjonijiet Nazzjonali (FCN) was set up to celebrate 50 years of Malta’s independence through culture and entertainment activities.

Not all of these were unmitigated successes; the much-hyped Music from Elsewhere St George’s Bay concert was thrown-together, uninspired and overshadowed by World Cup screenings. But the collective exhibition /ru:t/ at the Malta Maritime Museum was an interesting experiment, with an unpretentious and visually stimulating clutch of installations and paintings.

And speaking of roots, Valletta’s carnival was also given its bite back, after a ban on political satire – having squatted in the rulebook since the 1930s – was finally lifted.

This led to a few amusing floats depicting the likes of Franco Debono (spotless Form 2 report and all), Austin Gatt and Konrad Mizzi, but it’ll certainly be interesting to see what the new generation of float-makers can come up with now that they’ve got carte blanche on Malta’s political class.

On the more independent front, local art-cinema collective managed to reel in none other than Patti Smith to our shores. The punk pioneer performed a beautiful, heartfelt concert at the Temi Zammit Hall at the University of Malta campus, which was followed by an ad hoc acoustic gig-cum-poetry reading at the Mnajdra Temples. All in all the two-punch event made for a more quality musical experience than the annual hum-drum churn of Isle of MTV, which was this year headlined by Nicole Scherzinger and (once again, for the umpteenth time) Enrique Iglesias.

Malta also had the dubious honour of hosting the Junior Eurovision Song Contest in November, courtesy of Gaia Cauchi winning the award in Ukraine last year. The award went to Italy’s Vincenzo Cantiello, though our own Federica Falzon notably came fourth, scoring 116 points with her song ‘Diamonds’... as well as getting a kiss from would-be winner Vincenzo as the scores were being tallied up (see cover). A week later, Amber won the Malta Eurovision Song Contest, scoring the opportunity to represent Malta with the power ballad ‘Warrior’ at this year’s Eurovision.

The release of Simshar – i.e., a Malta-produced feature film we’re not ashamed to export – was another significant achievement by a Maltese creative. Much hyped throughout its long seven-year journey to the big screen, Rebecca Cremona’s drama about the titular boating accident does disappoint when it comes to the crunch. Though visually competent and with its heart in the right place, the script is weak: a parallel storyline structure is never fully reconciled, and the dialogue leaves much to be desired.

But Simshar remains something of a milestone, if a flawed one. It’s proof that, in today’s interconnected world, a Maltese artist can have as much clout as any of their international counterparts if the effort is put in and the starts are aligned in their favour.

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...
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