Coherent display for incoherent elements | Sandro Debono

Curator Sandro Debono delves into how what was once a brief for yet another ‘Caravaggio exhibition’, Land of Sea has evolved into something larger, and which forms part of Malta’s EU Presidency programme

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
27 March 2017, 7:51am
Sandro Debono
Sandro Debono
Teodor Reljic picks the brains of Sandro Debono ahead of the launch of the exhibition catalogue for Malta – Land of Sea, an interdisciplinary exhibition currently on display at the BOZAR in Brussels which showcases representative works of art from key periods in Maltese history in an attempt to get at heart of Malta’s ‘cultural diversity’. As curator for the exhibition and editor of the catalogue, Debono delves into how what was once a brief for yet another ‘Caravaggio exhibition’ evolved into something larger, and which forms part of Malta’s EU Presidency programme

‘Cultural diversity’ is a loaded term that’s often applied to Malta’s historical and cultural heritage. How does the exhibition – and by extension, of course the catalogue – tackle this, presumably while trying to avoid cliches and other intellectual pitfalls that are germane to the concept?

The extent of cultural diversity that our history is indelibly marked with has been reviewed to point in a specific direction. Our cultural diversity is layered and rich in its broad sense of connections and this is partly due to Malta’s strategic location. What has been conserved, what has survived over time… the material culture that stands for this cultural diversity is the outcome of a historic selective process emphasising one narrative over another. 

This exhibition tries hard to seek redress by eliminating bias and emphasis on a specific period or timeframe and this thanks to a broader, more encompassing selection which goes beyond art and art history, in the strict sense of the word, to include language, objects, sounds and contemporary installations. 

In a sense, the exhibition acknowledged a wider, much broader definition of art which reflects the latest developments in the discipline, such as World Art and global art history, which acknowledge that much more can be considered as art than what fits within the traditional definition.

What were some of the initial discussions of the Malta – Land at Sea concept like? What were the initial aims of the exhibition, and how did it evolve over time? 

The exhibition took off from a specific request by BOZAR for a Caravaggio show. This would have presented Malta in a very oblique way, highlighting just one facet which has been harped upon for decades on end. We wanted to discuss a different project which would not exclude high-profile artworks and masterpieces but which would be guided by a robust concept presenting transversal, non-linear chronologies and a visual, participatory experience of contemporary Malta. 

The aims were set from the beginning but the project, particularly the response to the initial concept, continued to evolve once the nine categories were set and the selection of objects defined. The intensive design sessions held over the last two months with Tom van Malderen and the two artists, Pierre Portelli and Austin Camilleri, helped articulate the final product further as we sought to create a seamless, coherent display with each and every element complementing the others.          

Malta – Land of Sea exhibits a series of deliberately selected objects aiming at presenting a representative portrayal of Maltese history through arefacts. Photo: BOZAR
Malta – Land of Sea exhibits a series of deliberately selected objects aiming at presenting a representative portrayal of Maltese history through arefacts. Photo: BOZAR
The exhibition is the kind of project that attracts maximum visibility and projects a degree of institutional importance. With this in mind, do you see the exhibition as a standard-bearer for the arts scene in Malta, and which priorities in particular would you like it to express and emphasise?

The exhibition has been described by Paul Dujardin, CEO for BOZAR centre of fine arts as, “Very interdisciplinary, transversal, contemporary... the global view of this exhibition ensures that visitors are empowered... This approach is a really new way of showing Maltese history... an exhibition which is an interesting reflection.” 

I think Paul Dujardin hits the nail on the head. I think that the exhibition stands for the ambitions of the art scene which are broadly multidisciplinary, and aspiring to engage with participatory experiences. It does not segregate between art forms and creative expressions, which is perhaps one of the potential strengths of the sector which might also be developed further in the future.    

Getting down to brass tacks, could you elaborate on the artworks on display at the exhibition? Why was this particular ‘spread’ of artists chosen, and how do you think each piece emphasises the ethos of the exhibition? 

The exhibition can be described as a deconstructed chronology reassembled into a table of elements. The heritage objects on display were carefully chosen to fit within this table of elements as one object connects to the other. 

Historic, priceless navigation instruments are juxtaposed with the navigation compass used by refugees to cross the Mediterranean. Historic necklaces explain the connection between land and sea – one in fishbone, one in stone and sea-shells and the third, featuring the eight-pointed cross of the Order of St John, a maritime power operating from Malta across the Mediterranean sea, in bone. 

The works by Austin Camilleri and Pierre Portelli complement this narrative as they slot within the choice seamlessly. Portelli’s brief was to work with sound installations which also builds on his most recent projects. His installations feature the sounds of Malta, now being heard in Brussels. Austin’s brief was to work with Maltese – il-Malti – which is tentatively immortalised in fragile Maltese stone, in salt and across time.           

Malta – Land of Sea exhibits a series of deliberately selected objects aiming at presenting a representative portrayal of Maltese history through arefacts. Photo: BOZAR
Malta – Land of Sea exhibits a series of deliberately selected objects aiming at presenting a representative portrayal of Maltese history through arefacts. Photo: BOZAR
Finally, what kind of message does Malta – Land at Sea send about the Maltese visual arts scene at the moment, and what do you think lies ahead for the arts scene in general in the near future?

The Presidency has been an exceptional platform to showcase Malta’s art scene across the world and the working group established two years ago jointly with Arts Council. Malta Land of Sea’s objective was to showcase what contemporary Malta stands for and what intra-institutional collaboration has the potential to achieve in the near future. The real challenges for the art scene will be coming our way in 2019 when the hype, glamour and successes of these two years will be past. Synergies are key to long     term sustainability.           

Malta – Land of Sea will remain on display at the BOZAR until May 28. Photo on front cover by Martina Cutajar

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