Sifting through the memories of the mill | Nikki Petroni

Art researcher Dr Nikki Petroni talks about her collaboration with The Mill in Birkirkara as the venue – founded by artist Gabriel Caruana and occupying a unique position in Malta’s visual arts scene – celebrates its 30th anniversary with the 30@20 initiative

Gabriel Caruana (Photo: Gabriel Caruana Foundation Archives)
Gabriel Caruana (Photo: Gabriel Caruana Foundation Archives)

Could you tell us a little bit about your background as an arts researcher? What are some of your main fields of interest, and have you found your academic pursuits to be helpful in assessing the way Malta’s cultural sphere currently functions?

I have pursued research on Maltese Modern and Contemporary art for a few years now, completing a doctoral degree in 2019 under the tutelage of Prof. Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci after a decade of art historical studies. This journey has provoked endless questions on Malta’s modern history, revealing a complexity of intertwined narratives. This can be said for all historical contexts, however, there is so much about our history and culture which is not even uttered, let alone discussed or even debated. The historical roots of today’s context allow us to penetrate into the reasons, and also the problems, for how and why things function the way that they do. The study of Malta’s history has been more than helpful in this regard, yet it also shows how much still needs to be confronted and brought to the fore in order to understand ourselves, our society, and culture. The contemporary arts scene has greatly expanded the way we look at art and culture. Nonetheless, the crucial links between today and the past are generally overlooked or cast aside, and this is problematic if we are to foster meaning, innovation and creativity in the arts.

How were you introduced to the 30@20 project at the Mill, and what drew you to it?

The Gabriel Caruana Foundation issued a call for a researcher focused on Maltese modern art, as part of the 30@20 – The Mill project funded by the Voluntary Organizations Project fund of the Malta Council for the Voluntary Sector. This was an ideal position for me to take on given my research background and relationship with the GCF.

I had previously worked with the GCF and curated an exhibition at The Mill, as well as participated in other activities at the cultural venue, so this project interested me for many reasons. Gabriel Caruana was one of Malta’s pioneering artistic figures. Apart from The Mill and the GCF, his memory has been honoured by the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Malta in an international academic conference that discussed his work and the elevation of ceramics into an art form. Caruana played this seminal role on the global scene, together with some other international artists. It is an exciting opportunity to be able to delve deeper into the history of one of his more significant projects, and on the only successful attempt at a sustained and dedicated modern art space. Caruana wanted to eventually see the establishment of a national museum that would compare to those overseas, such as the Museo Internazionale delle Ceramiche in Faenza, Italy. He worked tirelessly, together with his wife Mary Rose, and his ambition and courage remain exemplary to this day.

Gabriel Caruana (Photo: Gabriel Caruana Foundation Archives)
Gabriel Caruana (Photo: Gabriel Caruana Foundation Archives)

What kind of role would you say The Mill plays in Malta’s ongoing visual arts history?

Gabriel Caruana was one of Malta’s foremost modern artists, a creative and motivated figure in our art history who did his utmost to foster spaces of creative and artistic exchange. The Mill is one of the many, and one of the most significant, projects which he left for posterity. As a space beyond Valletta, as a non-white cube site for art planted unexpectedly in the centre of Birkirkara, it poses an alternative for established and upcoming artists alike.

One thing which Caruana insisted on, and which the GCF continue to insist on today, is that The Mill does not function as a commercial or corporate venue. With the increasing privatisation of culture and annihilation of our heritage, this principle is one of great meaning today. The Mill is also a great example of cultural re-purposing. The building would probably have been abandoned today were it not for the foresight of Caruana. Many buildings and areas around Malta could also be opened to the public for cultural activities.

Given the communal and public nature of the information-gathering that will be taking place as part of this project, which tools of your professional and critical arsenal do you think will be the most useful to you, when it comes to sorting through the subjective materials you will be receiving from people who will be contributing their memories of the Mill?

That’s an interesting question. The project has so far consisted of collecting material to gradually build up the archive of The Mill and the GCF. A lot of the material found so far is public material, and photos that were taken to be disseminated.

It has been difficult to get a more intimate glimpse of the goings-on of The Mill. This is an obstacle often encountered in research, one that has been discussed with Prof. Schembri Bonaci many a time.

Sometimes it is a matter of asking different questions, other times you are not supplied with all the information needed to piece things together. The majority of that which has been shared so far during interviews has been very insightful, yet barely critical. It is rare that one is offered a critical assessment of a historical event or figure.

Anecdotes and personal stories are filled with nostalgia, and it is necessary to sift through everything to derive the pertinent historical context. The task after the data gathering period will be to draft a critical history of The Mill based on what has been found.

Nikki Petroni. Photo by Zvezdan Reljic
Nikki Petroni. Photo by Zvezdan Reljic

What do you make of the Maltese cultural scene? What would you change about it?

This is an oft-encountered question which I could respond to at length, but prefer to keep things brief. I would encourage artists to engage further with their own artistic and cultural history, to look at it critically so as to move away from certain truisms that perpetuate unchallenged ideas. It would also be good to see more private investment to diminish the reliance on public funds.

The latter have permitted so many to realise their projects, and so have done wonders for artistic and cultural production locally.

However, public funds are often approached as a charitable source, with some tailor-making their projects to satisfy funding criteria. The arts cannot function properly if creation majorly panders to such structures.

30@20 - The Mill is funded through the Voluntary Organisations Project Scheme managed by the Malta Council for the Voluntary Sector on behalf of Parliamentary Secretary for Youth, Sports and Voluntary Organisations within the Ministry for Education and Employment