A photographer’s gaze of Malta at the turn of the millennium

LAURA CALLEJA speaks to artist Patrick Fenech regarding his latest exhibition ‘Caged Spaces,’ which was inspired by COVID-19 pandemic, as well as his desire return to the origins of his artist career

What inspiration did you draw for this exhibition?

Funnily enough, it was the recent COVID-pandemic that triggered off this project ‘Full Circle’, since in actual fact what I was doing was going back to the origins of my artistic career. There I was, with great amounts of time on my hands and the idea of digitising that part of the archive which contained hundreds of black and white celluloid negatives. This was the work from a period of time, mainly the 1980s, when I picked up a camera for the first time and, entirely self-taught, started to record the laid-back lifestyles of the Maltese and Gozitan people. The documentary was not intended to make any form of social change, as some documentaries do, but rather, simply shows facets of society at given moments, each unique in its characteristics. It was a search for artistic freedom, taking pictures which reveal the expressive potential of the medium.

What do you hope to achieve through this exhibition?

Looking at the selection for the exhibition and the publication, and the other frames that make up the numerous contact sheets, I suddenly became aware of the style and freshness of approach before I committed myself to professional photography. The drama was out there in the streets and in the public interiors. There is only one source of light, and the action and characters are frozen in the interplay of umbras and penumbras that typify these sun drenched environments. The aim of the exhibition/publication is to bring out these images after a good 40 years or so and share them with the public. Obviously, nostalgia takes its own stage and as Susan Sontag (who by they way features in the exhibition) tells us “Photographs are Memento Mori…all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt”. She is writing this in 1977 in her seminal literary work, On Photography.

During the process of putting this exhibition together, did anything surprise you?

Examining these hundreds of negatives for the purpose of digitisation, most of which I had not seen in decades, provided a few surprises. Pictures I had no recollection of ever taking, suddenly re-emerged into the present and where acting as a bridge to the past; rekindling my youth experiences … it got me thinking …it got me remembering. This was one hell of a nostalgia trip, recurring, time and again during the lock-down period. Time, memory and place were intertwined in a whirlwind.

Is this exhibition meant to be consumed in a linear narrative? Is there a starting point when people walk into the gallery, or are they free to walk around see which pieces they are attracted to?

By the way the title of this collection of photographs, Caged Spaces, was construed by my late friend Dennis Vella. So here we are dealing with the idea of a nation with a long history of being invaded, living behind bastion walls and fortified cities. These same fortifications, ironically, are still protecting us from the ravages of present day developers; and this is one of the reasons I opted to live in the charming fortified city of Senglea. The exhibition has an entrance and an exist point, well planned by the able curator Caroline Tonna. At the entrance visitors familiarise with some details of the artist, Susan Sontag’s work, and a collection of analogue cameras which I used during that time. Then a collection of 40 B&W photographs, out of the 117 published in the book by Kite Group, hang in a non-linear way along purposely structured dark corridors, until prior to exist, a video screen shows a selection of memoirs from those days. Other artefacts are exhibited in display cabinets such as, relevant documentation, contact sheets and negatives, and a hand produced theory of photography book done with a typewriter and hand drawn illustrations, in Italian, as part of my academic remit.

Do you have a favourite piece from the exhibition, or rather, a piece that stands out to you?

Yes, I think ’Caged Spaces I’, Mġarr, Gozo is an absolute favourite. The play of light and black-and-white, with hands and feet and the pattern of an evolving fish trap is dazzling. But above all, it is the unconventional manner in which the photograph is composed. Then there is ’Village Gossip I’, Għaxaq, which was used for branding, and was in my first every B&W reel I every exposed. A typical gesture reveals the body-language of the bar owner blocking the doorway, as he came in and out from being the bar to catch up with the gossip happening across the street in the village of Ħal Għaxaq.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Looking back at this experience I realise the relevance and importance of documentary photography. Slicing out a brief moment and freezing it in a photograph is a way to preserve that moment and allows the viewer to allocate any amount of time to examine its content; unlike movie film. I always encourage my students to take up documentary photography – you don’t need to be a professional and like the recently discovered Vivian Mayer, a nanny/caregiver from Chicago and an independent liberated woman, taking up photography as a sideline, and with great passion, recorded that part of America in the second half of the twentieth century in what is regarded today as a media sensation. I want to thank professor Mark-Anthony Falzon for the numerous discussion we had during the layout of the book and his erudite essay in the publication. Caroline Tonna for curating the exhibition. Arts Council Malta, Valletta Cultural Agency and Avantech Canon for their kind and essential support.

‘Caged Spaces’ runs till the 15 July at the Camerone MUZA, Valletta. Opening times all week from 10:00 am till 6:00 pm