Well-worn objects tell no lies | Din Mhix Tazza

Seeking to redress the perception of Bormla through various artistic media – as well as intellectual inquiry – the collective exhibition ‘Din Mhix Tazza’ has spawned an accompanying book. We leaf through the collage of first-hand accounts and evocative photography.

Photography by Virginia Monteforte illustrates 'Din Mhix Tazza' - the accompanying book to the exhibition currently on display in Bormla.
Photography by Virginia Monteforte illustrates 'Din Mhix Tazza' - the accompanying book to the exhibition currently on display in Bormla.

The places we come from aren't always so easy to pin down in our minds, and it's often even more difficult to transmit how you feel about the town or country you grew up in to other people. How could you possibly to justice to the overpowering memories that you associate with intimate spaces? More often than not, you're forced to dissect and summarise, which inevitably paints a far less kaleidoscopic picture of the place than what resides - and will probably forever reside - in the recesses of your mind.

This phenomenon perhaps becomes even more complex and convoluted when you come from a place that's allegedly 'maligned' and that has something of a negative reputation.

But in zooming in their focus on the village of Bormla, a collective of creatives and researchers have set about to shed some light on the real human stories behind the clichés.

Titled 'Din Mhix Tazza' ('This is not a glass', an allusion to Magritte's famous - 'This is not a pipe' - painting, 'The Treachery of Images') the collective exhibition and accompanying book takes first-hand accounts by women from Bormla as its starting point. More specifically, it asks its participants to cue in a connection to the village by choosing an object that brings back vivid memories associated with the town.

The brainchild of Virginia Monteforte, Nathalie Grima, Sara Falconi and Clare Azzopardi, the mixed media exhibition, curated by Raphael Vella, features work by Darren Tanti, Emanuel Bonnici and Elisa von Brockdorff.

But it's in the accompanying book that you actually hear some of these women's voices - as processed through the lens of the researchers (given that both Falconi and Monteforte are Bormla residents of Italian origin, the accounts in the book run with a parallel Maltese-Italian translation).

Asked whether Bormla was chosen - beyond, of course, the participants' direct connection to the town - Azzopardi said that the project was motivated, in part, by a desire to 'rehabilitate' the town's culturally-beleaguered reputation.

"Well it seems as though whenever you mention the Three Cities, it's always Birgu, Birgu, Birgu... Bormla - and Isla, even less so - barely ever gets a mention, and even then, what little is said about it tends to be largely negative.

"I'm not sure why this is the case, exactly, but what we wanted to do is to present an entirely different side to it. By this I don't mean that we wanted to go to the other extreme, simply that instead of focusing on the town's negative stigma, we chose to listen to its women and their stories."

Gathering their interviewees by word of mouth - "it was a snowball effect, once we got going," Azzopardi says - the quartet ended up with a book that is both intimate and enigmatic.

Each account is accompanied by a photograph of the object or place singled out by the speaker, and often shot at an oblique angle by Monteforte. Very little about the book is literal, in fact. Even the first-hand accounts, though clear in their narrative intent, are too short to paint a literal picture in our minds. Instead, they are delivered to us as almost literal 'snapshots' - psychological portraits that suggest, rather than transmit, what makes these women tick. 'Din Mhix Tazza' sets out to function at an intersection between anthropology and art - more than anything, it's a decidedly un-journalistic portrayal of what Bormla - and 'Bormlizi' women - are, which also means that it's entirely free of tabloid-friendly clichés.

Some of the accounts stray very freely from the supposed brief of the 'one object per speaker' brief, cementing the idea that this is not a book in search of easy, clear-cut answers and conclusions.

One account by 'Joyce AB' - poignantly illustrated with a sepia-toned photo that just about foregrounds an image of Dom Mintoff - encompasses the speaker's house as a whole, latching on to its evocative name: 'Cherish'.

But by the time the account is being delivered, the house is already long gone, and the speaker has no other recourse but memory, whose impact is described in the accounts climactic sentence: 'Because invisible things cut much deeper. There is never enough time for them.'

'Every object is anticipation, is reading between the lines, is the fulfillment of destiny,' another account declares, cued in by an old painting of the Immaculate Conception which hangs in the speaker's family home in Bormla.

But for 'Joyce M' - who spent some time living in Zurrieq and who now works as a holistic therapist  - the native village of Bormla is, she admits with a persistent resignation, 'just a village like any other'.

The narratives are the opposite of panoramas. As far as written geography goes, they're more like synecdoches - parts of a whole. But though this whole remains elusive, it strikes an emotional chord.

If nothing else, it certainly puts paid to the book's mission statement - true to the Babel of languages that makes it up, this time it's delivered in English.

'Far from being a manifestation of superficiality, passivity and materialism, [objects] are testaments to important choices made, to memories and emotions whose origins are not only well understood by us, but can also be narrated as we tell our story. This narrative of origin becomes a continuous, active and strong foundation myth for our self, the continuity underlying our inner journey...'

Din Mhix Tazza will remain on display at Kappella tas-Sokkors, Triq l-Inkurunazzjoni, Bormla until July 8. The book is available from Sierra Book Distributors.