Knowledge over imported notions of ‘quality’ | Raphael Vella

Artistic director Raphael Vella speaks to us about this year’s edition of the Valletta International Visual Arts Festival (VIVA), which for the second consecutive year will deliver an exhibition of contemporary art by local and international artists but more importantly, yet another iteration of its associated Curatorial School. Vella, a lecturer and artist in his own right, spoke about the outcome of last year’s Festival – a Valletta 2018 initiative – and the priorities that Malta should keep in mind in developing its visual arts culture

Raphael Vella
Raphael Vella

In terms of the evolution of the curatorial school, what lessons have you learnt from last years edition – both of the Curatorial School in particular, and VIVA in general – that youre applying this time around?

Like all first editions, last year’s Curatorial School and VIVA were accompanied by a lot of enthusiasm and some apprehension too. When you’re exploring uncharted territory, you’re never sure about how things will turn out until you are actually in their midst. Chronologically speaking, the idea for a Curatorial School came first by a few months, and a festival then seemed like a logical extension of the school programme. 

My reasoning then was that it would not be enough to bring international curators and academics here to deliver lectures in the school. I believed that we needed to provide their sessions with a backdrop, an artistic context in which real interactions with the local scene would become possible. Of course, the festival became much more than a ‘backdrop’; it was in fact the more publicly visible of the two components of the project.

The international dimension is still very present in this year’s VIVA. But we are trying to show more explicitly this year that a festival like this is ultimately a negotiation of ideas, an exchange of knowledge, and not simply a re-enactment of imported notions of ‘quality’. So we are offering more possibilities of showing the work of international and local artists in the same events.

Following students’ feedback we received last year, we are also offering more hands-on workshops at the Curatorial School, which encourages more direct interaction between curators and small groups of students.

Something that is very relevant to me (as well as many others, I hope!) is that we have a more developed education programme delivered by international as well as local artists and educators this year. German artist Christoph Schäfer is presenting a drawing-based workshop that also comes to terms with the politics of urban space.

A Masters student and PhD student in the new Department of Arts, Open Communities and Adult Education within the Faculty of Education at the University of Malta are working with prison inmates and young people respectively on researched workshops that lead to concrete results.

I guess that my own involvement in the field of education has coloured the curatorial vision to some extent because VIVA is not simply about the art-object per se but also about the dialogues and contradictions that emerge from a confrontation between objects, ideas and institutions, media and audiences.

How would you describe the outcome of the first Curatorial School? Would you say its yielding results already?

Interest in the first Curatorial School was overwhelming. I knew there was a need for something like this but the response was better than what I’d expected to achieve. Last year, we initiated an important link with Dutch counterparts, given the fact that Valletta is sharing the title of European Capital of Culture with Leeuwarden in 2018.

In fact, the well-known Dutch academic Mieke Bal provided a ‘bridge’ between the school and last year’s festival programme because she participated in both, and this year, we have more international curators and a much bigger number of participating artists.

In this year’s VIVA, we also have an exhibition, ‘The Culture of Ageing’, which is being curated by Dutch curators Lennard Dost and Mare van Koningsveld, who were both curators-in-residence in Valletta last year.  Two of the Maltese artists in this exhibition, Kristina Borg and Adrian Abela, participated in ‘Divergent Thinkers’ last year, which also formed part of VIVA. 

I am also aware of discussions between speakers in last year’s school and local public and private entities about the possibility of future collaborations. Students who presented curatorial ideas in the school last year actually put together new exhibitions based on these ideas and showed them both locally and internationally (for example, Carolina Bartolotti’s exhibition ‘Afterselfie’, which traveled to Trento after being shown in Malta).

What would be the long-term benefits of having fully-trained curators in the visual arts, to the Maltese arts scene?

Hopefully, this will help to professionalise the field and to change attitudes about exhibitions and relationships between art and publics. An exhibition is not about ‘filling’ a space, but about an informed, researched and perhaps even poetic relationship with whatever is being exhibited and with whoever has been involved (physically but also ‘culturally’) in the making of the works and the ideas they convey.

I am not only referring to research in an academic sense.  I am thinking about the time and dedication that people put into the things they are passionate about, as against the haste that we experience so often in finding cost-effective ‘solutions’.

Art needs time to develop, and it usually doesn’t adapt easily to the straitjacket of preconceived ‘outcomes’. So I really hope that the professionalisation of the field we hope to achieve does not become yet another box to tick in the realm of funding schemes. Art should never be reduced to a managerial exercise because its most exciting moments always happen when perceptions are shifted or challenged.

How would you describe the assembled international participants of VIVA this time around? What makes them amenable to the Maltese scene?

We have some very inspiring artists and curators who are participating in this year’s VIVA and Curatorial School. Amongst the curators, we have Adam Budak, who has worked at the Hirschhorn in Washington DC and is Chief Curator at the National Gallery in Prague.

We will have the well-known Turkish curator Fulya Erdemci, two Egyptian curators, Mai Abu ElDahab and Bassam el Baroni, the French curator and academic Paul Ardenne and Simon Sheikh, who is a professor of curating at Goldsmiths. 

Amongst the artists who are particularly relevant to the Maltese scene, I’d single out Zineb Sedira, who has been nominated this year for France’s prestigious Prix Marcel Duchamp. Her video piece in one of the exhibitions we have deals with the contradictions of immigration and emigration in the Mediterranean, which obviously has a local, political meaning too.

We didnt have a landmark installation like ‘Ziemethis year. Why do you think this is, and what can we look forward to in VIVA this year?

Austin Camilleri’s sculpture was indeed a landmark sculpture, but it would be useless and impossible to replicate it. This year we will have a large installation in Pjazza Regina by emerging artist Aaron Bezzina which will probably attract some attention, despite the fact that it is quite literally a ‘low-profile’ piece.

Amongst international artists to look out for, I could mention the famous Israeli artist Yael Bartana, for whom we are building a very specific ‘container’ to house one of her video installations at St James Cavalier. 

I’m also keen about an exhibition of Palestinian video art being curated by Iury Lech, director of the festival of audio-visual art ‘MADATAC’ in Madrid. And we are already looking forward to the future: we have an agreement with MADATAC that will export the video works of four Maltese artists to Madrid in the coming months. So, this year’s VIVA is already bearing fruit.

Prospective participants in the Curatorial School must submit a filled-in application form, downloadable via the link: and a recent CV by August 4 2015 at noon. Results will be notified by August 6. For further information contact the Valletta 2018 Foundation on 2124 2018 or at [email protected]