Binding boundaries

Curator of the Valletta International Visual Arts Festival Raphael Vella speaks to us about one of its flagship collective exhibitions this year – Good Walls Make Good Neighbours, which uses the Upper Galleries at St James Cavalier to explore notions of public and private space as both implied and exemplified by walls

‘Last Dream’, video installation by Sonia Guggisberg
‘Last Dream’, video installation by Sonia Guggisberg
Selection of David Pisani’s ‘Walls of Perception’, critiquing Malta’s rampant overdevelopment drive
Selection of David Pisani’s ‘Walls of Perception’, critiquing Malta’s rampant overdevelopment drive


I started with a simple question: What do walls mean in our lives today? What do they mean to me or ‘us’, and what do they mean to those who live on the other side of these walls? I then thought about different connotations of walls, like private and public space, neighbours, noise, architecture and history, colonial spaces, construction and destruction, homes and homelessness. And I didn't look only at the work of visual artists.  I also read about the legal implications of party walls and the history of the notion of ‘home’, and I looked at the work of some authors whose work deals with neighbours and street gossip.


The idea of finding a ‘good fit’ for any exhibition is pertinent, in various ways. In a curated exhibition, works of art do not merely ‘fit’ into a theme, but also need to fit the rooms they are located in, which often include or are adjacent to other artists’ works. Works of art have neighbours too. It’s important to use exhibition spaces to create new dialogues between such ‘neighbours’.

For instance, David Pisani’s grid of twenty-five photographs of constructed and largely blank walls around Malta is next to a video piece by Turkish artist Duygu Nazli Akova, which refers to urban expansions and construction workers’ conditions in Istanbul. Architect Tom van Malderen’s wall with timber, mirrors and hidden lights can be seen through the little openings in Claudia Larcher’s hanging sculptures, which members of the public can ‘enter’ and peep through. Brazilian artist Sonia Guggisberg’s poetic video installation of a demolition job acquires new layers of meaning when experienced immediately after Yael Bartana’s video about the reconstruction of demolished Palestinian houses.


Given that the exhibition is taking place in Malta, it needed a direct link to local implications of the chosen title, so the exhibition starts with a wall-sized scan of a section of the Civil Code that deals with walls and neighbouring tenements as well as a video loop of extracts from literary works by Immanuel Mifsud and Clare Azzopardi.

Towards the end of the exhibition, one comes across three, small paintings of walls and chairs by Maltese artist Teresa Sciberras. And one cannot really avoid thinking of the immigration issue when confronted by Zineb Sedira’s video ‘Saphir’, which juxtaposes the northern-bound gaze of an Algerian man with the movements of a French woman who returns to her country’s colonial past in the Maghreb.


When we think of neighbours, we tend to think of people next door or across the street. The old man whose dog always pisses at the same street corner. The middle-aged woman who’s always on her doorstep. The scruffy lad who's probably taking drugs.

Hopefully, the works in the exhibition will make visitors think of themselves as neighbours too. How do we fare as neighbours? In my opinion, the works by Dutch artist Sarah van Sonsbeeck in the exhibition are especially relevant because they come to terms with the intrusions of people in each other’s lives. Her idea of constructing an anti-drone tent that is entirely invisible to the outside world is very thought-provoking.

Public tour of the exhibition: The curator of 'Good Walls Make Good Neighbours', Raphael Vella, will tour the exhibition in the Upper Galleries of St James Cavalier with members of the public on September 22 at 12:30. Organised by ‘AP Design Reviews’, the tour and talk is open to the public and attendance is free of charge. No registration is required