Notions of safety at the historical crossroads | Nikolas Ventourakis

Greek artist Nikolas Ventourakis speaks to Teodor Reljic after his one-month residency at Blitz in Valletta yielded to an exhibition – Rituals for our Safety – which takes Malta as a case study for a global, and extremely contemporary, preoccupation with public safety

Nikolas Ventourakis
Nikolas Ventourakis

What led to ‘safety’ being the core theme that you wanted to explore for this exhibition?

There is a sense of urgency when it comes to discuss safety today, and this is why it became more and more central to my recent thoughts and reflections. Besides this, when I came to Malta I knew very little of the island, yet one thing I knew was the history of the Knights, who found refuge here after being forced to evacuate Rhodes. As they landed, they decided to build a fortress city that is still very much visible as you take your first step into Valletta, and so I felt it was the right time to deal with the subject.

How did Malta’s history and built environment influence your approach to ‘Rituals for our Safety’ and were there particular elements to your research and preparation for the exhibition that surprised you, and changed any planned trajectory you may have had?

On paper, I focused in the history and etymology of the name ‘Malta’ and how the islands were shaped by a constant passage of different civilisations. However, when I later started my residency I became more interested on rituals, behaviours and daily reactions that people would share with me when I asked them about notions of safety. Therefore, I focused more on observing and translating visually rather than systematically laying out a foundation. It was indeed more chaotic, but in a good sense, as one encounter would lead to the next.

Rituals for our Safety – on display at Blitz, Valletta until March 22
Rituals for our Safety – on display at Blitz, Valletta until March 22

Did you find any similarities between Malta and the other countries you’ve worked in and ‘investigated’ as an artist? If so what are they, and how does this common ground seep its way into your work and its thematic concerns?

Actually, I found many similarities between life in Malta and Cyprus, a country I have researched for my project Defining Lines. Both are islands and former colonies of many empires; also, both were recently part of the British Empire and kept strong ties with the West as well as the East. 

Apart from this association I have found, you should consider that I come from Greece, a Mediterranean country that has many similarities with Malta: the rhythm of life, the smells and sounds as much as the Carnival, are very familiar experiences to me.

This is why I feel Malta was easy for me to navigate, and explore in a way that was complementary to my previous research. It’s important, however, to remember that one month is a very short period and one is not expected – and should not be expected – to make wide assertions about a place you only know as a visitor.

Then I focused on things and ideas that I brought with me and tried to represent the slight additions that I acquired during my time here.

Rituals for our Safety – on display at Blitz, Valletta until March 22
Rituals for our Safety – on display at Blitz, Valletta until March 22

During your residency at Blitz, did you have a chance to get a sense of the Maltese contemporary art and culture scene? 

It seems to be a very interesting time for arts and artists as Valletta approaches 2018, when it will be the European Capital of Culture. From what I have been told, only a few years back artists would have to move abroad to study and it was virtually impossible to keep working in Malta. I do understand that it is a small scene, but everyone seems to be focused on collaborating towards a common goal, which is to make the whole artistic and cultural practices more sustainable in the future. Also, Maltese artists and organisations like Blitz are very outward-looking, which is very important. 

Connections with institutions abroad will make the local arts scene more vibrant and better represented outside the borders of the islands. I was also very impressed by the support that the Arts Council is providing to Maltese artists as well as the fact that Malta has quickly become the country in Europe with perhaps the most liberal laws regarding censorship. 

The cultural scene benefits greatly from a system that is open to accommodate positions of artists that might be considered controversial, yet are essential to create dialogue and facilitate progress. I’m really looking forward to the Malta Pavilion in Venice.

Rituals for our Safety – on display at Blitz, Valletta until March 22
Rituals for our Safety – on display at Blitz, Valletta until March 22

What would you say are the most significant challenges of the contemporary artist, and how have you tried to meet them half-way, throughout your career?

The number one challenge is to find a way to sustain oneself. It’s extremely difficult for the vast majority of practicing artists to remain active after a short number of years due to lack of funding. Also, those who manage to remain in the scene are always extremely strained financially: working two and three jobs to have a basic income. This is why it is also important for a country to invest in a network of galleries that will represent the local art scene and finance the production of art.

Rituals for Our Safety will remain on display at Blitz, St Lucy Street, Valletta until March 22. For more information, log on to: 

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