Recharging the narrative | Mark Mangion

After a six-year hiatus away from the island, Malta Contemporary Art will be making a return to its country of origin with A Tranquil Star, a collective exhibition of international artists in the heart of Valletta. Gallery founder and curator Mark Mangion speaks about the themes that inform this exhibition, and how it tallies with the newly revamped Malta Contemporary Art and its aims for the near future

Mark Mangion
Mark Mangion

A Tranquil Star inaugurates the return of Malta Contemporary Art back to Malta. What were some of the reasons you left in the first place – back in 2011 – and why did you feel that now would be a good time to come back?

MCA was founded in 2008 as an independent forum for contemporary art with a versatile and fluid structure, which can adapt to circumstances and curatorial trajectories. 

MCA operated in a vast industrial warehouse in Marsa between 2008 and 2010 presenting an experimental programme of exhibitions, talks and film screenings. In an attempt to expand its audience, in 2010, it struck a two-year agreement with St James Cavalier in which MCA redesigned, refurbished and funded 60% of all these works and operated independently from their upper galleries. In these three years, MCA gained a strong international reputation and supported and exhibited over 75 artists from around the world, including Cyprien Gaillard, Simon Starling as well as numerous Maltese artists of different generations.

In 2011 this collaboration came to an end and MCA decided to focus on an international context, transforming into a roving and migrating project entitled Parallel Borders and working on various curatorial projects in Athens, Rome, Zurich, Frankfurt, Graz, Paris, London, Brussels and Reykjavik as well as engaging in extensive curatorial research throughout the Middle East for a future project.

In line with its original return strategy to have a base in Malta by 2017, MCA reopens as an independently funded Gallery on Felix Street in the heart of Valletta, right by the food market.

Anthea Hamilton and Nicholas Byrne - LOVE IV: Cold Shower, 2016. Courtesy of the artists
Anthea Hamilton and Nicholas Byrne - LOVE IV: Cold Shower, 2016. Courtesy of the artists

How does A Tranquil Star fit into the overall vision of Malta Contemporary Art, and which aspects of it do you think make it particularly germane to this new, relaunched version of the MCA?

For MCA’s inaugural exhibition – entitled A Tranquil Star – five artists were invited to participate. These include 2016 Turner Prize nominee Anthea Hamilton (UK), 2017 Venice Biennale artist Salvatore Arancio (Italy) as well as Basim Magdy (Egypt), Haris Epaminonda (Cyprus) and Nicholas Byrne (UK) – all of whom have formidable and growing reputations in the art world. These artists were of course selected based upon the nature of their work fitting into the thematic of this exhibition.

MCA has always promoted and presented a very broad spectrum of contemporary art. A Tranquil Star is very much in line with this vision and is just one of the many diverse exhibitions that MCA intends to present to our public in Malta.

Haris Epaminonda - Untitled #3 a/v, 2016. Courtesy of the Artist & Casey Kaplan New York
Haris Epaminonda - Untitled #3 a/v, 2016. Courtesy of the Artist & Casey Kaplan New York

What were your priorities – aesthetic, thematic – as a curator when putting together A Tranquil Star, and delineating its contours?

A Tranquil Star is very much grounded by a series of questions based upon an examination of how narrative, process and material, come into being and how they coexist in varying states of meaning and form. Of course this a paramount process of thinking and making for any artist, so in a sense this represents a group of perspectives that I felt somehow define, challenge or reinterpret this.

Each of these artists have very specific and individual connections to this thematic and I was interested in creating threads, commonalities and juxtapositions that really bring to light very tactile questions rather than defined perspectives.

Haris Epaminonda works with collected historic images and objects from different eras that are re-archived, reimagined and recontexualized as very specific, orchestrated and minimal arrangements. Anthea Hamilton and Nicholas Byrne continue with their ongoing collaboration where they bring appropriated cultural images and elements and reposition this narrative and material structure as synthesised, deconstructed and buoyant devices.

Basim Magdy’s films create meticulous and poetic timelines via a collaging and physical interference with collected film stock and superimposed texts and narrations producing and embodying ghostly, nostalgic and archaeological narratives.

Salvatore Arancios’s ceramic sculptures indulge in an obscure scientific observation of physical and synthesised forms from nature, creating alluring representations of redefined meaning and material.

Basim Magdy No Shooting Stars 2016
Basim Magdy No Shooting Stars 2016

How would you say the Maltese visual arts scene has changed since the MCA’s original departure in 2011 – if at all – and what have been some of the most notable developments you have spotted within it (again, if there were any to speak of)?

At face value, Malta has changed considerably since 2011. I guess accessibility and proximity, both virtual and physical, have enabled this rapid and exponential global transfer and exchange of ideas, information and culture. In my area of specialisation, the visual arts, I would definitely agree that a contemporary artist working in Malta in 2017 has more opportunities than she would have had pre 2010. The amount of practicing artists, spaces, curators, writers is slowly on the increase and this is positive.

Having said that, I do feel that Malta has a long way to go in terms of creating the appropriate and challenging infrastructure for a more professional, sustainable, international and progressive industry.

Firstly, one of the great enablers of contemporary art, internationally, is private funding, which generally has the ability for a much sharper, independent and less bureaucratic vision than anything state-led. Once private collectors, patrons, dealers, foundations, artist collectives become more of a reality in Malta, this will further cement a much healthier, not to mention, better funded system for anyone in the field. Of course government funding and institutions must also always have a seminal role in trying to lead the way forward, responsibly and fairly, guiding and introducing their public with a much more critical debate.

Essentially, while we must demand continually improved and more transparent state-funded systems, it should be private and independent structures that collectively and competitively strive into constantly shaping and redefining the industry from a critical and curatorial point of view. 

My philosophy has always been that more activity and competition are positive elements for creating a rich place where the discourse and quality of the work get filtered through a more dynamic system.

Salvatore Arancio - Fashioned to a device behind a tree  2015 glazed ceramic and performance courtesy the artist and Federica Schiavo gallery
Salvatore Arancio - Fashioned to a device behind a tree 2015 glazed ceramic and performance courtesy the artist and Federica Schiavo gallery

What kind of impact do you think that initiatives like the Valletta 2018 project will have on the visual arts in Malta?

Back in 2010-11, MCA was probably one of the first entities to start talks with V18 and hand in a thorough proposal to establish a Grand Harbour Triennial. Unfortunately this never materialised and MCA does not have any dealings with V18 so I cannot really make any remarks or assumptions.

Capitals of Culture are not high on the cultural circuit and how many of us have ever been to one? I haven’t. Having said that, they are an excellent opportunity for a government to create some kind of exposure and build infrastructures where perhaps they don’t exist or are poor, and so this will definitely be a plus for Malta since its national infrastructure for contemporary art can currently be classified as poor. This will hopefully create results, which are not purely about festival-type spectacles but actually have long lasting and consistent visions that are sustainable, stimulating a more integral and artist-led growth of the highest of critical standards.

Finally, what is your long-term plan for Malta Contemporary Art?

 MCA will gradually be bringing in new people to join its team. Our first addition is Charlotte Agius, who has a background in gallery operations and management. In the near future, we hope this will extend to curators and others who can help expand our vision.

MCA plans to solidly continue to build upon its international agenda and reputation while at the same time fostering a selection of interesting Maltese artists. MCA aims to consistently present its public with diverse and international exhibitions and events that are at the forefront of contemporary art and culture, and I hope that we will get the support to continue to grow this into a successful venture that can continue in its pursuit to contributing to culture in Malta.

A Tranquil Star opens June 9 at 19:00 and closes on August 12. MCA is located at 12, Felix Street, Valletta and its opening hours are 10:00 to 18:00, from Tuesday to Saturday. More information: