Beyond simple chronology: A timeline of Maltese art at St James Cavalier

‘Jumpstart: An Incomplete Timeline’, will project a dynamic trajectory of modern and contemporary Maltese art onto the facade of St James Cavalier from June 21.

MICAS Homo Melitensis Venice
MICAS Homo Melitensis Venice

Co-curated by Georgina Portelli and Katya Micallef, ‘Jumpstart: An Incomplete Timeline’, will project a dynamic trajectory of modern and contemporary Maltese art onto the facade of St James Cavalier from June 21. Portelli speaks to MaltaToday about the challenges of compiling what is, in fact, an urgent record to aid present-day art practice, all done within the umbrella of the currently in-development Malta International Contemporary Art Space (MICAS)

How did the idea for ‘Jumpstart’ initially take shape, and what were some of your early discussions/brainstorming sessions leading up to it mainly about?

The idea was nourished by vigorous discussions with practicing artists, curators, students and researchers about the need for a visual timeline for contemporary art in Malta. ‘Jumpstart’ sketches out a tentative visual trajectory of Maltese art from modernist to contemporary practice, with a nod to the disrupters who helped ‘jumpstart’ the local ecology forward.

Chronology is only one of the ways in which this story can be told. ‘Jumpstart’ employs a comparative visual methodology that juxtaposes world events, national events, iconic world art and Malta-based art events across the decades.

Although there were numerous art events within this period, very little is published, documented and deposited in archives as hard copies or in digital format for the more recent events. Timelines tend to conjure up a neat linear succession of events, but this is not quite how things happen – more so in an insular Maltese context which presents asynchronous development, dissociative artistic practice and other idiosyncrasies. Certainly, we acknowledge that there is core research, but as yet there is no rigorous cataloguing of the various events that stand out, leading up to the very recent past.

‘Jumpstart’ is fuelled by the realisation that people are forgetting important events that shaped local art practice and art history. Students and younger artists may not be so aware of what transpired in the recent past. Not having such documentation readily available in libraries, museum archives or online, hampers awareness. It should benefit emergent artists practising in Malta, students and wider audiences, to become more aware of recent contemporary art history and how it fits in the broader local and international context. Research, knowledge and informed art practice should insure against derivation and replication. This, in turn, helps raise the bar, paving the way for more critical engagement and analysis.

Which criteria did you employ when it came to selecting the featured artists, and how was their intrinsic value and relevance to the timeline determined?

The criteria were based on archival research and field work. Featured events and artists were selected according to their relevance to the development of modern and contemporary art and subject to the pragmatic availability of material. Archival deposits of events within public entity archives are sparse and highly fragmented. So, artists, families, collectors and citizen archivists had to be approached to fill in the blanks.   

A significant number of local exhibitions are represented, including those that illustrate the palpable shift in practice from 1989 onwards
A significant number of local exhibitions are represented, including those that illustrate the palpable shift in practice from 1989 onwards

We emphasise that this is an incomplete timeline and that more research will hopefully add more data. This would help draw a more nuanced map of the development of contemporary art in Malta.

What was the reason behind the time period that you’ve chosen for the timeline, and what were some of the most significant historical developments, changes and upheavals that influence and characterise the timeline?

Art happens and exists within the wider context of communities and society. It is inherently nested in the fabric of temporality, interwoven with innumerable other timelines. We opted for a timeline that takes Malta’s rare presence at the Venice Biennale from 1958, 1999 and 2017 as its guideline. This period also includes the Commonwealth Exhibitions between 1958 and 1977, one of the few international opportunities available to Maltese artists at the time.

A significant number of local exhibitions are represented, including those that illustrate the palpable shift in practice from 1989 onwards.

This shift was happening against the backdrop of increased artist mobility, the millennium aspirations, the opening of St James Centre for Creativity, the launch of MCAST, the Council for Culture and the Arts Act, EU accession, the rise of social media and the first ever Cultural Policy document. The timeline is more of a snapshot of the development of the contemporary idiom within our geographic context.

Was it a challenge to parse through the more recent years of the timeline, which naturally thins out the benefit of hindsight?

The MICAS mission is essentially about valorising contemporary art and artists
The MICAS mission is essentially about valorising contemporary art and artists

The overriding challenge, pervasively, is the absence of any readily available all-encompassing catalogue to consult, and this applies across the board throughout the period chosen. Poor or absent documentation implies that a lot has been out of sight and out of mind, lost to obsolete technology or simply not recorded in a structured manner. The ethos behind jumpstart is less to do with an appraisal with hindsight, and more to do with developing a prototype visualisation that tracks the flight path of contemporary Maltese art.

How did the truly contemporary artists fare, and what would you say they communicate about Maltese society at the moment?

The change in perception and contemporary practice in Malta was mostly artist-led. Whether the group of artists who pushed for this change were validated enough or not is another matter for analysis.

Whether they struggled, created new hegemonies or quickly became part of the status quo is another. What is evident is that in previous decades individual artists emerge as isolated innovators whereas artists from the late 1990s and early 2000s become assertively pro-active as a cluster, with the barriers facing visual artists becoming their source of inspiration.

Artists challenged the notion that art had to be exhibited in a museum or gallery space. They experimented with dematerialisation, new forms and aesthetics, materials and technologies, questioning  social norms and identity  through their meaning-making process. They critically responded to such issues as power, politics,  gender, displacement, diversity and the environment.

How would you say the timeline fits into the overall schema of the MICAS project?

The MICAS mission is essentially about valorising contemporary art and artists. As part of the MICAS Summer Celebration,  Jumpstart: An Incomplete Timeline, celebrates art and artists from the perspective of our geographic context. This is what the MICAS Summer Celebration on June 21 is all about. MICAS’s remit is to champion contemporary art and raise public awareness about the significance of the visual arts in contemporary life. Jumpstart expresses the intentions of this remit as it brings to the forefront how artists mediate and interpret the contemporary world we live in, acknowledging artists as innovators. It also ties in with MICAS’s educational remit, which includes the development of educational resources and archives for research and documentation. Though still a work in progress, the timeline is a small first step forward in this process.

To further raise the issue of documentation and contemporary art, the MICAS  summer celebration on June 21 kicks off at 7pm with an art talk  by  Edith Devaney, Head of the summer exhibition and contemporary curator at the Royal Academy of Arts (London), who will give a presentation on Artists and their Archives at the MUZA Courtyard. This will then be followed by the launch  of Jumpstart: An Incomplete Timeline at Castille square at 8.30pm.

The MICAS Summer Celebration is organised in collaboration with the Valletta Cultural Agency and supported by Heritage Malta and Spazju Kreattiv. For free registration and further details visit https://micas.art or send an email to [email protected]

More in Art