The Malta Arts Festival

The Malta Arts FestivalFor the fifth year running, this year’s festival has put Malta on the European cultural map and provided an encouraging preview of what the general public is to expect in 2018 when one of Malta’s towns will be declared European Capital of Culture.

“When we started the Festival (Davinia Galea and myself) 5 years ago we had one clear aim: to establish a platform of quality where artists, Maltese and foreign, can present their work within a professional context which caters for their artistic needs and which in the process would establish higher levels in terms of the infrastructure that is needed to support quality,” festival artistic director Mario Frendo said, “After 5 years I can say that this vision has given fruit.
The Malta Arts Festival
Toni Attard and Louiselle Vassallo in OSPIZIO/ © G. Calleja
Proof of this is the constantly growing amount of artists wanting to perform in the festival, and the amount of artists that return year after year … now that the Festival is slowly gaining prestige in Malta and abroad, we have new challenges ahead which we must tackle. One of the most important is how to balance between a globalized attitude and retaining a particular identity. This, I believe, is what we should be addressing in order to keep our work valid and growing.”

The line-up of performances and events in this year’s festival echoed perfectly the spirit of these words. Though the festival's focus are the performing arts in open spaces (to make the most of the Summer weather) this year we have had activities like the ‘OSPIZIO’ and ‘SPACES’ where the directors/curators re-visited old buildings and brought them back to life.
The Malta Arts Festival
Louiselle Vassallo in OSPIZIO/ photo: © G.Calleja
Maltese artists from all disciplines have indeed been showing a growing interest in reclaiming public spaces for cultural activities. Prior to the inauguration of this year’s festival, a group of Fine Art students graduating from the Malta College for the Arts Science and Technology Arts and Design Institute presented a collection of works in the old power station on the Valletta waterfront. The exhibition proved to be a hit not only for the freshness of the works presented but also because of the re-discovery of the site and the redefinition of the place’s function. Is this part of a new trend among the local artistic community who is responding to the politicians’ call for the regeneration of the Island’s numerous heritage sites?

The Malta Arts Festival
Veteran actor Narcy Calamatta in the role of disgraced inquisitor Paolo Passioné in OSPIZIO/ © G. Calleja
Mr. Frendo described performances like ‘OSPIZIO’, an engaging multi sensory performance where the beholders were walked through an 18th century asylum for the deranged, prostitutes and the marginalized as ‘an investment in Maltese art and artists’. “The Festival believes that the most important thing for artists is to give them space where to be creative, and put money into their work. Believing in the arts is not enough. Money must be made available if we want to bring our beliefs to fruition. This in fact is one of the functions of a festival; to make funds available for artists. We started discussing the Ospizio Project with Theatre Anon more than a year before it was performed… Ospizio was the first commission by the Malta Arts Festival. While commissions of works of art in Malta are not a common thing, they are central to the running of artistic institutions, like theatres, festivals, arts centres etc. abroad. We had announced last year that it was our intention to start commissioning works of art. This year we started with Theatre Anon. We intend to continue this practice in the future.”

‘OSPIZIO’ director (and veteran actor) Paul Portelli said that when Anon were approached they immediately agreed that it had to be a site-specific performance involving “a real collaboration across disciplines”. The project involved a cast of over 80 different participants including actors, a choir, a band and a group of young artists who together appropriated the place’s history, sad as it may be, and wove a solid performance where boundaries between dream (or shall I say nightmares) and reality dissolve. Using elements of the grotesque, the local carnival floats, the religious, humour and a great deal of visual inventiveness Theatre Anon took audiences back to ‘this field of forgotten souls’ and played with their emotions in this highly acclaimed tableau vivant.

‘SPACES’ curator Lisa Gwen Baldacchino reiterated this working philosophy and describes the event as an “experiment aimed at creating a working/exhibition space for artists in the capital city; precisely along Strait Street. Artists are finding it increasingly hard to secure a venue for a show, and the few ('proper') spaces available are usually booked months, if not years in advance … So I, together with the Malta Council for Culture and the Arts thought of finding and rehabilitating a disused space for this year's Malta Arts Festival visual arts project, which saw the participation of 5 artists … Sean Gabriel Ellul, Fabrizio Ellul, Ruth Bianco, Anton Grech and James Micallef Grimaud each had their own space in which to work and show their 'wares'… contemporary Maltese art has no ‘house’, although it is well deserving of one, and in its absence I feel an obligation/duty to find ways and means of promoting what is happening in Maltese art scene now. It is not only the past which sets a context for the future but it is a combination of the past and the present. Contemporary culture needs to be promoted and safeguarded in the same manner deserving of cultural heritage.”
The Malta Arts Festival
Entrance to ‘SPACES’ exhibition
Writing in the Times of Malta on July 17th, Parliamentary Secretary for Tourism Mario De Marco did not shy away from political rhetoric and the title for his piece, ‘In support of culture and art events’ betrays a general concern for proving that public funds are not ‘wasted’ on cultural event. Lauding ‘OSPIZIO’ he added that this “magnificent production encapsulated where Malta's unique selling cultural and artistic selling points lie […] it is truly a pity that such productions are not held over a longer period. They add uniqueness to our cultural and tourism offering. Of course, we need to find the proper formula to make them sustainable, something which, to date, we have not yet managed to crack … this is one of the challenges that the cultural policy and plan aim to tackle. The government has, over the past years, increased its support to cultural and artistic events. While government funding towards the arts remains critical, it is essential that we also manage to increase private sector support.”

Gilbert Calleja

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