Cover photo: Homo Melitensis – Martina Cutajar / Instagram
In case you missed the big news – this year saw Malta returning to the Venice Art Biennale after 18 years with our own pavilion. It all came together under the title Homo Melitensis: An Incomplete Inventory in 19 Chapters, and has taken the form of a collective exhibition investigating the quest for a national identity through artistic, archival and documentary elements.
The exhibition – which is curated by Bettina Hutschek and Raphael Vella, and designed by Tom Van Malderen from Architecture Project – interrogates the unpolished aspects of Maltese life. International reviews have been great so far, but we learned from the horses’ (a.k.a. curators) mouths exactly what makes Malta’s pavilion so unique and crowd-pulling.
1. It looks at migration vs paid citizenship
The exhibition examines the way Maltese society talks about different people arriving on the island – the phenomenon of good vs bad foreigners. The exhibition shows migrants in the form of alien species, being rescued by a tragic-comic floating device. This ‘politically incorrect’ metaphor emphasises the human aspect of their fate, whilst the presence of palm weevil, Joe Sacco, boat people, and emblems of the country’s citizenship scheme brings together various ideas linking to the theme of how Maltese society receives visitors.
2. It compares verbal vulgarity with physical reservedness
Artist Roxman Gatt compares Maltese verbal cursing with the national reticence to display nudity. In her provocative video comparing visual and verbal violence, the artist uses swearing partly lifted from a hunter’s curses directed at German bird watchers.
3. It places hunting and taxidermy side by side
Whilst a Maurice Tanti Burlo’ cartoon discusses the relationship between hunting and voting in general elections, subsequent pavilion exhibits speak to the issue of hunting, fake/stuffed birds and bird song.
4. It gives the monti a starring role
The pavilion includes a monti (open market) stall, mock-selling Maltesers, Caravaggio wine, and an għonnella. It’s meant to represent the “sell out culture of the country”. The exhibit positions the monti as an integral part of the history of commerce in Valletta. It asks questions such as: how much Melitensia is actually imported? How much is cheap and inauthentic? How is identity translated into capital?
5. Same goes for the Maltese fenka
A taxidermic Maltese rabbit is displayed within the monti section of the exhibition. It in turn links to a rabbit bone sculpture by JP Azzopardi –
each symbolising the dominance of the rabbit in Maltese culture.
7. Even Lorry Sant gets a cameo
Part of the exhibition looks at traditonal values like work and family in Malta. It juxtaposes a Lorry Sant video with a prehistoric spherical stone – comparing a macho politician’s pose, grand socialist, realist monument, with a stone ‘ball’ borrowed from the museum of Archaeology – supposedly used for ‘work’ (building temples) in prehistoric times.
8. It discusses festi, religion and weaponry
The exhibition creates a link between festa banners and a cruci-hammer – converting religion into weaponry. Adrian Abela’s video – Nebula – explores rituals that occur during Maltese festi, and Austin Camilleri’s sculpture of a rosary, with beads substituted for babies’ heads, reconceptualises the meaning of the traditional object.
9. And doesn’t shy away from the phallic…
The exhibition’s catalogue has a whole chapter (F) dedicated to phallic forms – discussing the nature of comparing similar formed objects, and the implicit meaning their shape lends to them all. Think bombshells, car silencers, high-rise buildings, and the phallic Luqa monument; what’s the first thought that comes to mind when you visualise them?
BONUS: It blurs fact with fiction
Just in case the pavilion didn’t bring into discussion enough interesting themes – it also blurs the lines between what is real and what isn’t. The use of fake ex voto, and other facsimiles such as maps etc., are recurrent in the show. This speaks to the idea of the faking of a country’s culture – a culture that is constructed.
Additionally, the show’s official catalogue contains a weird arrangement of extracts, archival photos and a fictional text. It deliberately plays with notions of fact and fiction, becoming more like an art object than a proper catalogue.
Don’t forget that the Venice Biennale runs till the 26th November, so if you want to visit the pavilion to find out more fascinating facts – you still have time to hop on a flight and do so. Plus, if you want to know more about the rest of the amazing artists that showed their work in the pavilion you can find out right now by visiting the Homo Melitensis official website.