The Malta Independent 9 December 2018, Sunday

A moral story that missed the tune

Marika Azzopardi Monday, 25 January 2016, 15:23 Last update: about 4 years ago

On an island so very close to us, there used to exist an age-old tradition which is, sadly, no more. The Sicilian 'cantastorie' was somewhat different from our very own Maltese 'ghannej', in that the 'cantastorie' not only strummed a guitar as he crooned and sung his story, but also made use of visual aids in order to illustrate his ballads.

Generally a tale of woe, tragedy or tragi-comedy, the sung tale of the 'cantastorie' could be visually followed by means of a sequence of coloured drawings that provided a time-line with the help of which everybody, young and old, could understand the happenings of the story. These stories were often-time based on true facts, becoming legends intrinsically woven in the social network of remembrances. All this happened way before TV, movies and internet existed, when literature was a luxury of the educated and the rich, when common folk could only rely on the spoken word to excite their imagination and pictorial details were an added bonus. Just such a 'cantastorie' was the famously lauded Sicilian Ciccio Busacca (1925-1989) whose verse and song were so effective that they caught the attention of the great playwright and composer Dario Fo who actually dedicated a song to laud Busacca. A famous story sung by Busacca was that of the 1950s real-life bandit Turi Giuliano.

Fast forward to the present day and a current exhibition by the young Maltese artist Ryan Falzon. His art, presently showing in Valletta, vividly reminded me of the 'cantastorie' tradition, as I viewed each and every artwork on show. Indeed, 'Quick Fix: a morality tale' would have been an excellent subject to sing about, even though Falzon, does not create a clear-cut identity to his central character and the storyline cannot be easily interpreted. His imagery follows the line of a riddle of sorts, a puzzle asking to be solved, teasing the viewer to give meaning to the series of 14 lino prints and their evolving account. The entire collection of works gleans inspiration from medieval morality tales and plays, relying heavily on allegorical imagery, and allegories, as we all know, can be fraught with hidden meanings and philosophical undertones.

Ryan Falzon is in his second solo to date. His first had been held in 2014, at The Maritime Museum, a collection of lino prints and paintings gathered together under the title of 'Ex-Voto'. This time round, Falzon has delved uniquely in lino prints, respecting the print tradition by compiling a contained series of works, pretty much presented as over-sized playing or tarot cards. Using colours which pop out with intensity, the artist  has created prints with colour registrations that range from a two-colour to a more complex six-colour registration. The prints are successfully aided along by flowing lines and strictly controlled margins of error. Each lino print is backed by text written by curator Michael Fenech, whose words contribute to an interpretation of the riddle depicted.

Interpretation is a big word where allegory steps in. Take for instance the fact that Falzon has include 14 prints in this 'morality tale'. In numerology, the number 14 has many positive connotations, but at the other end of the spectrum, the number 14 also signifies risk-taking, a headstrong character and the ability to influence others negatively. Should we add this aspect to the equation? Then again, the Stages of the Cross, depicting Christ's crucifixion, are also 14 in number, also depict Christ's experience of suffering, one sad picture at a time.  Yet Falzon's story is not about a Christ but rather about a Judas.

In a very narrowly carved nutshell, from Falzon's depictions, one can glean a story that speaks of the making of a relatively modern-day criminal, a notorious culprit whose repute rises and falls dismally as violence is replaced by haggard submission, and perhaps a repentance of sorts.  Each print can be interpreted as loosely as one desires, since the context is very evidently local, very evidently colourful and very evidently tied to popular opinions of a recent past.

Falzon has certainly been adventurous on three counts - firstly, presenting an exhibition of lino prints, a rarely used and little appreciated medium on the local art scene; secondly, delving in a socio-political-cultural idea of what leads to the making of a Maltese 'bandit' of sorts; thirdly, touching upon a great many contradictions tied to the vulgar, the moral, the heathen and the saintly.... all part and parcel of a curious blend of our Mediterranean, Catholic, superstitious and variegated baggage.  Most definitely, a 'cantastorie' would have loved colouring the story with his tune.

 

Quick Fix: a morality tale - a lino print exhibition by Ryan Falzon; Heritage Malta, Melita Street, Valletta. Open until February 3, 2016. Tuesday - Saturday 10.00 - 16.00; Sunday 10.00 - 13.00.


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