The Malta Independent 19 October 2019, Saturday

Valletta Ghost stories in London

Malta Independent Saturday, 24 July 2010, 00:00 Last update: about 6 years ago

Maltese born, UK based artist Mario Lautier Vella (pictured) will be taking part in his first group show in London next week, showing work inspired by family ghost stories. The work will be shown as part of the City Lit Fine Art Course Exhibition at the City Lit Institute, Keeley Street, London WC2B 4BA from Tuesday 27 July – Friday 30 July.

Taking cues from found materials sourced in both Malta and the UK, inspiration was also gained on the streets of Cospicua, Msida and Valletta’s Mandragg and Marsamxett neighbourhoods where the ghost stories are set. The result is a variety of mixed media work that combines a number of techniques including sculpture, assemblage, painting, printmaking and writing.

Pieces including Mandraggar: Reliquary, Mandraggar: Residual, Bormliza (Prayer For Jessie Chircop) and Mandraggara (Prayer For Antonia Mallia) explore the characters and environments that feature in much-loved stories told to him by his parents about their encounters with spirits. These are true stories about invisible bed-mates inflicting painful scratches and bruises, strange incidents of communication between the living and the dead and how once-placid ghosts are provoked to violent and murderous acts.

“Coming from a deeply religious family, I have had a long-held fascination with the esoteric and the power of the invisible – be it divine intervention, Mediterranean superstitions or supernatural occurrences. My father’s stories of his childhood set in Valletta’s Mandragg and Marsamxett Harbour have always intrigued me. But it was always his tales of his life spent in haunted houses that would hold the most fascination as he recalls time and time again how his mother would see and talk to ghosts.

“I’d also began to notice how the stories would change over the years. As my parents age, their memory is clearly affecting the stories. Narrative structures would alter slightly, family friends and neighbours could make sudden cameos or be omitted completely; minor details and key dialogue would also be embellished or forgotten.”

Subsequently, text features prominently in the work inviting the viewer to literally read the work. Key phrases from the stories sit side by side, collide into each other or fade into the natural or treated surfaces of the materials used. Verbatim from the spirits – questions they allegedly asked or threats they made – as well as lines from prayers, newspaper articles and other found printed material flow across the work – a practice that stems from Lautier Vella’s career to date.

“I love how written text looks. Having studied typography and information design at university, my love of words and writing goes back to my school days. I have also enjoyed stints as a music and film journalist so writing comes very naturally to me. Subsequently it often finds its way into my work. The irony is that my father is illiterate and so the printed word has a different power and pull for him. Nonetheless the stories and his telling of them are so visually and verbally rich that I wanted the work to reflect that.

“I also love how the Maltese language appears to non-speakers and how they react to it. I often find that there is an initial familiarity towards it, probably due to its use of the Roman alphabet. Then something interesting happens as they begin to stumble, struggling with how certain Maltese words are hyphenated or how there are multiple versions of the same letter. Suddenly what should make for simple reading becomes indecipherable – it lends itself perfectly to the work in that it adds to the sense of mystery and ambiguity.”

A recurrent motif of the work is a pencil dangling from string, as well as phrases from a traditional ouija board translated into Maltese.

“Something I wanted to explore was the significant role of the eye-witness. The majority of the stories were passed down as oral history to my parents and members of my extended families who weren’t actually there to witness the atrocities they describe. My grandmother Antonia features in a great number of stories. It seems she saw ghosts everywhere, to the point that she would even converse with them or see them as clear as day. Yet, with Antonia now dead, we can only go with the narrator’s version of events. This means it’s impossible to get the true versions of what can be easily written off as pure fantasy.

“As a result, I increasingly liked the idea of the work serving as a conduit between the living and the dead. Just as the Victorian spiritualists used visual media such as spirit photography, ouija boards and automatic writing, I too wanted to introduce the notion of the work having the power to communicate with the other side – that if the dead wanted to have their say on what actually happened then I have provided them with the means to do so.”

The final stage of the year-long project would be to show it in Malta, something Mario Lautier Vella is keen to do before he begins his MA in Fine Art at the University of Westminster in London later this year.

“It would be a dream come true to bring this work home to Malta. I feel that a Maltese audience will bring a unique appreciation of the work thanks to an enduring love for storytelling and an almost cultural, traditional belief in il-hares. It would be fantastic to do a story-telling circle in Malta just as we’re doing in London where my parents will tell the stories in person, in Maltese. To hear and see them do so with the work present in Malta would somehow complete the cycle and bring new energy to the stories and the souls involved.”

Mario Lautier Vella’s work are being exhibited from Tuesday 27 July through to Friday 30 July, at City Lit, Keeley Street, London WC2B 4BA.

For more details, please visit www.mariolautiervella.com

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