The Malta Independent 3 March 2024, Sunday
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Strada Stretta

Malta Independent Sunday, 1 May 2011, 00:00 Last update: about 11 years ago

I never got further than Vincenti Buildings (that bourgeois edifice just before the back of the Law Courts coming down from South Street) in Strait Street when I was growing up. Beyond that point was the gateway to depravity. So it was no wonder that, despite the veto, the place had a certain kind of sleazy allure and that it is now, as it was getting more and more dilapidated, on the way to being regenerated. This time with a somewhat different clientele. For one thing the navy has long gone.

That part of Strada Stretta was certainly not a place for girls to be seen in. It was the city’s red light district at the time when Malta was a British naval base and its then Admiral Louis Mountbatten lived on my street (the former admiralty is now the Museum of Fine Arts).

The Gut, as it was known, perhaps derived from the gutter (as in a degrading place) was ‘the’ entertainment area for the navy’s personnel. The narrow alleyway was packed with bars, restaurants, dancehalls, cabarets and women to entertain the sailors. And though the establishments have gone, many signs, advertising the various venues in various stages of decay, are still in situ. (iphoneography of Strait Street signs by Laura Peischi).

It was in the fifties “A place of iniquity that attracted just about every sailor in Malta, no matter what creek their ships was anchored in. It was a wild place and it very often got out of hand. So much so, that it wasn’t uncommon for a large ship to be denied entry into Malta until a large ship already there had sailed, as it were, to make room for more riotous and unruly behaviour,” according to Godfrey Dykes’ (ex navy) website.

At a current art exhibition at number 74 Strada Stretta, just after Malata’s back door (the appetising smell of good food had already lifted my spirits as I walked to the venue), Dyke’s image comes to life in an inspired installation by three young artists, Julian Mallia, Danjeli (it is the correct spelling) Schembri and ex colleague Paul Mizzi.

The Gut Bar: an interactive installation invites viewers to become protagonists in a multimedia performance. One is invited to play a piano, even if one cannot string any notes together. As soon as you start hitting the keys, jazz music emerges and a large visual on the wall depicting a Strada Stretta bar in its heyday comes to life with drunken sailors swigging beer and sprawling around, while a ‘hostess’ goes through her paces.

“The piano functions as a dream machine − briefly bringing to life the characters that gave Strada Stretta its identity. Through this interaction visitors can get the feel of what the Gut lifestyle used to be,” Julian, the instigator of the project told me.

“Our project started off when Paul informed me that Fondazzjoni Temi Zammit (FTZ) wished to assemble a group of artists who were willing to help in the Strada Stretta regeneration project. Having collaborated with Danjeli on a number of occasions, I thought it would be a great idea to rope him and his talents in as well.

“Using research as inspiration − particularly observation of location, musical resources and reference to George Cini’s publication − we came up with a number of potential ideas. With a theme such as Strada Stretta it made sense to opt for something exciting and lively.

“It was at this point that I suggested using a real piano that triggered relevant imagery upon viewer interaction. In this way viewers could become active participants of a fun installation, which is congruent with the lively spirit of the good old days.

“The idea was deemed as being visually striking but also simple and doable. So after some bargaining we assigned ourselves different roles according to our competencies. Danjeli took care of the music and the programming wizardry. Paul, being an experienced graphic designer, took care of the typographic aspect and I took care of the illustrations and the overall visual aspect.

“The idea evolved along the process and, inevitably, it started taking on a surreal tinge. The musical collage, the disproportionate size of characters, and the typographic arrangements along the walls: all contributed to the chaotic, cheerful and lively feel that characterised tumultuous Strada Stretta. Technical aspects were also taken into account and were generally restrained by our limited, mostly improvised, resources,” Julian told me.

This installation is not the only exhibit worth noting for rekindling the atmosphere of The Gut. Pierre Portelli’s striking Homecoming, made up from a variety of cutlery depicts the swallow and heart tattoos sailors used to favour.

They represented homage to home and hearth and a safe return home to their loved ones. “The cutlery replaces skin deep ink to symbolise a homecoming to a nourishing and loving home,” Pierre told me.

Bertrand Fava’s Bloody bathroom installation is another poignant exhibit. I nearly missed it, thinking it was just the loo. It is up just a few steps. You have to go in and shut the door to get the unnerving, creepy feeling that you have stepped into ‘the’ Hitchcock Psycho set. However, it is not just murder that the bloodied bath conveys to the imagination.

I missed Enrique Tabone’s foetuses inside glass exhibit and I must say I am not sorry I did. I just don’t have the stomach for such displays. Moving on, I did wonder as I saw clothes hanging in the courtyard, whether people still lived in the house. I got the same feeling when I stumbled on the bathroom, until I closed the door. But the clothesline and a large painting are the work of James Micallef Grimaud.

There is also an installation in the entrance hall by Stephen Micallef and Martina Eminyan Vassallo; a music video projected in a bedroom by Francesca Schembri; some interesting nudes by Anna Grima; paintings hanging in clothesline in a balcony by Romina Delia and impressive iphoneography by Laura Peischi and Seana Willis-Yuste.

“The moment I entered the house I was fascinated, and I knew that I wanted to make an iPhoneography project about the house and Strada Stretta itself.

“The challenge was to tame and adjust it’s incredible technical possibilities to the dignity and historical richness, and the old traditions of Valletta, and especially of Strada Stretta, with it’s so lively past,” Laura told me.

The exhibition is part of a European project to create ‘Incubators for Cultural Enterprises’ in six Unesco World Heritage cities. FTZ a regional development agency based at the university is the Maltese partner in the project, which is funded by the Med Territorial Cooperation programme.

The exhibition is still on and the opening hours are Monday till Thursday 10 am - 1 pm, Friday and Sunday 5 to 9 pm.

74 Strait Street

For more information, or to participate in future initiatives, call FTZ on 2340 2189 or e-mail [email protected].

[email protected]

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