The Malta Independent 21 May 2024, Tuesday
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‘Only a mother understands her mute sons’

Monday, 28 September 2015, 12:35 Last update: about 10 years ago

Opening our ears and listening to the Other

Irene Biolchini


"How is it to live in Malta? Where is Malta? What's new in Malta?" Living on the island has a special allure for foreigners. According to all my friends, I am living in a magic, exotic and unknown fairy-tale place. Is that real? Of course it is not. Malta is not so exotic, not so green and not so blue. Anzi! What makes Malta interesting for me is its otherness: if we try to compare it with the Mediterranean stereotype based on the image of small white houses located in front of the sea, we will discover something completely unknown.

I remember that my first visit to Malta was a shocking experience: the tyranny of concrete was explicitly visible in the small bays that I previously saw in the tailor-made edited postcards. But then..., well, then I started to really know the island and I gradually understood that the most fascinating parts are the ones that are not rural, green and blue. I fell in love with incredible places such as the Three Cities in which the dockyards coexist with Churches, a casino, small taxi boats and super yachts. Places in which the industrial area, history and contemporary neo-liberal policies are so mixed together that it is very difficult to separate one from another. Places that offered inspiration to artist Mark Mangion's The Departure; concepts which inspired the works exhibited at STARTLE (held at the St James Cavalier one year ago), but also ideas that are substantial to Maltese cultural production today.

The increasing amount of curatorial and artistic practice, brilliantly described by Nikki Petroni in her article published a couple of weeks ago, is consequently obliging us to open up our discourse to that which is entering from the outside, without any fear, but with the authentic spirit of finding ourselves in 'the other'. This challenge should not be perceived as obvious, especially if we take into consideration the right-wing wave which is crossing Europe and which is provoking potent nationalist attitudes in several European countries. Challenging this attitude means to also dismantle standard artistic and curatorial practices (based on mutual knowledge and trust). This situation can be described by a superb expression in Neapolitan dialect: "I figli muti li capisci solo la mamma" and which can be translated more or less as "Only a mum understands her mute sons". In other terms, if someone lives so close to someone else no words are needed, everything will be understood without need for oral communication: in such situations there's no need of explaining, no exigency to articulate, no obligation to describe. The person in front of you will understand, regardless of the way in which discourse is articulated. In between such a perfect osmosis of critics and artists intervenes the other and, suddenly, the on-going bilateral dialogue between the mother (the critic) and the mute sons (the artists) is disturbed by an annoying interruption: someone, who did not grew up here, who did not speak the same language and, even worse, who pretended to be a part of it, interfered with the normal and intelligible flow of data transmission.

Just to be clear, the 'mother' and 'sons' phenomena it is not limited to our island, but it is typical of all close communities and cultural circles. When Miquel Barceló, one of the most influential contemporary artists and the subject of my doctoral thesis, arrived in Barcelona at the end of the Seventies he was shocked by the narrowness of its artistic community, something that he defined as a closed circle which was only interested in the conventional and which therefore could not accept his new language and variations. The idea that each community has its own "secret" language was also fought by Lucio Fontana who adamantly refused to be confined to his century (he was born in the year 1899) and who continuously developed his own language in the spheres of Futurism, Expressionism, Baroque and Arte Spaziale. This continuous change was possible for him only due to his thirst to meet young artists, of discussing his theories with them and of living (in the profound sense of being an active participant and not just a passive resident) in Italy, even if it was not his mother land.

The Mdina Biennale will be characterized by the presence of some foreign artists who are living on the island (amongst which Salvatore Calí, Daniela Guevska, Marianne Ogden): it will be interesting to see how their language differs from that of their fellow countrymen. In other words, we do hope to hear Dario Fo's grammelot in Mdina. This consideration is not limited to the fact that Fo will exhibit works in the Biennale (he will present a series of prints), but it is entirely founded on his adoption of grammelot: a mixture of different dialects and languages that can be comprehensible for the audience, thanks also to the gestures and the sounds adopted by the speaker. In a similar way, we do hope that the Mdina Biennale grammelot can speak to all the spectators and instigate an open dialogue in which the ability of hearing is equally important to that of speech.


The Mdina Biennale is attempting to open the city gate to this parade of 'otherness', which is not limited to the visual arts. The opening event, a concert to be delivered by the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra in the Mdina Cathedral, will also reflect the thoughts of the artistic director, Dr Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci, who is trying to create a new spatial concept for the city. Contrary to the idea of the anonymous white cube which can host any kind of artistic intervention, the spaces of the city (and their history) will witness the installation of more than one hundred works of art specifically conceived for the space. These works will converse with the spectators and with the architecture so that all can interact physically, but can also hear and understand one another.



Irene Biolchini (MPhil) is a doctoral student in the History of Art Department, University of Malta. Her book, 'Le faenze di Lucio Fontana' was recently published by the International Museum of Ceramics in Faenza with the collaboration of the History of Art Department, University of Malta. She is part of the organisational team of the Mdina Cathedral Contemporary Art Biennale which will be held between 13 November 2015 and 7 January 2016. APS Bank is the main partner of the Mdina Biennale


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