The Malta Independent 18 June 2024, Tuesday
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Parallel Existences, The Notarial Archives, A Photographer’s Inspiration

Tuesday, 6 November 2018, 09:20 Last update: about 7 years ago

Photographer: Alex Attard; Editors: Joan Abela and Emanuel Buttigieg. Published by Kite Group, 2018, Hardback, 272 pages

Parallel Existences. The Notarial Archives: Alex Attard A Photographer's Inspiration, edited by Joan Abela and Emanuel Buttigieg forges a novel book where photography, art and history interlace to weave a new tapestry held together by a common thread: the "fragments" found at the Notarial Archives in Valletta, Malta. At the heart of this volume is the artistic photography of Alex Attard. Through the photographer's lens, a number of manuscripts - in particular a series of contorted manuscripts, witnesses to the ravages of time, nature and human complacency which apparently had no immediate purpose because of their lamentable condition - suddenly found purpose. These photos, together with this book, are an attempt to deal with the challenge presented by our own internet age where the past is both more intimate and more remote, readily found and just as readily forgotten. archive is not just for researchers but can also act as a place of inspiration for artists. The book is divided in two parts. The photos in Part I draw upon what once was, to create something new; the essay by Attard himself explains the genesis of his artistic photography, while five essays by artists and art critics that accompany this part provide a stimulating and creative interpretation of the photos. The chapters in Part II, written by nine leading experts in their fields, tease out what can be done with the material that survives in a better state. Ranging in focus from 11th to the 20th centuries, these essays powerfully illustrate some of the many research possibilities that the Notarial Archives lend themselves to. It is hoped that this first notarial archives-inspired artistic venture will lead to many more and that the historical studies will entice other researchers to walk through the doors of the Notarial Archives. We know where we are if we know where we came from: thus the fragments of the past are the light that shines upon the wholeness of the present.



Ground-breaking work

Giovanni Bonello

President of the Notarial Archives Foundation

The derelict, unkempt and mistreated Notarial Archives of Malta had their renaissance at the hands of someone who was both a visionary enthralled by the past and an antiques addict glued to the future. Joan Abela gave the archives the kiss of life when their last vestiges of vitality were draining out, and precipitously. Today, what had received life in extremis, is flourishing enough to give life to others. This book is one result, born from what up to quite recently many dismissed as terminal.

Parallel Existences pays tribute to the implausible creativity of the photographer Alex Attard who, in the Notarial Archives, discovered unbearable beauty in decay, harmony in disorder and energy in detritus. A photographer who shuns what meets the eye and finds relevance in what the eye ignores or rejects. A photographer of a parallel existence, the poet of junked reality. Attard, more particularly his ground-breaking work, has inspired a number of toilers in the aesthetic and philosophical vineyards to translate into words the aethereal language of that haunting spirit. 

Abela and Emanuel Buttigieg have converged their dynamisms to bring about the first collection of essays inspired by, or related to, the Notarial Archives. A harvest of original works all anchored to the res gestae of our ancestors, mostly bilateral contracts and unilateral wills; in other words, the irrepressible interactions of life and the inevitability of death. Fragments from the 11th century, the vocabulary of society, landed property and mendicant orders, landmarks that are no more, the presence of Jewry in an almost hostile context, new discoveries in baroque sculpture, vestiges of the evolution of the theatre from notarial documents, musical scraps, or more, hidden in bindings and the still rather threadbare history of pioneering photographers in Malta. It is quite fitting that this book should record the documentary sources of the earliest Maltese photographic activity by ladies at the same time that it records the work of a Maltese photographer who has pushed the frontiers of the avant garde as far as they could go.

As president of the Notarial Archives Foundation I am unashamedly proud of all this. The Foundation exists to promote various ideals, principal among others, to ensure that the rich and unique collection of notarial documents entrusted to its care is preserved and protected in a professional, efficient and accessible manner for future generations of researchers and the general public. Other objects and reasons of the Foundation include assistance in establishing a centre for historical and scientific investigation for the study and dissemination of information contained in the Notarial Archives, and to turn the archives into a state-of-the-art conservation hub.

One of the statutory objects of the Foundation is moreover to issue publications and produce audio-visual material to spread knowledge about the archives, and to organise exhibitions that will help the Foundation fulfil its social vision. This book goes some way into launching this further part of the Foundation's statutory functions.

Seeing under one cover the first results of research almost exclusively inspired by the Notarial Archives gives both gratification, and, more importantly, hope. To resort to a cliché, this is just scratching the surface. There are two kilometres of volumes shelved at the Archives, a virgin gold mine of every precious ore and gem, still to explore and to enrich those who do not measure wealth solely on the money markets.

'Parallel Existences. The Notarial Archives: Alex Attard A Photographer's Inspiration' will be available from The Book Festival between 7 and 11 November at The Mediterranean Conference Centre Valletta or visit

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