The Malta Independent 10 December 2022, Saturday
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How to manage ‘Diplomazija astuta’

Sunday, 27 March 2022, 08:00 Last update: about 10 months ago

The Maltese Pavilion at the 2022 Venice Biennale will feature the curatorial project ‘Diplomazija astuta’. Emma Borg speaks to project manager and academic coordinator of the project’s Educational Outreach Programme art historian, curator and editor, DR NIKKI PETRONI

What was your first encounter with the Venice Biennale? When did you first hear about it and how?

I believe the first time I heard about it was when I was reading for my undergraduate degree. I first went to the Venice Biennale in 2011 when I was still in the beginning of my third year and I've visited regularly ever since to explore the international contemporary art scene. Visiting the Biennale truly is an exhilarating experience, especially for someone who's just starting out in the arts. I wish that I had the opportunity to work there when I was a student and am very glad that University of Malta and MCAST students have that opportunity today. I never would have guessed that I would be directly involved in Malta's pavilion project a decade after my first encounter with the Biennale.

 

How did you get involved with 'Diplomazija astuta'?

I was invited to join by the team leader, Keith Sciberras, and by one of the artists involved, Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci. They needed a Malta-based project manager and I obviously accepted straight away. I had been working with members of the team for a long time on various projects, so this felt like a natural progression, and have been involved with the project for just over a year now.

 

The role of project manager includes working on a variety of vastly different tasks. How would you define your role within the project?

Project management is one of the necessary but mundane elements of a project. You must keep track of deadlines, chase people, remain on top of what's happening with the project and organise regular meetings with different stakeholders. The team is made up of many different professionals working on the various aspects involved, from the technical to the administrative, the artistic to the curatorial, and it is important to maintain a synergy between all. Aside from our team, tasks need to be coordinated with the pavilion's commissioner, Arts Council Malta, as well as with the Venice Biennale administrative and logistical offices. So far, the work involved has taught me a lot about the management of tasks on a national and international level.

 

Esther Flury is also a project manager for the team. How do you differentiate between your roles?

Esther is based in New York where she is working directly with one of the curators, Jeffrey Uslip. I work more closely with the Malta team and with Arts Council Malta. It is important to also mention Arcangelo Sassolino's assistant, Laura Dequal, who has taken on the tough task of logistical coordination in Italy. This international character of the project makes it very dynamic. Ours is a team of artists, curators and art historians who have a strong academic and artistic grounding. The team is formed of a group of people who are devoted to research and inquiry. We all have a dedicated yet critical approach within our respective fields and this commitment to research and discovery is what makes this project so wonderful to work on.

 

 

You are also a curator of the APS Mdina Cathedral Contemporary Art Biennale. How do you feel your experience has helped in your role now as a project manager for the Venice Biennale?

The Mdina Biennale is a very ambitious project. It is thanks to its artistic director as well as my mentor, Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci, that our team achieved things I never thought possible. It is this project which taught me to never set limits for myself. The Mdina Biennale completely set the groundwork for my professional life as a curator and project manager. Tasks involved all levels of event production from building the website, coordinating the administration, communications, logistics and the installation of the works, editing and producing the publication, to selecting projects and discussing with artists over several months. I was involved in every step and this experience gave me a complete practical groundwork for all that I am working on now.

 

You are the academic coordinator of Diplomazija astuta's Educational Outreach Programme as well as a visiting lecturer at the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Malta. Given that your specialization is in modern and contemporary art, could you contextualize the important role the Venice Biennale holds within the history of Maltese modern and contemporary art?

Local research on Malta's art historical relationship with the Venice Biennale is still in its early years. There hasn't been a dedicated dissertation or study on Malta's role within the Venice Biennale. We are working hard to change this and generate further interest in the Biennale and in the international contemporary art scene in general. As part of the Educational Outreach Programme, a cohort of Erasmus students from the University and from MCAST will be travelling to visit the Biennale as well as work as curatorial assistants at the pavilion alongside a team of recent graduates. A group of students will be going up to Venice as part of the Study tour unit, which is a study unit offered by the Department of Art and Art History. This year's study tour is the first dedicated to contemporary art. The aim of this tour is to immerse the students in an international contemporary art environment and to challenge their ideas on art today. The students must study the history and context of the Biennale and produce their own independent research. The Educational Outreach Programme is designed for art history and fine art students, together with the general public, to gain an interest, critical eye and appreciation of the latest developments in local and global contemporary art.

 

You have previously said that for contemporary art to foster meaning or innovation the present must engage with the past. Could you explain how Diplomazija astuta engages the present with the past? Can you also give examples of other local artists who manage to do so?

The relationship between the present and the past is an essential element of the project as Caravaggio's Beheading of St John is being tackled by contemporary artists. The project unpacks the categories of historical linearity and periodization, which is a very bold endeavour. The biblical narrative of St John is being appropriated to tackle the injustices and political scenario today in a completely contemporary form. This non-linear relationship also presents an exciting challenge for the students who must study the baroque concurrently with the modern and the contemporary. We do have examples of such cross-temporal artistic negotiation in Maltese modern and contemporary art with the work of artists such as Carmelo Mangion, Josef Kalleya, Antoine Camilleri, and a number of others. In the contemporary years, the baroque and the contemporary have been skilfully bridged by some leading artists. Two exhibitions that come to mind are Re-interpreting Preti (1999) and Caravaggio quote... unquote (2007) which was curated by Keith Sciberras and also featured Schembri Bonaci's work alongside that of Caesar Attard, Vince Briffa, Anthony Calleja and Gabriel Caruana.

 

Much of yours and Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci's works aim on shifting the local perspective of Maltese modern and contemporary art. Given this quest to elevate Maltese modern and contemporary art, within our collective memory, how does this factor in with the inclusion of so much foreign influence on 'Diplomazija astuta', from one of the curators to one of the artists? Is this a benefit or not to the project?

One of the main tasks which Schembri Bonaci has undertaken with his academic work and artistic practice is to de-insularise the study of Maltese art, a challenge which I myself hope to continue. By expanding our international interaction and cooperation, and thus broadening artistic parameters, this project is bringing forth a dialogue between the international scene and the local one. We need to be more competitive and face the reality of living in a globalised society, while of course retaining our identity and addressing subjects of relevance to our culture. This means finding ways to challenge and elevate ourselves as well as establishing opportunities for the future. The beauty of art is that it transcends national barriers and borders. The structure of the Venice Biennale is that of national pavilions which are in competition with one another, and within this same structure the Malta pavilion is one that traverses national boundaries as well as temporal ones. It is important to expose ourselves to the outside world and vice-versa. As Joe Friggieri once said "you cannot open a window and expect the wind not to blow through". Art should strive for the universal and focus on humanity with a capital H.

 

Given that you and the project's team leader, Keith Sciberras, and one of the project's artists, Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci, are all members of the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Malta, has this impacted your interaction with the students? Are they more engaged and is there a greater interest in modern and contemporary art?

The excitement of the students is evident. Having the opportunity to directly discuss the project with Prof. Schembri Bonaci and I, as well as with Prof. Sciberras, has impacted the students in a positive way.  All of them are so happy to be involved in the project, which is already blossoming beyond the parameters of the installation itself. From the technical team to the researchers and the students, everyone feels that they are part of a dynamic international team. This question of involvement is core to the plan for more people to engage with contemporary art. This shows how important and impactful it is to involve students in projects and to expand the community of researchers and practitioners from this stage of their studies. I hope that they will retain this enthusiasm and pride to work on smaller-scale and local projects.

 

How do you hope that the audience will engage with 'Diplomazija astuta'?

The work is immersive and impactful and offers much to ponder about. As Keith Sciberras has previously stated, we want to create a space for the audience to freely reflect on contemporary injustices. What I do hope is that the project will incite the audience to question the work itself and the reality within which we are currently living, as well as the historical context which has given rise to our present. 


The curatorial team for the Malta Pavilion comprises of curators Keith Sciberras and Jeffrey Uslip, kinetic artist Arcangelo Sassolino, theoretic artist Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci, musician and composer Brian Schembri and lastly, project managers Nikki Petroni and Esther Flury. 


The curatorial project 'Diplomazija astuta' will represent Malta at the 2022's Biennale di Venezia international art exhibition. The Venice Biennale will be open to the public from 23 April to 27 November. The Malta Pavilion is commissioned by Arts Council Malta, under the auspices of the Ministry of National Heritage, The Arts and Local Government.

 


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