The Malta Independent 5 March 2024, Tuesday
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The life and work of artist Frank Portelli channelled into giving a platform to emerging artists

Semira Abbas Shalan Sunday, 11 February 2024, 08:30 Last update: about 22 days ago

The upcoming interdisciplinary project, Frank u Jien (Frank and I) will simultaneously celebrate the life and work of Maltese pioneer in modern and contemporary art Frank Portelli, as well as provide a platform for young, emerging artists to delve deeper into this part of history.

Between 15 and 25 February, a performance - a cross between theatre and exhibition - and a lecture will allow audiences a glimpse into the life and mind of artist Frank Portelli, who was a co-founder of the Malta Modern Art Circle in 1951.

Taking place in the late artist's studio-archive in Attard, his archive and art works will be opened for the public to see.

Portelli's granddaughter, Tamara Fenech, told The Malta Independent on Sunday that her grandfather's way of recording everything was a sign that he had intended for something to be done with it.

Producer Annalisa Schembri and curator of the project Andrew Borg Wirth also gave their insight into the sustainability of the project, which is being supported by Arts Council Malta.

Making his career mostly in interior design, the art Portelli created was mostly kept within the family or given as gifts by himself. Fenech explained that Portelli did not really sell his paintings.

"We are opening the lid to these archives and paintings that had been kept inside these walls," Fenech said, describing her grandfather's works as sentimental to the family, having grown up with her grandfather's paintings all around her.

Borg Wirth said that Portelli's works are quite recent history, and the way it is tackled, and how people can relate to it, is also something new.

The paintings decorating Portelli's self-designed studio were created between the 50s and 70s. Fenech said that these paintings were quite "undiscovered" in Malta, and now the public can appreciate them fully.

She noted that there exists a synchronicity between the public's desire to access the archives and the industry professionals' acknowledgment that they need to be shown.

The idea for a theatre exhibition, which showcases his artwork through a performance in Frank u Jien, a site-specific piece in Portelli's old studio, initiated in 2020, when Fenech had just moved into the studio herself.

She then met Borg Wirth and expressed to her mother that he would be the ideal person to curate if they had to do anything with her grandfather's works.

"Nannu would have turned 100 years old in 2022, and for his centenary celebration, the family thought it would be nice to do something that would align with that timeline," Fenech explained.

"I told Andrew that we wanted to do something different, I wanted to live up to my nannu," Fenech said, recounting how she also worked on a set of principles for the project, which aligned with who Portelli was.

Innovation, high principles, honesty and transparency encompassed Portelli, and Fenech said that these values became the roots and guiding principles for the family, and for Frank u Jien.

The script for the performance was written in Maltese by writer Maria Theuma, directed by Becky Camilleri and produced by Annalisa Schembri.

Borg Wirth said that he was very interested with the idea of portraying the visual arts through performance arts. "You need a literary artist to take you there," Borg Wirth said, referring to Theuma.

One thing he emphasised on, however, is that the production does not only involve advanced artists, but the team is working with emergent, exciting artists, who can use the project as a platform.

"We are studying Portelli at when he was our age," Borg Wirth said, drawing a parallel from the young artists, highlighting the juxtaposition of looking at the past, while bringing in the future.

"The worlds of visual arts and performing arts are usually separate, so I thought it would be important to bring them together to truly understand the artist," he continued.

The play's two main protagonists are the archivist and the art historian, with each scene portraying a different presentation of the "I" (jien).

It centres around the 1950s when Portelli, having returned to Malta from London, established the Modern Art Circle, married his wife, welcomed his first child and commenced the development of his first impactful style - Crystallised Cubism.

The play is structured through the eyes and experiences of the contrasting two, bringing out other close relationships the artist formed along the way.

"The audience never meets the artist, but they almost build him up, through the experience of others," Borg Wirth said, to maintain sensitivity.

Fenech said that it is a new way of experiencing and understanding an artist, as opposed to going to an exhibition or a museum, where the art would be displayed on a blank wall with a placard explaining it.

She said that Borg Wirth has curated a space for the audience to delve deeper into the artist, and make their own interpretations.

"That's why it is titled Frank and I, to maintain the experience of the 'I'," Fenech explained.

She stated that one of the principles she established is to provide backing for emerging artists and to promote contemporary art.

Borg Wirth emphasised that the power of the project lies in its independence.

"We collaborated with great people, but the project is ours, and we could take it where we want, pushing these boundaries and parameters, and hope that our team will take those values into other projects they take on," Borg Wirth said.

Schembri added that during the first discussions on whether to approach a foundation or work on the project independently, there was the feeling that the team would lose control of the project. "We had, perhaps the spine, and the vision to do it ourselves, on our own two feet," Schembri said, despite the delay.

Fenech said that at the start of the project, she was checking in with her family often, especially Portelli's children. The family gave a lot of freedom to the project, with some boundaries to be respected.

"Nannu had the long-term vision. We, as a family, planted the seed, initiated something as owners of the archive, which is then sown and watered for it to grow," Fenech said, referring to the team.

Borg Wirth and Fenech encouraged artists to trust the process, describing Frank u Jien as "sustainable". "Creative processes and 'fast' sometimes do not go hand in hand," Fenech said.

"Many projects in Malta are very short-term, being victim of this myself," Borg Wirth said, acknowledging that some projects need to be "fast" but it is important to invest in such sustainable projects, where practitioners involved learn from the project.

"Our appreciation of the modern is very recent, so these projects allow for growth. That was our responsibility," Borg Wirth said.

Archivist Natalie Formosa was introduced to the project, adding to the team of professionals dedicated to the project, as well as researcher and art historian Isabelle Elisabeth Borg, who had done extensive research on Portelli's works along with his wife, Rosa.

The project aims to bridge the gap on modern history, as well as send a message to authorities that families who own such heritage need to be supported, subsidised and protected, if need be, to counter the destruction many Maltese artefacts or heritage often suffer, the team said.

Through the project, Borg Wirth explained that it was important to preserve the tangible heritage, as well as capture the intangible heritage, which is the story to be told in memory of Portelli and other artists.

"Archives are a platform, a reference point," he said, adding that the project also raises awareness for younger generations to learn more of this heritage.

Fenech's message for families who have inherited works of art from a late family member, and wish to display it to the public, is to take their time without rushing, "but once you do open that door, a stronger emotional bond can be formed with the person who is no longer physically in this world".

"Now, we are going through a whole new period of him," Fenech said, describing it as a "beautiful journey".

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