MA dance and The Ritual (in Malta)

Two series of works by two local artists
Two series of works by two local artists

Review: Black Sea – St. James Cavalier

The opening night at ST. James Cavalier on the evening of Friday 20th saw the unveiling of two new series of work: Black Sea by Adrian Abela, and Nigel Baldacchino’s Sajda.

The Ritual video installation presented by Abela features three burnt Madonnas, each of whom was a Lady of the Oil, “Madonni Taz Zejt”. The installation includes striking film footage captured out at sea. The artist attempted to complete a pilgrimage from Malta to Libya, across the Mediterranean sea and what he is calling “the Black Sea.” Named as such for the reason that the Mediterranean is scoured for its oil reserves and also for due to the fact that a large number of black Africans are found attempting to sail North to Europe.

Abela writes a parable into the symbolic Lady of the Oil, contrasting the desire for successful oil trade with the a symbolic burning which represents the ultimate end to consume and exhaust that oil. Unfortunately, the depth of the subtext lies in a tedious study of the work’s title and the supporting text. A reading of the installation would not lead to immigration without support of the text. Abela’s social comment extends to mainland Malta as the work continues to make a statement about the prevailing religious mysticism and the superstitions that are deemed socially acceptable in Maltese culture. As such, his burning effigies shout about the limits of these superstitions as they leave national waters and then only whisper about immigration.

Two other rooms offer gallery goers paintings and prints by the two artists. Baldacchino’s artworks layer up text and images, creating stories, but the work is largely ineffective. The images owe a lot to Photoshop’s pin light layer tool and the text seems to be better off on its own. Far from being justified, Baldacchino’s images appear to be a tokenistic gesture to the customs of the conservative gallery space and as such they are neither effective nor necessary.

Accompanying his video installation, Abela’s paintings on circular boards feature conceptual symbols on a two tone background. Ships, figures, oil rigs, the seemingly obvious equations of these symbols create short and open-ended narratives. Though the perspective Abela grants the viewer is not clear. What is an observer intended to leave the gallery with? Is it a criticism, a commentary, a statement, an observation, none of these, all of them? Many of those people passing those paintings that day admitted that the subject needs to be articulated more clearly, what exactly is being shown? Why.

Despite its faults the exhibition offered some challenging ideas. Some questioning Malta’s geographical roles and the social values that Malta upholds. Notably the exhibition at St. James Cavalier succumbed to a cliché of being a male dominated arts event. All the artists presenting were male, and consistent with the social norms, the dominant subject matter in all the visual works, was in one way or another, the patriarchal Catholic church. Art should be challenging convention, it ought to be an incubator for diverse and critical thought, at any rate I look forward to the announcement of an all female exhibition for up and coming young artists in Malta.

Review: Masters of Dance – MITP

Performers from Malta University danced at Valletta’s MITP on Friday 20th. The Dance MA students study under the guidance of Jo Butterworth, an internationally renown director of performance arts, and  Mavin Khoo, whose performance experience scopes such popular contemporary artists as Akram Khan and the Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company. This January evening exposition of body movement reached out into a wide range of material and presented Malta’s developing contemporary dance scene. As it is popular in Europe today, the performances on this evening used film projection and customised soundtracks to compliment the dance. Butterworth’s gave an introductory speech, concluding with the phrase, “hopefully the work will speak for itself”.

Sitting for two hours through the presentation of body movement, the audience witnessed dance that was consistently misunderstood, plagiarised, and phrased inappropriately. Styles and techniques were rapidly beaten out, ranging from references from Sasha Waltz to Keersmaeker and from Ballet to Modern. Having a basic knowledge of dance will tell you that it was developed for different cultures, during different eras, in different social systems, and was shaped periodically by different aesthetic thinking. The bundling of widely sourced references created sequences of movement that confused the crowd of onlookers. However, one of the four performances sparked a light in the audience, a performance that took a theatrical approach. The performance, entitled “Sssshh!” was engaging, entertaining, and tickled the audience. “Sssshh!” used physical theatre, a technique that helped connect onlookers to a story, and then using torches the performers guided the audience through it.

During the interval, some members of the audience began to express their feelings towards the work. One individual said “the performers were putting styles and movements together, that did not belong together.” Another man that night remarked that they saw “Mavin Khoo’s Swan Lake” appear unexpectedly in one series of dance movements. After the event I was able to speak to a group of audience members who offered their interpretations of the evening. These people, mostly in their 20s, stated that social conservatism contributed to the slow development of Malta’s contemporary Arts scene. They also opined that surrounding social prejudices and prohibitions are a demanding bed partner of the Arts and are impacting performances’ growth. That the theme of animal cruelty results in 20 minutes of dog whines and girls scrambling in ropes, whilst another theme of dreams and memories translates to literal representations of sleeping and conventional uses of mattresses, suggests that the students capacity to be “imaginative” is not encouraged by their institution. Arts desire novelty and imagination, even design requires having “an eye for it”, this evenings choreographers have to fulfill this prerequisite for being an creative.

Whilst international arts shoot forward Malta remains a sapling taking root. This presentation was below the standard existing in mainland Europe. Butterworth’s and Khoo’s challenge is to lead contemporary arts from obscurity and up the rocky road to recognition. Malta anxiously turns towards the title Capital of Culture and it is clear that further support and care is needed before the Arts scene will be presentable for this.

As Friday night’s entertainment came to an end and the audience’s polite clapping faded, an important lesson came to mind. Picasso, one of the Western world’s champions of the 20th Century, said that whilst “good artists copy, great artists steal”. Meaning that one learns his craft by imitating, and by mastering and understanding that craft he owns it. This is a lesson sorely missed.

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