MALTESE ART IN CRISIS ?
Maltese visual art seems to be on the brink of some kind of breakthrough, however prevailing conservative tastes and a general lack of support risk undermining any true development.
By Teodor Reljic
That, at least, appears to be the opinion of many gallery owners and local artists.
"I seem to be noticing some exciting new sparks of creativity," Chris Gatt, General Manager at St James Cavalier Centre of Creativity, Valletta said. "Yes a lot of it is still derivative, however there seems to at least be a greater sense of the need to explore," Gatt added, while also voicing a very real concern: "My big fear is that these artists will continue to be frustrated about basing themselves in Malta and seek broader horizons."
The fear of a creative brain drain was brought into sharper focus last year, when Malta Contemporary Art - first set up in Marsa in 2008, then moved to the Upper Galleries of St James Cavalier in January 2010 - had to move away from St James altogether, "due to a lack of local support," according to its curator, Mark Mangion.
Mangion, now working overseas, described the local mentality towards art as "still a little backwards due to the general public's lack of exposure," though he still believes that "there is a growing interest in contemporary culture in Malta". But local artists might just give in to the temptation of moving abroad to pursue their passion if a more tangible support system doesn't present itself.
"Although things are a little better now but not much and nowhere near enough has been done. I think Maltese artists need to have a more international outlook. Malta is a small place and there are much greater opportunities overseas, though not easy to have a breakthrough. There are currently perhaps five to 10 local artists who are active on the international scene and sadly not a single Maltese artist represented at the important biennials, art fairs and museums," Mangion said.
Gallery owners also appeared to be alert about the dangers of stagnation. Christine Xuereb, owner of Christine X Gallery, Sliema, complained about how local art buyers remain conservative in their choices, opting for either Maltese landscape paintings or derivative works.
"I keep noticing that Maltese are very inclined to purchasing works by well known Maltese artists just for the 'name', not giving much credit to the individual artworks," Xuereb said. The impression that buying 'safe' paintings makes for an equally secure investment, is, according to Xuereb, something of a misconception.
"There are certain artists who become famous by sticking to what they have been doing for many years without experimenting. People tend to think this is an investment but when you see the number of similar works out there by the same artist, it is hardly an investment," Xuereb said, while adding that the work of more innovative contemporary artist - she mentions Jimmy Grima and Selina Scerri as examples - need to be given the same importance in order for the scene to progress.
Like some of her fellow gallery owners, Xuereb also recognised that local artists automatically do better than international visitors as they tend to enjoy an in-built audience. According to Xuereb, this can also have a detrimental effect.
"I believe that diversity is what brings about innovation, and if all we are buying is Maltese art, there's not much diversity to go around - we're just taking in either what Maltese artists gather from their own surroundings, or from studying abroad. Accepting foreign art could lead to educating the eyes to appreciate art through means of diverse styles," Xuereb said.
Sandro Debono, curator of the Malta Fine Arts Museum also noted a clear rift between local and international artists - "People do differentiate between Maltese and International artists; the former have a local audience the latter have not and this weighs heavily when it comes to exhibition attendance and exposure" - while observing that "save for a few exceptions, the contemporary remained mostly popular with the younger generations". The Fine Arts Museum intends to press on with contemporary international exhibitions, however.
"We remain committed to promote greater awareness irrespective of market trends. In fact our exhibition schedule this year included a sizeable doze of contemporary art which relates very little to the local art market," Debono said.
But it seems as if the very idea of locally-based contemporary art is problematic in itself.
"By its nature, contemporary art is not easily marketable, and a real market for contemporary art does not exist in Malta. Yes, there are some sales, and this is a good thing of course, but the existence of contemporary art in Malta is probably best understood as a small miracle that subsists despite the absence of a market," Raphael Vella, artist and Art co-ordinator at the University of Malta, said.
If there is hope, it lies in the proles
If the situation at the galleries and museums appears to be stagnating, the streets have recently been visited by an unexpected dash of colour.
Local street art initiative Putting Colour Into the Streets, launched last year and supported by the Malta Arts Fund, was established with the aim to get young people into the arts by painting murals and other - perfectly legal - street art initiatives.
Over the past couple of months, commuters have been able to enjoy a work-in-progress mural at Bella Vista Road, San Gwann.
The colourful, collaborative collage will hopefully be the first of many. Artist James Micallef Grimaud - the main driver behind the project - sees no real distinction between street art and 'fine' art displayed in galleries and that actually, street and mural art has a very real advantage over its more cloistered counterpart.
"These are works of art which go way beyond the conventional fine art work on canvas, which is restricted to a few who are lucky enough to afford it. We are actually bringing fine art to the streets," Micallef Grimaud said.
His colleague Christian de Souza Jensen agrees.
"We are doing fine art... just more on a public scale. Free for the people. Power to the people! You can't get more 'fine' than that..."
Picture: The mural at Bella Vista Road, San Gwann â€“ embellished by new street art initiative Putting Colour to the Streets.