Review: Two Heads and a City


Kemm Aħna Sbieħ min jaf Jarana

From the crazy kitsch to the downright thrashy, Nadine Noko’s exhibition, Two Heads and a City, brings Valletta to life.

I have always been a fan of Nadine Noko’s intriguingly quirky designs. I approached her solo exhibition at The Splendid, however, with an extra dose of anticipation. As part of the title itself, Two Heads and a City, may imply, the focus is Valletta. Or rather, my hometown and childhood playground, as I prefer to call it. The ‘two heads’ bit refers to Noko’s own, of course, and to Bonnie’s  – canine companion and business partner to Noko.

Valletta has a very particular charm. The dilapidated buildings, the grand palazzi, the odd yet (mostly) loveable characters that inhabit the different districts (and yes, each district has its own personality), the rituals – football, festi, każini – that you seem to find only here. And the fashion. Oh lord, the fashion. The gold barbazzali (chokers), the black roots against peroxide blonde hair, the tight skirts, the flok ta’ taħt (vest) masquerading as outer wear… These are all traits that instantly identify someone as a Belti. Which, perhaps, is one reason people used to be so flabbergasted whenever I proudly declared my origins. The indignant look that followed usually shut them up fast.

Spot a valletta lawyer

Spot a Valletta Lawyer

I used to think that these oddball traits can only be understood by someone who has the benefit of years and years living in the city. Preferably from birth. Outsiders tend to turn up their nose. Not so Noko. An ‘adopted’ Beltija who regularly posts about ‘life in the ghetto’, her love affair with the city is evident to those who know her.

Now, the love has been translated from the social media to the visual arts, with this exhibition that captures the spirit of everything that spells out ic-City in glorious, digital technicolour. From the mini-skirted women to the horse cabbies making the rounds of the city and the old men bitching on the zuntier, to the self-important lawyers posturing in front of the law courts and the ubiquitous football-related pieces.

A picture, or a photo, says a thousand words. Add the element of kitsch, and a glorious weirdness that permeates most of Noko’s pieces, and the story definitely becomes one that is worth discussing long after you leave the exhibition.



Although I enjoyed all the pieces, some did leave more of a mark than the rest. James Dean Ta’ City, depicting a bare-chested, tattooed man in front of a very recognisable building, is one such piece, depicting a stereotype that is hilariously common.

Kemm Aħna Sbieħ min Jaf Jarana drew me back and back again with the intricate depiction of a delivery man’s tattoos, set against the vivid background of yellow gas cylinders. Family Business, depicting an undertaker’s workspace, was another puller (particularly because I know the actual people it is based on).

Do not miss out on the room at the very back – the Valletta football chants emanating from the area will guide you. Take a couple of minutes to enjoy the photographic slide show; the photos are a quaint depiction of the way the other side lives, with a heavy element of retro.

Besides the obvious visual attraction – which is considerable and owes a lot to Noko’s effective use of colour, combined with her way of creating totally spot-on facial expressions and inserting minute details that clinch the tableau, as it were – Two Heads and a City has another very strong thing going. When you look at all the pieces as a whole, they tell a cohesive story. Like individual chapters from a book, each piece comes together to present a tableau depicting daily life in the city. And it is a realistic tableau at that, the quasi- fantastical approach takes away nothing from this.

Finally, the individual captions to each piece are a delight in themselves, each depicting a tiny detail from the tableaux. And as everyone knows, it is the detail that spells the difference.

Two Heads and a City runs at The Splendid, Strait Street, Valletta till October 29.