2014: could do better

collageThe highs and lows on the local arts scene throughout this past year. This feature first appeared on the Sunday Times of Malta’s Culture section. 

Some of the artistic projects that came to fruition during the past year.

As 2018 and everything it should bring with it race towards us, it’s been a colourful year from an arts perspective.

There have been highs – a lot of them. However, there have also been what could be considered setbacks, leading many to question whether we are on the right track to fulfilling the potential that comes along with being a European Capital of Culture.

To start with the positive – a thriving scene for Maltese literature, with more and more high-quality books published by local authors and a stronger overall interest in things that are related to the arts is evident. National arts festivals keep growing and attracting more interest, even from overseas.

Although the focus remains mostly on the traditional arts, there is also an ever-growing under-current of projects that may be termed less ‘populist’, for want of a better word.

We have seen puppetry at ŻiguŻajg children’s festival, performance art celebrating parkour at the first edition of the Valletta International Visual Arts Festival (VIVA), a contemporary circus at the Malta Arts Festival and tattooing based on local typography at Notte Bianca. What is encouraging is not simply the fact that these are happening, but also the fact that public response is gradually increasing.

Contemporary art is finally getting a look in, also thanks to festivals and individual enterprises. Many, however, remain firmly married to a more traditional idea of what should constitute art

Younger people are taking a more active role in those areas that interest them: #malteen was mostly galvanised by teenagers themselves, both Malta Comic Con and Malta Comics & Pop Culture Expo (is there space for both on such a small market?) saw an incredible amount of budding artists showcasing their creativity, Teatru Manoel Youth Theatre and Teatru Manoel Youth Opera constantly see a lower average age and a higher influx of talent…

The music scene continues to grow stronger, proving that yes, people do want more than the likes of the Eurovision and myriad other, tired song festivals that encourage a formula more than they encourage innovation.

You can read more about this year’s music highlights in Michael Bugeja’s roundup on page 2. One issue that needs addressing is the availability of performance venues in Malta and Gozo.

Artistes and bands continuously bemoan the lack of properly-licensed venues.

To a certain extent, the complaints are justified. Bands seeking smaller venues to perform in have mostly migrated to Django, Valletta, since Coach & Horses stopped taking regular bookings.

The more enterprising ones are opting to use alternative spaces like the Splendid, also in Valletta, village band clubs, or even, as Plato’s Dream Machine memorably demonstrated, more original venues like the Holy Trinity Church in Sliema. The recently opened Electro Lobster Project also holds promise.

The flipside is that such spaces are not licensed until the early hours.

As things stand, bigger concerts requiring late night licences are limited to a handful of viable options, among which Ir-Razzett l-Aħmar in Attard and Buskett Roadhouse seem to be gaining ground. It is time for the licencing problem to be tackled in an effective manner by the authorities.

On to visual arts. Contemporary art is finally getting a look in, thanks to festivals like the afore-mentioned VIVA and to individual enterprises. Many, however, remain married to the more traditional idea of what should constitute art. Żieme, an installation by Austin Camilleri featuring a three-legged horse, created an uproar against what was perceived as “a maimed animal”.

Some months later, street art on post office boxes carried out by celebrated French artist C215 was greeted with similar cries of disapproval, this time by Maltapost officials and even by some sections of the media, which dismissed the artist’s work as “stencils cheaply obtainable on Ebay”.

Most of the artworks disappeared without explanation that same week – a sad decision, especially considering that the artist’s works are en-shrined in museums and art galleries abroad.

Theatre is, perhaps, the sector that fares best. We have had foreign scripts, local scripts (both original and reworked), drama, comedy and everything in between.

Even here, however, audience response remains tied to the ‘tried and tested’, with few willing to experience pro­ductions that don’t fall squarely within the box.

It is encouraging to note that some original forays into ‘ex-perimental’ theatre were well-attended, albeit by the ‘usual faces’. What can be done to help such productions reach new audiences? The Pill by the Rubberbodies Collective and Du Theatre’s Forget Me Not spring to mind.

People are perhaps more easily willing to get outside of their comfort zone when it comes to dance. Production companies like Dorian Mallia’s, with Dorian Grey, Naupaca Dance Factory, with Divina, Contact Dance Company, with their choreography for the multi-disciplinary Il-Kantilena Karba ta’ 500 Sena, Karba ta’ Żmienna and others consistently pushing boundaries.

Film and television seem to have reached a stalemate. Locally-produced teleserials are failing to make the quality leap that is necessary with respect to acting, scripting and even overall production. Many reasons have been brought forward, the obvious being budgetary constraints. However, this smacks of over-simplification. On the film front a number of short film productions give reason to hope, as does the full-length feature Simshar.

But, while the latter is certainly to be lauded for the sheer magnitude of the production, it would be counterproductive not to recognise that the industry still has a long way to go.

In the meantime, 2018 continues racing towards us with many still eager to find out more about what exactly is being planned for the year that Valletta, and the whole of Malta, takes the spotlight.