David Pisani, “Procession of Our Lady of Sorrows” (2007), gelatin print (all images courtesy the artists unless otherwise noted)

VALLETTA, Malta — The Maltese archipelago, strategically positioned between North Africa and Europe, wears its history of occupation by Arabs, the Knights of St. John, and the British on the surface. Baroque palaces, red phone boxes, and street signs written in the EU’s sole Semitic language line the steep streets of the capital, Valletta, all the way down to the port where people have arrived and departed for centuries. The country is an amalgam of cultures and influences, and that complexity will be examined at the 2017 Venice Biennale by the Malta Pavilion — the country’s first national showing at the international contemporary art extravaganza in 17 years.

Homo Melitensis: An Incomplete Inventory in 19 Chapters, as the multidisciplinary exhibition is called, includes works by contemporary artists alongside items from national collections. It explores perceptions of identity, statehood, national characteristics, and territorial constructs, guiding viewers through 19 sections, each of which takes its title from a character in the Maltese alphabet.

A view of the Malta Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

“Identity is a perennial theme, but it has also become a very dominant one during the last few months in global politics,” curators Bettina Hutschek and Raphael Vella told Hyperallergic. “Malta’s smallness on the world stage necessitates a study of identity, a self-examination of some sort: who are these people, what are their allegiances, what are the features that they think belong to them?

“In the months leading up to Venice, we arrived at a deeper realization that we are all made of so many overlapping parts,” they continued. “Many of these overlaps crisscross each other in our pavilion, but stop short of reaching a consensus.  As co-curators, we are partly German, partly Maltese, partly within, partly outside, partly here and partly there.”

Gilbert Cajella, “Celine” (2015), gelatin print

The pavilion features a mix of invited artists based in Malta and those (selected through an open call) from across the Maltese diaspora. By including the latter, the curators “wanted to emphasize the fact that identity cannot be reduced to territorial lines,” they said. “Identities are exported and imported, mixed with new roots that grow out of new places we choose to call ‘home.’”

The pavilion marks Malta’s return to Venice after a 17-year absence. Its opening also coincides with Malta’s presidency of council of the EU and the buildup to Valletta’s role as European Capital of Culture 2018. The conditions are ripe for a flurry of cultural activity. Long dormant, Malta’s contemporary art scene is “between the underground and kicking off,” said Romina Delia, Internationalisation Associate at the Arts Council Malta, which commissioned the pavilion.

Delia credits the founding, in the early 2000s, of the contemporary art group StArt — of which Vella was an original member — as a pivotal moment. Contemporary artists had mostly been underground because of a decades-old law against the vilification of religion. “It was really overpowering Malta,” Delia said. But as artists began to work more openly, “they were demanding to be heard, to be allowed to question, to discuss things.”

In 2013, the Labour party was elected, ending 15 years of Nationalist rule; in July 2016, its leaders overturned the country’s blasphemy laws. The change “is working in favor of the artists,” said Delia, “because now they are freer to express themselves.”

Austin Camilleri’s “Rosary” (2002), wood, plaster, steel, silver leaf, installed in the Malta Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Several of the pieces in the pavilion attracted controversy and accusations of blasphemy upon first showing in Malta, such as Roxman Gatt’s “Virgin Mary’s Love Juice” (2015), a Technicolor video depicting the Virgin Mary beckoning from a juice carton while cartoon hearts float around her, and Austin Camilleri’s “Rosary” (2002). The latter, a string of crying babies’ heads hung like a rosary, reflects the artist’s interest in the role that the Catholic Church has played in Maltese culture. “It was very in your face in those days,” he said. “I was reacting to Maltese iconography of religion, but I was using a universal symbol. I was referencing the idea of religion, because I felt in those days that religion was important in society.”

Valletta, Malta (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

On the day I arrived in Valletta, one week before Good Friday, the city was dressed up for its Our Lady of Sorrows procession. Lightbulb-studded crucifixes hung suspended over streets and glowed warmly above doorways. Photographer David Pisani documented Malta’s Catholic processions from 2002 to 2007, and his image “Procession of Our Lady of Sorrows” (2007) will be included in the Malta Pavilion. “She seemed to be suffering,” he said of the woman in his photograph, for “everything she had to do for the church in her life. It’s a very anti-clerical statement.

“It’s no longer like this,” he continued. “They’ve modernized it. There’s all this music now. Before it was a very somber event, very quiet — the statue would come out, and there was this sense of awe. Now it’s like carnival with everyone dressed up in costumes. I seem to always catch the tail end of things.”

“138, Strait street, Valletta” (2000), Pisani’s second contribution to the Venice show, was taken in Valletta’s notorious area once known as “The Gut.” Filled with dance halls, sex workers, and sailors, and immortalized by Thomas Pynchon in his novel V, the Gut was relatively abandoned after the Royal Navy left Valletta in 1979.  Pisani’s photograph shows one of Strait Street’s last-standing dance halls and forms part of a 29-year-long project titled Vanishing Valletta, which will soon be collected into a book.

David Pisani, “138, Strait street, Valletta” (2000), gelatin print

Currently, chic new bars are opening on Strait Street, and the area is evolving once again thanks to Valletta’s burgeoning arts scene and status. It’s a typical story of regeneration through culture, but, Pisani said, “I am not trying to make a nostalgic documentation. I just thought it was a beautiful place even when it was empty.”

Other works in the pavilion include Gilbert Calleja’s colorful photographic portraits of members of Malta’s transgender community; Teresa Scriberras’s abstract oil and collage on panel works, influenced by the heavy construction work ongoing in Valletta; and Adrian Abela’s videos, which take as their subject the fireworks displays that form part of Malta’s traditional feasts. There is a sense of a tiny nation, independent for less than 40 years and an EU member for just over 10, interrogating itself as it steps onto the international stage. The pavilion, presented as an imaginary museum, will feature overlapping parts that reflect upon the layered themes of Maltese history, language, politics, and gender. Religion features heavily this time, but perhaps, as the church loosens its grip on these islands, that will change.

“I think we have to get out of this religious thing,” says Pisani. “There’s so much more to talk about.”

Roxman Gatt, still from “Virgin Mary’s Love Juice” (2015), video

The Malta Pavilion will be on view in the Arsenale at the 2017 Venice Biennale from May 13 through November 26.

Karen is a freelance writer from Scotland, based in New York City @karendesuyo