Bringing together 24 artists – including many of the islands’ best known and respected – Human Matter is an exhibition that cements the Malta Society of Arts’ place on the modern Maltese arts scene. Iggy Fenech speaks to the three curators of the collective to understand its aim.

Founded in 1852, the Malta Society of Arts (MSA) has been an integral part of Malta’s arts scene for generations. Firstly, by giving space to, and funding art by, countless artists, including Gio Batta Delia, Emvin Cremona and Robert Caruana Dingli to mention but a few, and, secondly, by giving the public the chance to learn the arts, as well as age-old crafts, through its myriad of courses.

A few years ago, however, the Society embarked on a project to refurbish its iconic seat built during the time of the Knights – Palazzo de La Salle i Republic Street. The project had two intentions: to restore the baroque gem to its former glory and to give artists a better space to exhibit or perform in.

Following the rehabilitation of the building, the Society has also launched a programme of events for the rest of this year, as well as for 2018, that will include everything from local and international artists’ exhibitions to drama and piano recitals to comedy. The first major date on that programme was for Human Matter – A Collective Art Exhibition that brought together 24 established and up-and-coming artists.

“The idea behind the exhibition is to push the artists into thinking and testing their subconscious in order to form their own interpretation of human life,” says Joe Philippe Abela, a contemporary art consultant with many years’ experience in London and New York, and one of the curators of the collective. “We wanted people, including ourselves, to question and rethink what they think they know.”

The curatorial team, which also includes Elyse Tonna and Roderick Camilleri, kept the brief for the artists as general as possible in order to give them the chance to come up with their own perspective revolving around the parameters of human existence. In other words, the ‘being’, the ‘essence’ and the ‘identity’ that make a human being a human being.

“In the brief, the anthropocene [the current geological age, and the one in which human activity has been the most active] was used as a ‘hinge’ reflecting aspects of human existence as expressed in terms of living, acting and feeling, with all its social, cultural and/or historical implications,” Roderick adds. “It is a commentary on our manifestations and presence as human beings, including the background or milieu which we humans create ... in other words, the environment and the context which is shaped by our ethnicity, language, rituals, social and political systems.”

Human Matter is also a teaser of what the MSA has planned for the future of Palazzo de La Salle

Made up of Victor Agius, Caesar Attard, John Paul Azzopardi, Aaron Bezzina, Vince Briffa, Elisa Von Brockdorff, Kane Calì, Sabrina Calleja Jackson, Giola Cassar, Justin Falzon, Alexandra Pace, Paul Scerri, Joe Smith, Ritty Tacsum, Jesmond Vassallo, Raphael Vella and Robert Zahra, among others, the collective include sculptors, painters and photographers, as well as visual, video and installation artists. The Society had one request for the exhibition, however: that it should serve as a way of giving new artists the same opportunities, which is why a call was issued for MCAST and University of Malta students to join the exhibition.

“The artists were initially free to develop and investigate freely their own interpretation of the title and the curators’ brief and narrative,” Joe Philippe says. “Endless discussions among the curators and artists followed, whereby each individual proposal was studied in its own right and in relation to others, not neglecting issues involving materiality, structure and form while also collecting narratives to produce one whole – the story of Human Matter.”

The final exhibition, which features 17 works in film, installation, performance, painting and sculpture, takes audiences through an emotional journey of self-discovery – not of themselves, however, but of humanity’s place in the world. Its aim is to trigger emotions revolving around anything which is directly or indirectly affecting humans… A balancing act between philosophy, psychology, science and art, if you will.

More than that, Human Matter is also a teaser of what the MSA has planned for the future of Palazzo de La Salle and the Society itself as it continues to adapt to the changing scene.

“This is the first of 12 exhibitions to take place within the newly-refurbished galleries at Palazzo de La Salle,” says Elyse, who on top of being on the curatorial team for Human Matter, is also part of the committee in charge of the programme of events for MSA. “The intense exhibition programme is only a small part of the activity programme... The vast programme of recitals, concerts and plays in the concert hall itself is just kicking off, and this and last weekend the new concert hall hosted its first-ever performance, Ernest and the Pale Moon by The Shrinking Violets. The restoration of the chapel is also nearing completion.”

HUMAN MATTER – A Collective Art Exhibition is on until November 12 at Palazzo de La Salle, Republic Street, Valletta.

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