Malta may not yet have a museum of contemporary art. It is, however, rich in public monuments and sculptures that are unfortunately very often not of good artistic merit, and show no awareness of contemporary artistic concepts.
It is, therefore, a good initiative that it now has a sculpture garden that is set in the idyllic surroundings of Verdala Palace, the very first of its like on the islands.
It is thanks to President George Abela that this sculpture garden came into being. This President has shown great support to art and culture throughout his tenure, and he has also set up an exhibition space within San Anton Palace, Attard.
The 17 sculptures were inaugurated in the summer residence of the President, which forms part of the largest wooded area in the Maltese Islands. Among the sculptures are 11 by established contemporary artists, as well as two by international artists, and four temporary sculptures by students of the Institute of Art and Design at the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology (Mcast).
To the left of the main pathway is the larger amount of sculptures by established artists – Richard England, Gabriel Caruana, John Grima, Paul Haber, George Muscat, Angelo Agius, Mario Galea, Norbert Francis Attard, Joe Xuereb, Neville Ferry, Dolores Lungaro Mifsud, Hedva Ser and Fu Zhongwang.
It is heartwarming to see a contribution by the late ceramist Neville Ferry, which was donated by his family. Shrine forms part of a series of altars relating to the primitive cult and stands erect on a limestone plinth. It is remarkable for its colour and details, and it really complements the set of ceramics on display at Verdala Palace.
Tranquility by Paul Haber is a play on brightly coloured ceramic spheres that float in the coloured liquid and plexiglass cylinders that rest on the ground at an incline. Its variety of visual forms, the seeming instability and the changing movement within, add to its interest.
There were several sculptures executed in stone, the more remarkable of which was John Grima’s Evolution, where the hardstone is sculpted into a large abstract composition, which, as the title suggests, evolves before our eyes, tapering towards the top.
Close by are Richard England’s Mediterranean Penguins. This consists of a sculpture group made up of what could be a family of penguins of different sizes, each brightly coloured in a different shade.
The ‘immigrant’ penguins can easily be spotted, and add sophistication and charm to the garden. They are, moreover, an intriguing subject to have in our context, but it is so fitting when, as a nation, we are dealing with immigration. So there is more to this installation than prettily-coloured birds.
It would be a shame if the Mcast students’ group contributions are only being temporarily displayed
Another intriguing concept and execution is the Spirit of the Wolf, by Norbert Francis Attard, the only interactive sculpture in this garden and which seems to be a suspended cuboid that is covered with mirrors.
The visitor is invited to climb some steps to reach the enclosed space that is also covered with mirrors, to find a statue of a howling wolf, which multiplies itself in the mirrors.
It would be a shame if the Mcast students’ group contributions are only being temporarily displayed. I say this because some of their sculptures are among the best. These are all located to the right of the main pathway.
The most alluring was a simple geometrical sculpture – Aaron Bezzina, Maria Borg and Alberto Zagami’s You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation, a title derived from a quotation by Plato. Although long, it is quite apt for the purpose.
The sculpture consists of a cuboid balancing itself diagonally on top of a sphere that is embedded into the soil. The structure is static, but seems to be dangerously poised.
Movement is, on the other hand, the main focus of Arabesque by Pamela Bezzina, Christa Gerada and Andrew Portelli. The galvanised steel wire twists to form several circles that make up a dancing female form.
Another offering by Mcast students to the garden was Stag Sculpture by Marisabelle Grech, Christian Micallef and Ezekiel Vassallo. A very well thought-out theme that has connections to the early history of Verdala Palace which served as a hunting lodge. Their sculpture will easily grasp your attention and compassion.
All of these blend very well with the nature surrounding them. Also blending very well, but leaving an adequate impact, are red and white benches that were conceived as an original concept inspired by an interpretation of the beauty of nature at a decomposing stage.
The red benches designed by Mcast graduate, Enrique Tabone, are blown-up, fallen leaves inspired from nature and integrated with it. These were designed as a project by past Mcast students, who were the first to work on the sculpture garden mapping each and every tree and shrub.
The Verdala Sculpture Garden is a commendable initiative that was carried out with the support of the Ecosystems Management Unit within the Environment Protection Directorate, Mepa and BOV.