“What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed” – Julian Barnes.
A channel can separate but it can also communicate. In geographical terms, channels exile land masses from each other. One such channel isolates the UK from France and the rest of continental Europe.
It has tilled the breeding ground for historical rivalries that led to long years of bloodshed. Channels also isolate mainland Italy from Sicily and Malta from Gozo, establishing a petty claim for a separate identity. The mere kilometres separating these land masses create a mutual, slightly out-of-synch perspective and an animosity that has created absurd tales of mistrust and suspicion.
Cross Channel is a collection of short stories by Julian Barnes. These prose pieces take on the perspective of British individuals who have crossed the English Channel to live in France and to adapt to a different lifestyle. The 35 or so kilometres of ocean that separate Dover from Calais have kept the two historical arch enemies within striking distance by fuelling a mutual disenchantment and snobbery. Disparaging anecdotes deriding the neighbour’s natives have been laced with an inbred hatred that is the product of a lingering doubt that ‘they’ might just be better than ‘us’ and, after all, ‘we’ are the butt of jokes as much as ‘they’ are.
Such parochialism at this macro level is just as pronounced on the micro Malta-Gozo level. Six kilometres of Mediterranean Sea has narrowed the mind of the two communities, the larger of which is afflicted by a geographical north-south diffidence of its own. There is a preoccupation with a certain bipolarity inhabiting all aspects of our archipelago’s daily life which stifles the sense of belonging to one homogenous community composed of 21st-century liberated Maltese citizens.
David Debono and Mark Mallia are two contemporary Maltese artists who willingly acknowledge and challenge our two islands’ sibling rivalry by narrating their own ‘short stories’ in an exhibition hosted at the Ċittadella, the proud heart of the smaller sister island.
Debono delves into his personal history – which is actually the history of his birthplace – and wrests out painfully evocative moments or recollections. The relentless passage of time has adorned these stories with a golden caramel hue, which Debono has so dexterously succeeded to transmit into the fabric of his paintings. In what happens to be the young Gozitan artist’s first exhibition, this journey into nostalgia does not cloyingly descend into empty sentimentality and cliché.
The restrained palette, the Andrew Wyeth-like love for the land, and the Gozitan dialect from which he has drawn the titles for his works root his 15 ‘short stories’ in Gozo – the island where time stood still. The child’s reluctance to take the daily bath in Il-Banjow does not deter the patient mother from attending to the former’s personal hygiene needs. The earthy magic realism of Spanish artist Antonio Lopez Garcia shines in David Debono’s Dok inhor tal-Preċett, Rużurju and Tħarisx!.
Rużurju captures an intimate moment in the life of an old relative – probably Debono’s grandmother – in calm introspection as she recites the rosary in the wan comfort of her bedroom.
There is no luxury in these interior surroundings; the old woman is cold as the bitter damp wafts out of the peeling walls. Her husband and lifelong companion does not share this bedroom with her anymore, and her children have families of their own.
The rosary chant offers comfort, while the spirit and memory of her husband imbue the prayer with nostalgia as she entreats the Lord above, His mother the Blessed Virgin, and a multitude of saints to deliver the soul of her dear beloved from the pangs of purgatory to the sanctity of the pearly gates.
The commonplace is elevated to pure poetry as Debono extracts and distils its essence, peeling off all background noise. Each work extends an invitation for us to peep furtively into the hauntingly deceptive mundane.
The young Gozitan artist’s knack for portraying ordinary people and events in all their intrinsic relevance justifies the ferry trip across the channel for a viewing. Andrew Wyeth’s dictum “I paint my life” might very well be Debono’s own.
Mallia’s collection of grotesque sculptures represents society’s dropouts who inhabit his dystopian anthology of decadence, vice and debauchery. They shout and moan and squirm for attention, ready to narrate their short stories which are as old as civilisation.
This exhibition is a quest to bridge generational, geographical and conceptual gaps
Mallia moulds these figures out of lumps of clay, his fingers shaping them into stereotypical categories of ordinary, but socially ostracised, individuals. Deprived of their unique personal identity in being known to others only by their nicknames – here utilised by Mallia as titles for the works – these characters’ predicament is very much indicative of their working class reality. They are golem-like, expectant in anticipation of some life-bestowing word that might liberate them from their prison of immobility. They are rooted to the ground as their lower limbs are lacking, having not yet been formed. They are impotent and belong to the earth, enslaved as they are in anguish and existential pain.
Italian sculptor Medardo Rosso (1858-1928) developed a style in which form is fluid and chance takes precedence over structure. His figures attract attention by an apparent unsophistication, and their drama is immediate as the pain is unadulterated.
Maltese pioneering sculptor Josef Kalleya (1898-1998) achieved this liquidity in such a manner that one would almost expect the works to dissolve away. He also experimented with chance by sometimes leaving his still wet, unfinished sculptures out in the rain and allowing the elemental to burnish them in a unique way. This series of Mallia sculptures is endowed with a frenzy of workmanship that is so characteristic of the Maltese artist, and has much in common with the aforementioned techniques of Rosso and Kalleya.
Mallia’s rapid dexterity adds an improvisatory freshness and a psychological edge to the works as he kneads lumps of malleable clay into these studies of wretched Maltese stereotypes.
One is here reminded of the devotional statues which adorn the entrances of some wayside cemeteries. These tormented souls, their hands clasped in prayer, seek redress from the pain of purgatory into which they have been temporarily exiled. The mire of fire surrounds them, purging them from all misdeeds and sins committed during their time on earth.
They wait in hope for their family members, whom they have left behind, to remember them in their prayers – in so doing, hastening their purged soul’s salvation by its entry into the kingdom of heaven. There is hope for these expectant souls after all.
Similarly, Mallia’s helpless characters are like souls at the mercy of an eternal damnation meted out by a judgemental and unholy society. They are abandoned to their fate, deteriorating at the mercy of the elements.
The childhood sheen of innocence once held the promise of freedom and great things, but it turns out that adolescence and adulthood have oxidised such expectations. Disappointment and subterfuge have eaten into these characters’ souls, reducing them to rusty shadows of their former selves. The agony of their silent screams and entreaties for clemency achieves no redemption as no one listens to them and prays for their salvation.
This exhibition is a quest to bridge generational, geographical and conceptual gaps. It is a duologue between an established and an emergent artist. Echoing Barnes’s observation that “a pier is a disappointed bridge; yet stare at it for long enough and you can dream it to the other side of the Channel”, Cross Channel aims to transform a flailing pier into a fully-fledged bridge. Debono and Mallia speak different, sometimes even antagonistic, artistic languages, yet they have bridged and crossed the channel. Let us do so too.
Cross Channel is open until November 26 at the Sentinella, Ċittadella in Victoria.