The Maltese islands are not as insular as they may often be thought to be, not in the past and certainly not now. Sure, they are located on the periphery of European, African and the Middle Eastern societies, cushioned by long stretches of daunting waters, but they also happen to lie at the frontier of where the cultural ripples of these societies meet, collide and transform.

The islands are a recipient, a vehicle, a half way point, a haven, a nurse, a stronghold, an obstruction, an impediment. All are correct. Indeed, many are the conflicting nouns and adjectives that may and have been used to describe the islands anchored in a state of liminality. Malta – its history, its culture, its people – screams ambiguity. Neither here, nor there.

It is only too appropriate, therefore, that Malta. Land of Sea, the exhibition held on the occasion of the Maltese EU presidency at Bozar Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels, invites its visitors – Maltese nationals and foreigners alike – to explore nine ambiguous chapters of written and unwritten history composed of unexpected  relationships, curious objects and strange sounds.

True to the main subject of the exhibition, the artefacts and works on display are token pieces selected from numerous national, private and foreign collections and which naturally enlisted the collaboration of a long list of lending museums, institutions and organisations.

Heritage Malta, the Maltese Diocese, Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti, Palazzo Falson Historic House Museum, the Victor Pasmore Gallery, Casa Rocca Piccola, the Malta Study Centre, the Notarial Archives, MOAS, the Louvre, the Uffizi Gallery, the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library, the Renzo Piano Foundation, the list goes on... but it is a multifaceted list that speaks volumes on Malta’s countless cultural connections that could not, for all their wealth, be contained within its shores. Malta, as a place, came first, but it is the people who mined and brought the gold.

Nonetheless, the departure and converging point of all these items is ultimately Malta. Yet the essence of the exhibition is what happens in between.

History, it is often said, is written by the subjective views of the victor. Likewise, we are on the privileged end of the timeline, a point of relative distance, but also, unprecedented proximity. We stand at a point from where objects, artefacts and artworks can be transformed in use and meaning in a completely independent way. From our end, with our knowledge or lack thereof, the object can thus become what initially, it was not.

What is Malta?’ and ‘What is Maltese?’ are questions we ought to approach with as much sensitivity, caution and curiosity with which we approach the question ‘Who am I?’

The curator, Sandro Debono, who was given a carte blanche in setting up this exhibition, was aware, and hence, cautious of this. Although he had an undeniably important conceptual role in bringing the whole thing together, it would seem that he crucially revoked some of his curatorial power and played, instead, to the strengths of this ‘privileged position’ of the public.

Perhaps, it is useless to muse on what sort of expectations and sentiments visitors will bring to the exhibition and with which they will consequently leave.

What sort of exchange will occur between the objects and artworks on display and the foreign and Maltese visitor alike?

Certainly, no size fits all. For a visitor with some degree of knowledge about Maltese culture and history, it might prove to be a rather enthusing experience, where familiarity with certain objects may recall memories or related stories. In others, the walkthrough experience might trigger a different sort of emotional response or even, desirably, an intellectual and contemplative one.

In truth, being looked at, contemplated and talked about is essential for the objects to retain some form of acknowledged existence in a world of multiple images and things which are so easily, so readily, replaced. These are objects, some more than others, which are constantly at risk of being lost, or worse, forgotten forever.

Every thought spurred by a supposedly ‘sterile’ object on display is a birth of sorts. Seen this way, the dark mausoleum of other­wise dead objects is quickly transformed to a spot-lit maternity ward, a motherland pregnant with stories, meanings and interpretations.

It is a place where visitors are free to engage with artefacts and artworks which are, in their majority, unknown and alien to them. The tokens on display are thus, like presentation cards, each wanting to be heard or looked at, each embedded with an invaluable part of a greater narrative.

The environment and general layout of the exhibit is one which, in fact, highlights the individuality of the items on display. It leads the visitor to focus on the singularity of the objects, their uniqueness, and their abi­lity to stand alone as objects, or fragments rather, of a long story told from the dark.

But light here also connects.

It humbles the objects competing for attention. Because what really would we know of the role both the land and the sea had in moulding our history, our culture, and certainly, if we should mention it, our identity, were it not for such remnants scattered throughout the ages?

Time, literally, tells. It is time which sheds light upon them, which imparts some form of meaning and sense of belonging, which enables us to draw both a linear and lateral narrative, if we wish to do so. 

The narrative, however, is in itself incomplete. But to be complete would have been contradictory and inaccurate. It would also have been too much of an ambitious aim, impossible even, for the exhibition to reach. Nor, if it could, would it want to.

Here, ‘What is Malta?’ and ‘What is Maltese?’ are questions we ought to approach with as much sensitivity, caution and curiosity with which we approach the question ‘Who am I?’

The sense of discovery, of satisfaction, but also, perhaps, of dissatisfaction and frustration, are key attitudes that the exhibition seeks to inspire. The exhibition guide helps, of course, to assist the visitor along the journey, but not once does it claim to have the last say.

The blank pages, metaphorically and not, are for us to fill; for us who stand on the privileged end of the timeline; for us who, through awe or contempt, are the best-equipped to make sense of the past and the now.

Two contemporary Maltese artists already had their say. The question is: what will yours be?

The Malta. Land of Sea exhibition, held in collaboration between the Maltese EU Presidency, Bozar, Heritage Malta and Arts Council Malta, is open until May 28. A catalogue published by Midsea Books accompanies the exhibition. For more information visit

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