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A creative brick in these walls

Having laid in deep slumber for decades, abandoned sites are being given the kiss of life through a unique exhibition, says Marija Schranz

Art by Jeni CaruanaArt by Jeni Caruana

Collapsing buildings, empty shells, and carcasses of past ambitions now in ruins do not necessarily inspire artistic thoughts.

Not so for Mark Magro, directing a new project that sees its inception through an exhibition currently running in Valletta.

Forgotten Landscapes is the first in a projected series of multimedia exhibitions and publications which brings together artisans and historians to tell the story of abandoned buildings in Malta.

Magro chose four places and assigned them to painters Mark Mallia, Jeni Caruana, Marika Borg and Caroline Said Lawrence who were then commissioned to produce one original artwork on site. The works were finalised at their respective studios. A collection of short films was also produced documenting the artisans as they worked.

Mallia worked at the Jerma Palace in Marsascala. Once a four-star seaside hotel, it provided employment to locals and assisted in the transformation of the community from a small fishing village into a popular tourist destination.

The hotel also once housed a presidential suite for former Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi. For Magro, its derelict and abandoned state provides a powerful reminder of the rise and fall of a foreign dynasty and captures a moment in time when the Libyan political leader’s influence in Malta was strong.

Jeni Caruana painting at Fort Campbell.Jeni Caruana painting at Fort Campbell.

After failed attempts to develop the structure into a commercial complex, the site was quickly stripped and left to decay.

Caruana set-up at Fort Campbell near Mellieħa. Known as the last fortification built in Malta, it responded to a need to have structures that eluded the advancements being made in aerial technology. The result was an array of camouflaged concrete structures tied together through a myriad of underground tunnels designed to protect allied planes as they landed in the nearby bay.

Caroline Said Lawrence drawing at Mġarr ix-Xini.Caroline Said Lawrence drawing at Mġarr ix-Xini.

The transition in architecture symbolised a change in the perception of power, which was no longer translated into the detailed stonework of grandiose fortifications but rather, in the cold, calculated machinery of modern warfare.

After World War II, the fortification fell out of use and was eventually abandoned after the British forces left the island.

Aħrax Tower, also in the limits of Mellieħa, was assigned to Borg. The oldest location of the lot, this building began its life as a De Redin coastal watchtower in the 17th century, the sixth in a series built to strengthen the coastal defence system.

Work by Marika Borg. Photos: Mark MagroWork by Marika Borg. Photos: Mark Magro

After World War II the tower became the summer residence of the British Governor and was then privately owned before being abandoned.

Gozo also has a presence with Said Lawrence based at the Mġarr ix-Xini pumping station. A 19th century British public works project, the station proved to be an engineering marvel. With all its many shafts, pipes, mines and tunnels targeted to provide fresh water to nearby communities, it forever changed the way locals lived.

By the 1960s, the underground galleries were extended and merged with the development of another nearby pumping station.

A painting by Mark MalliaA painting by Mark Mallia

With operating costs high and ageing machinery, the station was decommissioned and eventually abandoned.

Magro explains that he is drawn to these places primarily because of their solitude.

“They provide peace but also awaken an abundant curiosity of the past,” he muses.

“I am not only fascinated by how a structure is built but also by how it has evolved. The challenge is to tell or build a story out of fragments and resurrect a structure through collaborative research and imagination.”

This project is very important to Magro. Despite having pitched unsuccessfully to various stations, including History Channel and the BBC, and having applied three times for the Malta Arts Grant without success, he decided to go ahead and self-finance Forgotten Landscapes.

His luck turned around when he successfully pitched the idea to Spazju Kreattiv and was scheduled in this year’s programme.

A book has also been published, an amalgamation of research, artwork and photography of the artists and locations, with the participation of photographers Kristina Quintano and Dick Woolley. Heritage Malta, the National Archives of Malta and local historians also contributed to the content.

Forgotten Landscapes runs at St James Cavalier in Valletta as part of the Spazju Kreattiv programme until April 2. For more information, visit www.kreattivita.org.

Artwork, photography and book are for sale, with all profits going to fund dementia research. For more information visit www.wantedmedia.ca.

Mark Mallia worked at the Jerma Palace in Marsascala.Mark Mallia worked at the Jerma Palace in Marsascala.

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