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Generating new narratives in the arts

Fikret Atay’s photo artwork Country for Old Man, on display at the Valletta Contemporary.

Fikret Atay’s photo artwork Country for Old Man, on display at the Valletta Contemporary.

A festival of film, contemporary arts and debates is inviting visitors to open their eyes to the perspectives of artists from different parts of the world and to rediscover spaces they thought they knew or never regarded as interesting.

The Mahalla Festival, being held in Malta for the first time, is spread over a week at different locations – MUŻA, Museum Fortress Builders, Studio 87, Valletta Contemporary (all in Valletta), a palazzo in Żabbar and the Chinese Garden of Serenity in Santa Luċija.

Swedish artist Rio Drop will install a bathroom with human hair objects at the Żabbar palazzo.Swedish artist Rio Drop will install a bathroom with human hair objects at the Żabbar palazzo.

Local artists taking part in the project include Kristina Borg, Margerita Pulé, Raphael Vella and Darrin Zammit Lupi, while international participants involve displaced artists with less familiar names.

The word ‘mahalla’ means ‘neighbourhood’ or location in Arabic (mähallä), but it takes on a wider meaning in this context.

“The Mahalla Festival was invented as a space to give voice to displaced artists and to connect them to international arts with the aim to act together against international dystopian realities,” says Sabine Küper-Büsch, a German film-maker and journalist based in Istanbul.

She is the curator and organiser of the festival, together with her husband Thomas. The festival was created in Istanbul last year.

“We are living in a globalised world but mobility is limited to some people with privileged passports like you and me. Still the normal citizen won’t go for holidays to Syria or Iraq. It is a spot indexed by war and suffering in the media reality. But this is not the whole picture,” Ms Küper-Büsch said.

By travelling there as a crisis journalist, she was confronted with a complex reality.

She said she met “amazing artists in the most peripheral spots”, adding that some of the best poets live in Afghanistan and her favourite electronic music is produced in Syria and Northern Cyprus.

“War and conflicts inspire great artworks,” she added.

“The most innovative German poet, Berthold Brecht, was a refugee his entire life. During Mahalla we want to share these artworks to create more complex and interesting pictures that reduce the fear against ‘the other’ which is widespread in Europe.”

This was one of the reasons the Turkish festival was brought to Malta as Ms Küper-Büsch believes the island has less xenophobic tendencies than the rest of Europe. The other reason being its strategic location at the outskirts of the EU and thus its exposure to migration flows like Turkey.

The festival aims to show realities from a global perspective. Austrian artist Katharina Swoboda made a video in Indonesia about the Chinese minority there after a residency in Yogyakarta; while Kurdish artist Erkan Özgen produced a video in northern Iraq with Ezidi women victimised by the Islamic State.

“No one can go there easily and Özgen managed to get strong interviews without victimising the women. It’s a different picture than the usual refugee camp scenes we see on TV,” said Ms Küper-Büsch.

A space for inspiring conversations and new visions

The Mahalla Festival also wants to generate new narratives.

“When I chose Żabbar as a location, the local artists were not very thrilled at first. They found the venue peripheral,” Ms Küper-Büsch noted.

“Actually, it is just our perception of centre and periphery. The unconverted palazzo is a piece of history. Every artist that stepped in there or got the photos I sent to Sweden, Turkey, Austria and Germany, was excited and inspired.”

Among the works at this location will be a video titled The Flood by Turkish artist Fikret Atay which was produced in Gotland, Sweden.

“Since Atay is displaced himself from a region close to Mount Ararat, where Noah’s Arc mythology was invented, he is able to narrate his version of forced migration in a very different way from how a Western artist would ever dare to,” the curator pointed out.

A still from a video showing an Eritrean Orthodox church by Pawlos Yowhanos, a participant of the Mahalla Video Workshop.A still from a video showing an Eritrean Orthodox church by Pawlos Yowhanos, a participant of the Mahalla Video Workshop.

Mr Atay will also be launching his first work produced outside of Turkey at Valletta Contemporary, a space specialised in video art.

Another relatively new venue is Studio 87, an old warehouse close to Valletta Waterfront where, among others, Raziye Kubat is going to share the drinking tradition in Turkey by serving raki (an unsweetened, often aniseed-flavoured alcoholic drink) and antipasti.

MUŻA (Mużew Nazzjonali ta’ l-Arti) will host various talks and film-screenings and the video-art-exhibition of the Mahalla Festival on its ground floor. There will also be ideo artworks about the Maltese diaspora in Tunisia, the Georgian shadow-play and its tricks to bypass censorship, traumatised German veterans, future migration to space and suitcase memories from Palestine and Syria.

The Żabbar palazzo, a venue of the festival.The Żabbar palazzo, a venue of the festival.

The festival will also feature many works regarding gentrification and economical hardship, also concerning the European population.

“The Mahalla Share House at Museum Fortress Builders is offering a very diverse picture of our globalised economies. It is political but our narratives are quite witty and undogmatic,” Ms Küper-Büsch said.

“Mahalla wants to be a space for inspiring conversations and new visions to trigger all our ability to create and live utopia and to oppose dystopia imposed by political realities.”

The Mahalla Festival, which opens tomorrow and runs until November 25, is organised by the Istanbul-based association Diyalog in cooperation with MUŻA and Heritage Malta. The festival is realised in close cooperation with several Maltese initiatives of the civil society which are working in the fields of cultural inclusion and intercultural dialogue. These are the Sustainable Design Collective, Inizjamed, Utopian Nights, African Media Association Malta, Sudanese Migrant Association, Integra and Rima.

For details about the festival’s programme, visit www.mahalla.inerart.eu.

Kristina Borg’s You Are What You Buy, at the Mahalla Share-House at Museum Fortress Builders. Photo: Matthew CallejaKristina Borg’s You Are What You Buy, at the Mahalla Share-House at Museum Fortress Builders. Photo: Matthew Calleja

Güneş Terkol’s artwork Whispering Tulle.Güneş Terkol’s artwork Whispering Tulle.

Margareta Pulé has built a cement bakery as a statement on the topic of gentrification.Margareta Pulé has built a cement bakery as a statement on the topic of gentrification.

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