The first time I had an inkling that Covid-19 might have an impact on my Valletta gallery space was on the 5th of March, just before the world changed forever. An artist who’s upcoming show was booked for the end of April entered the space for a meeting with a worried look on her face. “I’m not sure about going ahead with the exhibition,” she said. Puzzled, I asked whyever not? “The coronavirus has hit Italy really hard and I’m certain the pandemic is on its way to Malta. Can we postpone the show?” It’s only now that I understand how absurd my initial reaction was to what we now know to be the most valid of concerns. “Oh I wouldn’t worry so much about that,” I said, naively. “Think about it and we’ll catch up in a week’s time to let me know what you’ve decided.” I can now say I was a Pandemic Denier, as by the time the week was up, Malta was looking into going into partial lockdown as the first case of Coronavirus was reported.
Pulling down the old shutters and locking up the gallery for the foreseeable future was unexpected, and without any paintings to hang or opening night to plan I settled down to work from home for an indefinite time. Back in the early days, I was optimistic that all the projects I’ve ever dreamed of embarking on became a possibility, with all this free time on my hands. That teen novel I was going to write? Easy. The fashion label I’ve always fantasised about starting? Great, now was the time to get some sketches drawn up. But ten weeks later, my sketchbook lays blank, taunting me. The few measly paragraphs I’d feebly written up hyped on coffee in the wee hours, down to my tattered sleep schedule? They seemed soulless. Trying to write a story about “normal life” just wasn’t cutting it.
As a freelance culture writer, my articles which would have once been peppered with insightful interviews with upcoming local talent ground to a halt. How could I write of all the upcoming music events to get excited about? Or where to get the perfect salad at a pavement cafe in Valletta? What could I possibly write about? If I couldn’t make and do, I thought, the least I could fathom was to encourage others to do what I could not bring myself to get round to myself.
On the 27th of March, I put out a call for artists based in Malta and Gozo to create works from home inspired by social distancing, to be submitted for an exhibition at my gallery, Desko, called “Indoors - From Where I Am’, to be held later on in the year. The exhibition would be premiered at a future date when I could open up those gallery shutters once again. I figured, if I cannot create, I should hope that local artists cooped up at home who now had more time to practice their passion would have a space to air their lockdown works. Like an overenthusiastic armchair cheerleader, I kept the gallery Facebook page awash with fresh works from artists around the world who’d caught my eye on one of my many arty Instagram binges. The key was to inspire others, and the posts received positive engagement.
My writing also took a turn for the self-help— for others. Not having held a paintbrush or sewn as much as a stitch during my own time at home, I began to write about customising bland pieces in your wardrobe, about altering dresses and embellishing them with pom-pom trim. When we were given government guidelines to enter shops with a facemask, I figured many dusty sewing machines would be put to good use, so “why not whip up a ra-ra skirt while you’re at it?” I enthused. There were no ra-ra skirts to be seen on my dining room table. My own bog-standard facemask had been bought from a supermarket in an overpriced box of three. Slightly fraudulent? Perhaps, but my intentions were sincere.
Damien Cifelli, 2020
I have written no songs during this time but listened to back catalogues of musicians I’ve never heard of before. I’ve read biographies of playwrights and gleefully absorbed the works of new contemporary painters like a sponge. Whilst I may not have created myself, I’ve come round to the fact that that’s fine. I’m grateful for the art of others, and cannot wait to see what more gems have been produced throughout this strange old time in history.
Cover photo: Natalie Savage, 2020
By Nicole Parnis - Gallerist and writer.