Published on Friday 8 July 2016

Ahead of Malta’s participation in the Biennale di Venezia next year, Romina Delia casts a look back at the event’s place in the arts world

Bettina Hutschek and Raphael Vella will curate the Malta Pavilion at the 57th International Art Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia. Photo by Alexandra Pace

Last October I was asked to co-ordinate the initial meetings with the organisers of the Biennale di Venezia, to set up Malta’s participation in the 57th International Art Exhibition in 2017. A few emails, phonecalls and coffees later, we were sitting in one of the grand boardrooms of the Biennale’s historical headquarters next to San Marco, at Ca Giustiniani, a palazzo in the Dorsoduro district in Venice. There we started our discussions with the organisers, architects and lawyers of the Biennale di Venezia. The following morning we met up with one of the Biennale’s architects, who showed us around the pavilions at the Arsenale. After viewing several spaces, we decided to choose the space which hosted the Tuvalu National Pavilion in 2015.  After an absence of 17 years, Malta will be returning to the Biennale di Venezia with its National Pavilion located in a central location in the Arsenale.

Fast forward a few months later and, after co-ordinating an open call for curatorial proposals at the Arts Council Malta offices in Valletta, a jury composed of a mixture of local and international curators selected the Malta based artist-curators Bettina Hutschek and Raphael Vella to curate the Malta Pavilion at the 57th International Art Exhibition, which will be running from the 13 May to 26 November 2017. Their winning proposal - entitled Homo Melitensis: An incomplete inventory in 19 chapters - described how a poetic compilation of unique objects will supposedly define the imaginary of the Maltese identity.

Venice transformed
Every two years, Venice is transformed into a floating festival of contemporary art, bringing together curators, artists and critics from over 80 countries around the world, at the International Art exhibition during the Biennale di Venezia. During the event’s six months, the city becomes a sprawling celebration of contemporary art, hosting themed art shows and performances, while providing access to some of the city’s most historic and sometimes off-limits buildings.

International curators compete in showcasing their artistic concepts, while artists work with different media, addressing issues such as nationhood, politics, the plight of refugees, immigrants, poverty, democracy, sustainability, social media, technology, impermanence and so on. During the 2011 Biennale di Venezia, freedom of expression was the subject through which the Chinese contemporary artist and activist Ai Weiwei became a symbol.

La Biennale di Venezia’s past
Ever since the Biennale di Venezia was launched in 1895, countries from all over the world have offered the opportunity for curators and artists to showcase their ideas in National Pavilions. Various well-known artists had their works displayed at the Biennale along the years. In 1910 there was a room dedicated to Gustav Klimt, a one-man show for Renoir, and a retrospective of Courbet. In the 1930s new festivals were also born: Music, Cinema and Theatre. The 1940s saw the works of various well-known contemporary artists, including by Chagall, Klee, Braque, Picasso and Magritte. Abstract Expressionism was introduced in the 1950s. And it was in 1958 that the Biennale hosted a special exhibition of seven Maltese artists, namely Antoine Camilleri, Carmenu Mangion, Frank Portelli, Emvin Cremona, Hugo Carbonaro, Josef Kalleya and Oliver Agius.

The Biennale di Venezia is also credited with importing pop art into the canon of art history by awarding the top prize to the American artist Robert Rauschenberg in 1964. In 1980 the first International Architecture Exhibition took place and, in 1999, dance made its debut at the Biennale di Venezia. That same year, 1999, was the last time Malta commissioned its National Pavilion, curated by the late Adrian Bartolo who, at the time was one of the curators of the National Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta. The chosen participating artists were the postmodernists Vince Briffa, Norbert Attard, and Ray Pitre - all of whom exhibited works designed on the philosophical concept of contemporary time.

Maltese National Pavilion - 1999
Vince Briffa presented Hermes, a video collage depicting biological time and its effects on humans, presented in a Caravaggist chiaroscuro manner. Briffa took his cue from the Genesis narrative in which Man was fashioned from the soil - with the soil becoming the symbol of Man’s nemesis, as well as by the Greek mythological narration of Zeus’ quick-witted son who acted as a messenger of the gods between the underworld and the world above.

Norbert Attard presented Larger than Life, an installation which also drew upon the concept of time, re-interpreting the Baroque past and its dramatic influences on the present, while Ray Pitre exhibited his mixed media sculpture entitled Guerriero, consisting of twisted steel sculptures, which were actual remnants of the last war, which he had found in the fields, representing timeless reflections of the violence perpetrated throughout history.

The Malta Pavilion was situated in a dimly-lit 16th century room at La Tese - also in the Arsenale- in which Pitre’s sculptures were in the middle of the room flanked by the works of Briffa and Attard, who projected their audiovisual installations on the two opposite walls, with the aim of conveying the idea of entering a world which transcended the conventional barriers of both time and space.

The 56th International Art Exhibition – All the World’s Futures
The 56th International Art Exhibition in 2015 celebrated the 120th anniversary of the first Art Exhibition (1895). There were 89 participating countries, proof of the global spread of contemporary art. With an attendance of around 400,000 visitors, Pavilions that offered a convincing conceptual immersive environment were arguably the most celebrated. Offering a political statement was another way curators and artists made their mark in Venice. Curated by the Nigerian poet, curator, art critic and educator Okwui Enwezor, the over-arching theme of the 2015 Biennale was “All the World’s Futures,” delving into the contemporary global reality as one of constant alignment, adjustment, recalibration, motility, and shape-shifting. Appointed by the Board of the Biennale di Venezia, Okwui Enwezor, currently living between New York and Munich, specialises on the complex phenomenon of globalization in relation to local roots, and is a key figure in postcolonial art theory and criticism.

The Biennale in 2015 expanded from the 29 historic pavilions at the Venice Giardini to the 31 pavilions in the Arsenale, on the south-eastern part of the island and the rest in other historic palazzi around Venice. The Giardini is famous for its permanent grand national pavilions, while just a 10-minute walk north there is the Arsenale, a 16th century former shipping yard and now grounds for new pavilions, such as those of Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Peru, Sweden, Slovenia, Singapore and Turkey.

The 57th International Art Biennale
The Artistic Director of the 57th International Art Biennale is Christine Macel, the Chief Curator at the Musée National d’Art Moderne – Centre Pompidou in Paris, where she is responsible for the Department of “Création contemporaine et prospective”, which she founded and developed. She was the curator of the French Pavilion at the Biennale Arte 2013 and the Belgian Pavilion at the Biennale Arte 2007. La Biennale has selected her as a main curator committed to emphasizing the important role artists play in inventing their own universes and injecting generous vitality into the world we live in.

Around the World
Other international art fairs around the world, apart from the Biennale di Venezia, include Manifesta, the roving European Biennale and Documenta, taking place every five years in Kassel Germany, often referred to as the “Museum of 100 days,” featuring mainly site-specific art (the first Documenta, held in 1955 was intended to be a documentation of modern art, which was not available for the German public during the Nazi era). Other well-known international art fairs include Frieze Art Fair in New York, and Art Basel held annually in Basel, Miami and Hong Kong. The Biennale di Venezia, along with these international art fairs, is one of the most significant international contexts for contemporary art.

Thousands of people every year make their way to Venice to see what the contemporary art world has to offer, to meet artists from all over the world and to discuss what is happening in the art world today. Participation at the Biennale di Venezia will not only raise Malta’s cultural profile and help build an understanding of the Maltese islands, as well as improve its international relations, but will also provide recognition to the participating artists and curators on the world stage.

For more information on the Biennale di Venezia visit their official website here:

For virtual tours of the 2015 National Pavilions at the Biennale di Venezia visit: