Landscape and Identity:
Malta’s 2024 Art Biennale

This spring, Malta shows its first contemporary art biennale, from 13 March to 31 May. Organised around the theme baħar abjad imsaġar taż-żebbuġ (white sea olive groves), the festival promises a captivating journey for art enthusiasts, speaking to the region’s symbiotic relationship between land, sea and people. Malta’s Central Pavilion is situated in the newly restored Grand Master’s Palace in the capital, Valletta, and is complemented by national pavilions and individual exhibits spread out in heritage sites across the archipelago. This year, 80 artists from 23 nations participate in the event. Included are names such as Adama Delphine Fawundu, Adrian Paci, Cecilia Vicuña and Aesthetica Art prize artist Laura Besançon.

Adama Delphine Fawundu (b. 1971) shows at the Main Pavilion with a display that explores themes of ancestral memory, indigenisation and activating the radical imagination. Fawundu’s distinct visual language can be recognised in an oeuvre that explores Sierra Leonean heritage. Her multimedia practice spans film, photographs and textiles, evoking indigenous wisdom or àṣẹ – a vital Yorùbá force recognised as the source of all existence. It’s a topic approached by the artist in their current single channel film Cosmic Echoes (2023), now showing at Hauser & Wirth’s exhibition The Flesh of the Earth. The artist explains, “As an artist, I am seeking connections, uncovering patterns, reconncting them, reconsidering the memory of the body, whether it be my own, the wind, the ocean or the trees, or elements of water, water bodies.”

Also included in the programme is the work of Chilean poet and artist Cecilia Vicuña (b. 1948). Most recently, Vicuña took over Tate Modern with a multi-part installation dedicated to disappearing traditions, environments and peoples. Brain Forest Quipu consisted of two 27 metre-long sculptures hanging from the ceiling. These comprised of organic materials woven together, including cardboard, found objects, plant fibres, rope and unspun wool. The delicate, ghostly piece used materials that were collected from the banks of the River Thames by local Latin American communities. Screening at the Biennale is the artist’s Beach Ritual (2017), a performance that involves moving a large piece of red fabric across white rocks in Greece. “In the Andes people did not write, they wove meaning into textiles and knotted cords,” says Vicuña. “Five thousand years ago they created the quipu, a poem in space, a way to remember, involving the body and the cosmos at once. A tactile, spatial metaphor for the union of all.” The work chimes into one of the festival’s core themes: The Matri-archive of the Mediterranean. Here, textiles take on a political power: they are assembled and elevated by a feminine “social weaving,” entangling our bodies with nature.

Other highlights include the work of Aesthetica Art Prize artist Laura Besançon (b. 1993). In 2020, the Maltese artist was shortlisted for the award for her participatory work Alone, Together (2018), a research project that typified modern life. To create the work, Besançon sent letters to residents living in a high-rise building in London, inviting them to listen to a specific song on a specific night at a specific time, to play with their lights to their music, improvising in any way they wish. The result is a perfect symphony; we watch as box-sized rooms flash with different colours, illuminated by blue, yellow and red lights. The residents participated without knowing each other, and as a result, there’s a powerful sense of community. Besançon extends her multimedia exploration with the commissioned piece Skyline (this sweet land), showcased at the Granaries, St. Elmo, an ancient site dating back to the 11th century, renowned for its underground silos. Here, a red scaffold-like structure balances on the stones. It serves as a tribute to a pivotal site in the region’s history; the location acted as a stronghold, essential for storing vast qualities of food during periods like The Great Siege (1565). Crucially, it acts as symbol of resilience and endurance, underscored by the inclusion of a scannable sound piece featuring L-Innu Malti, the national anthem of Malta.

Elsewhere, Portuguese visual artist Mónica de Miranda (b. 1976) participates in the biennale’s Decolonising Malta: Polyphony Is Us, a section that reflects on Malta’s postcolonial status, navigating its Arab and European roots. Miranda, who currently shows at Dulwich Gallery’s Soulscapes, works across topics of diaspora and belonging, considering what it means to be bound to a place. Her work speaks to Malta’s own complex history – from its founding by the Phoenicians and conquering by the Romans, Arabs and Byzantines, to its colonisation by the French and British. It’s a region that has held many historical roles, as “a refuge, a hideaway, a port, a silo, a defender and a “brave fortress.” Attendees are reminded of the region’s diverse collection of art, culture, landscapes and languages. It’s only fitting that we’re offered a biennale that enriches the ongoing dialogue surrounding the island’s identity. In the words of Sofia Baldi Pighi, Artistic Director, “To envision new possible futures for the Mediterranean region, we must rekindle our affection for the places that constitute our history and diverse cultural identity. Far from being something pure, the island is always a principle of composition and invention.”

Malta Biennale | 13 March – 31 May

Image Credits:

Post Disaster, Unfinished Barricade: A Space for Borderline Hesitations. Courtesy of the Artist, photo by Julian Vassallo

© Adama Delphine Fawundu, Still from Cosmic Echoes (2023). Courtesy the artist and Hesse Flatow, New York

Cecilia Vicuña, Beach Ritual. Courtesy of the Artist, photo by Julian Vassallo

Laura Besançon, Skyline (this sweet land). Courtesy of the Artist, photo by Julian Vassallo

Mónica de Miranda, Sunrise (detail), (2023), inkjet print on cotton paper. Courtesy of the artist and Sabrina Amrani Gallery, Madrid.