Malta Biennale: 2024

A celebration of contemporary art, history and heritage on the islands of Malta

by Edel Cassidy
Words Edel Cassidy  Exhibition Photos Julian Vassallo

Malta, the setting for the Malta Biennale 2024, is an archipelago of three islands in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea. It is a rich fusion of history and culture. In the past, its central position in the Mediterranean made it a constant target for empires wishing to control important trade routes between Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Throughout the ages, it has been invaded, settled and built upon by Phoenicians, Romans, Moors, Normans, Sicilians, the Order of St John, the French and the British. Each of these influences has left an indelible mark, contributing to the unique and diverse cultural heritage that defines Malta today. 

Despite enduring challenging periods due to foreign rule and conflicts, the Maltese embrace their past as the foundation of their identity and national resilience. They take great pride in their history and cultural heritage, and the Maltese language reflects this blend of diverse influences. It is the only Semitic language that uses the Latin script, while Arabic roots contribute to the names of towns and cities and European languages influence everyday colloquialisms.

The Maltese Islands celebrate their cultural heritage through elaborate religious ceremonies, traditional festivals and cultural events that take place all year round. I recently visited the Malta Art Biennale, the latest addition to the cultural calendar. It was launched in March and uses the country’s historic sites as exhibition spaces.

Italian curator Sofia Baldi Pighi has titled the biennale ‘Insulaphilia’, which she explains as the ‘importance of recognising hybridity within culture. Malta is not one but many; multicultural, multiracial, multilingual.’ The exhibition explores regional concerns, decolonisation, political issues in the Mediterranean, and resistance.

Here are some of the notable sites I visited at the Malta Biennale, along with standout artists from the diverse range of exhibits.  

The Main Guard, Valletta. Malta

The Main Guard, Valletta

Theme: Decolonising Malta: Polyphony Is Us

Facing the Grand Master’s Palace on the square is the Main Guard, a central landmark that dates back to 1603. Built as a guardroom for the Grand Master of the Order of St. John’s personal bodyguard, it later served a similar purpose for the guards of the Governor during British rule. The neoclassical portico, added in the early 19th century, bears a Latin inscription commemorating the Maltese Islands’ transition to British protection following the Treaty of Paris in 1814.

Performance art by Gaia de Megni shows the changing of the guard using a glass rifle
Artist: Gaia de Megni, Italy 
Afelio, 2024 

This is a performance based on military rituals, in particular, the complex actions for the Changing of the Guard ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia (USA). Choreographed by Gloria Dorliguzzo, the performers (Gloria Dorliguzzo and Marta Tabacco) manoeuvre a glass reproduction of an M16A2 rifle. This weapon was one of the most precise used by the US Army in the Vietnam War. The ritual highlights both the veneration of the weapon and its deadliness.

The Armoury building, Birgu, Malta

The Armoury, Birgu 

Theme: Can You Sea? The Mediterranean as a Political Body

Built in the late 16th century by the Knights of St. John, the Armoury was used to store weaponry. Originally it only occupied the ground floor, with doors on all four sides to facilitate access in case of an emergency. It played a crucial role during the Great Siege of 1565 when the Ottoman Empire attempted to conquer the island of Malta. The second floor was added in 1636, and the building served as a naval hospital under British rule.

Art installation by Tania Bruguera of a large blue banner with painted yellow stars
Artist: Tania Bruguera, Cuba 
The poor treatment of migrants today will be our dishonour tomorrow, 2011

This impactful installation aims to highlight the stark reality of migration in the Mediterranean. Danish graffiti artist Christian de Souza Jensen, also known as ‘SeaPuppy’, initiates the performance by linking the distinctive stars of the European Union flag, suspended along a wall, with illustrations of barbed wire. As the artwork unfolds, he concludes with a poignant message: ‘The poor treatment of migrants today will be our dishonour tomorrow.’

Christian de Souza Jensen, who now resides in Malta, studied classical animation and fine arts at the Ballyfermot College of Further Education in Dublin, Ireland.

Facade of Cittadella Cultural Centre, Gozo, Malta

Cittadella Cultural Centre, Gozo

Theme: The Counterpower of Piracy

The site dates back to the Bronze Age but this extensive building was mainly constructed under the Knights of St. John. Before this, Gozo had endured two centuries of raids by Turkish and Berber corsairs, when the entire population was required by law to spend the night within the Citadel for safety. The most devastating raid occurred in 1551 when Ottoman forces conquered the Citadel, enslaving most of Gozo’s citizens. In the early British period, the Citadel was expanded and converted into a prison. 

Art installation by Mel Chin using AK-47 assault rifles
Artist: Mel Chin, USA
Cross for the Unforgiven, 2022

Eight AK-47 (Automatic Kalashnikov) assault rifles, arranged in a cross shape that resembles that of the Maltese Order of Christian Knights, who were involved in brutal conflict with the Muslim Empire during the Crusades.

Cheap and easy to mass produce, the AK-47 was first developed in 1947 in what was then the USSR. It was widely supplied to Soviet allies and communist nations and became an international symbol of resistance to the West.

This sculpture intertwines histories of military violence and penitential sacrifice.

Fort St Elmo, Valletta, Malta

Fort St Elmo, Valletta

National Thematic Pavilions – Chinese Pavilion

Constructed by the Knights of St. John in the 16th century, the fort played a pivotal role in the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, withstanding relentless attacks by the Ottoman forces. Despite suffering extensive damage, it was rebuilt and continued to serve as a strategic defence post. 

Over the centuries, it underwent expansions and upgrades, including the addition of barracks, a church and a lighthouse. Under British rule, it served as a key defence post during World War II and now houses the National War Museum.

Three prints by Yan Shanchun for the Malta biennale 2024
Artist: Yan Shanchun, China

Showcasing over 100 pieces of artwork, the artist was inspired by West Lake, an iconic tourist destination in the city of Hangzhou, China. He explores how texts and images bring cultural attractions to life, preserving and extending culture through rethinking and reconstruction. His work invites audiences to explore diverse narratives surrounding cultural attractions. 

At the launch ceremony, Yu Dunhai, Chinese Ambassador to Malta, drew attention to the fact that Fort St Elmo had once been a war machine and now serves as a cultural exhibition venue. The venue was significant, he said, and chosen to underscore the point that while war destroys, culture builds.

Grand Master’s Palace, Valletta, Malta

Grand Master’s Palace, Valletta 

Theme: Matri-archive of the Mediterranean

Built by the Knights of St. John for their Grand Masters, the palace later served as the Governor’s residence during British rule, and in 1921, housed Malta’s first constitutional parliament. Despite suffering damage during World War II, it has recently been restored to its original splendour and was the seat of Malta’s legislative bodies until 2015, when the parliament relocated. Today, it serves as the Office of the President of Malta.

Small clay figures displayed in a line by Nina Gerada
Artist: Nina Gerada, Malta 
The Goddess Project, 2017 – ongoing 

These ceramic sculptures reference the Neolithic structures and artefacts of Malta, exploring the female, immigrant and postcolonial experience. They celebrate strength, imperfection, pain and scarring, transformation and ageing. Each one is pocket-sized and yet as a group, they are powerful. They represent both the multitude of experiences women collect over a lifetime and the strength gained through groups and support networks.  

Infinity pool by sunset at Hotel Phoenicia, Malta

Where to stay – Hotel Phoenicia

A luxury Mediterranean landmark

The impressive art deco Hotel Phoenicia, situated in the heart of Valletta, Malta’s capital city, seamlessly combines luxury, comfort and convenience. Its prime location places it within walking distance of numerous city landmarks, such as the Grand Master’s Palace and St John’s Co-Cathedral. The cathedral houses two notable masterpieces by Caravaggio, including The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, his largest ever work and the only painting bearing his signature.

The hotel’s spacious bedrooms offer picturesque views of either the cityscape or the hotel’s exquisite gardens.

The Contessa restaurant, with its magnificent conservatory, provides the perfect setting for an unforgettable dining experience, while the Palm Court Lounge serves as an ideal venue for casual meetings, light refreshments or afternoon tea.

Guests can unwind in the spa area, which includes an indoor pool, Himalayan salt room, sauna, steam room and multi-jet showers, or work out in the fitness centre.

General Manager Robyn Pratt and her team of friendly staff are always on hand to ensure a personalised experience.  

Elegant hotel lobby is brought to you by Heritage Malta’s MUŻA, the National Museum of Art with the full cooperation and participation of a number of other organisations

  • ‘Malta Biennale: 2024’ is published in Anthology Volume 21. Read more features from this volume or buy it now.
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