‘Culture must have a guiding role’

The vision of artists is needed to relate with sensitive topics like migration, says Sofia Baldi, artistic director for the first edition of the Malta Biennale.
Artistic director of the first edition of the Malta Biennale Sophia Baldi. Photo: Brian Grech

Sofia Baldi, artistic director for the first edition of the Malta Biennale, believes culture must have a guiding role in times of adversity. She recently shared her views about the themes that will be tackled during the national event exclusively with Times2.

“We are experiencing dark times, and it’s not easy to find a way. Culture must have a guiding role, and contemporary artists offer an opportunity for us to create this vision,” she starts off.

Spring 2024 sees the launch of the very first edition of the Malta Biennale, a Heritage Malta initiative through MUŻA, the Malta National Community Art Museum, in partnership with Arts Council Malta. Titled maltabiennale.art, the season-long event looks set to be a radical departure from the tropes we tend to associate with contemporary art. This, Sofia assures me, will be a biennale for the people, a programme that will reach out to various communities in Malta.

“The aim of the Malta Biennale is not just to attract the academics and professionals that are traditionally part of the niche in-crowd. Together with the curatorial team and the organising bodies behind this biennale, we seek to embrace a wider public, those who are usually excluded from the fruition of culture in general maybe because of economics, or even because they simply lack the curiosity. How can we use this biennale to attract the attention of this kind of audience?”

It’s a strong start to my interview with Sofia. She acknowledges that one of the big problems of contemporary art is that it can be viewed as intimidating, difficult to understand.

“The question I keep in mind is this: for whom are we building this Biennale? Are we just addressing the usual group of people, ending up just talking between each other? We want to push to a much wider audience,” she tells me.

While Valletta will serve as hub, activities will be taking place in various locations around Malta.

The theme of this very first edition, as conceived by Heritage Malta’s own MUŻA, is certainly perfectly placed to turn this ambitious sentiment from a goal to reality, being grounded in those elements that sow the seeds to our Islands’ heritage – identity, colonisation and migration. To borrow from Sofia’s curatorial statement, it seeks “to delve into the concept of identity in a multiple and plural dimension, where the encounter and exchange with other cultures is its cornerstone, along with a dutiful and painful awareness of the trauma of colonisation”.

The urgency of this theme in our region is what spurred maltabiennale.art’s president, Mario Cutajar, to set the wheels in motion for Malta’s first international contemporary art biennale. The theme’s concepts will undoubtedly resonate precisely with those sections of the community that Sofia tells me she’d like to reach most, those who experience cultural exclusion. The question being, of course, how she and the team intend to make this happen.

“We do have our strategies,” she says with a smile. “As a start, we are planning to work geographically. Yes, the Biennale will be based in Valletta, but not only. We are also taking the exhibition sites to Vittoriosa and Gozo as a way to open up the discourse. One of the issues of the Biennale is the risk of gentrification and Valletta, like a lot of other cities, is already very gentrified. So it was important to push the boundaries to other locations,” Sofia explains.

She adds that the presence of Maltese as a language is also important, Everything from the catalogue to all statements released will be in Maltese and English. There will also be workshops conducted in Maltese, with English only used as a common language rather than a substitute.

“The presence of the national language is one way of not alienating specific communities,” she says, adding that another strategy is focused around the activities programme. “Workshops and roundtables are conceived to target specific communities that are usually excluded. We are creating generational activities that target children, teenagers and the elderly, to ensure that every section of the community is welcomed. We are also working cross-generationally, for example via workshops that including elderly and their nephews and nieces.”

Geographically, Sofia is also working on including specific communities. She mentions Hamrun as an example which, while not an official Biennale site, she describes as having “a lot of energy from all parts of the world”.

“It’s such a glorious melting pot. Yet, many of the residents are not accessing museums. So how do we get them to the Biennale? We want to make sure that this happens.”

Sofia also talks about the responsibility of being artistic director for this very first edition, and of the process to build a structure that will work not only for this edition, but also for future years. Sustainability is another big topic for her, and she insists that the goal is not simply to have an amazing first edition, but to foster a long term process.

“This is why I decided to move to Malta early on. I need to relate to the specific context, to the Maltese community. Even just going out for a drink with my colleagues, presenting myself to the artists, is valuable. It helps start the conversation,” she explains.

But along with the challenges of being ‘the first’, there are the opportunities. With the Malta Biennale still a blank canvas, Sofia is excited at the freedom this brings with it.

“We’re not like the Venice Biennale, having to respect a specific tradition. We have freedom to experiment, and this is great. This is the approach we’re taking with the pavillions, introducing thematic ones for those that want to collaborate. We’re not confined by national borders.”

Which brings me very nicely to the topic of migration, which is also at the centre of this edition.

“Yes, the migration crisis will be at the core of this biennale. We are experiencing the Mediterranean as a cemetery right now. We need the vision of artists to relate with these sensitive topics. We are experiencing dark times, and it’s not easy to find a way. Culture must have a guiding role, and contemporary artists offer an opportunity for us to create this vision,” she says, insisting however that they are not here to provide answers and that this isn’t the role of art.

“We are here to share, to debate. Not to deliver morality judgments. The experience of art can be very different for each person. I’m not here to give a monologue or to convince someone of my opinion, but to generate debate.”

What, for her, spells a successful Biennale? She says that it would be amazing if people leave the Biennale feeling in some way different from the way they felt when they went in.

“Not necessarily better, or worse. Just different. This would mean that the Biennale has a value and is working. If people are indifferent, then it’s not working. If I go to a bar and I hear people talking about it, then the Biennale is a success,” she concludes.

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