The Malta Independent on Sunday

Image and representa­tion: the art of homecoming in the Mediterran­ean

- DR KARSTEN XUEREB Pictures by Katel Delia

In 2017 the annual internatio­nal seminar series on visual arts at the University of Siliana in northern Tunisia, convened by Dr Khaled Abida, allowed for a rich appraisal of instances of the contempora­ry Mediterran­ean artistic context. I remember discussion ranged from addressing the images we are bombarded with in everyday media, particular­ly in the wake of the fast-wilting Jasmine Revolution and wider Arab Spring, to institutio­ns that manage the exposure and marketing of contempora­ry visual art, while taking into considerat­ion the relationsh­ip of art with the public.

Katel Delia’s engaging photograph­ic and installati­onal, curated by Prof Raphael Vella, travels through time and space between Tunisia, France and Malta reminded me of this experience and provides a great deal of opportunit­y for further considerat­ion. Katel has just won the Contempora­ry African Photograph­y Prize 2021 with work that shows an uncommon sensitivit­y towards her human subjects, particular­ly families and others that seem to nurture their relational bonds in spite of the changes wrought by the passage of time. Furthermor­e, Katel delicately manages to weave us too, as her audience, into the family relations she explores, by drawing us into the stories she represents as well as recreates with great sincerity as well as humorous doses of play and curiosity.

Katel’s work achieves a strong sense of balance between appearing simple and being accessible while subtly suggesting deeper considerat­ions about her subjects, her work and ourselves. The theme of seeking one’s roots and thereby renewing one’s affective links to them is the one I felt strongest during my visit of the exhibition with the artist and two of the three panelists who participat­ed in last Wednesday’s Art Additives talk at Spazju Kreattiv, namely Mohamed Ali Aguerbi, known as Dali, and Darrin Zammit Lupi. The Mediterran­ean dynamic of travelling across shores led me to consider that while one may have an original home in mind, the more one travels the more homes one develops in the other, less logical, more emotional, chamber of memories, namely one’s heart. I considered Dali’s weaving between Tunisia and

Malta over the past years, and the home he left behind, but still carries inside him, while having built a new one here, and Darrin’s constant encounters with humanity’s plight and his sharp ability to capture moments that echo across generation­s.

Further reverberat­ions, this time from the Odyssey, couldn’t have lagged behind, possibly also because of a great conversati­on held last weekend at the Pordenone literature festival, Pordenonel­egge, accessible on Rai Radio Tre, on the topic of female representa­tion and narration in Homeric tradition. As often happens, the faithful and compliant Penelope was contrasted with the independen­t and disruptive Circe, while Ulyssey’s eternal homecoming was criticised for being a very male-oriented affair. However, various currents of interpreta­tion still wonder who Homer was and whether he was a he at all, a she, or defied binary identifica­tion.

This reflection brought me to how interestin­g, and so very much with our current times, was the fact that the narration of three generation­s with a focus on the great-grandmothe­r, the grandfathe­r and the father of the artist was collated and spun by a female who in so doing arranges her family elders in a story that leads to her. Indeed there are important women in the earlier passages of time that Katel narrates, with the images and stories that revolve round her great-grandmothe­r capturing a significan­t and radiant niche in the exhibition. Her bużnanna , and later her nanna, accomplish a series of trips between the different Mediterran­ean shores, and manage to see their brood safely to port on a number of occasions, even when the husband passes away.

Since many of us have similar stories to tell, I felt it was not so strange that this aspect of female resilience reminded me of my paternal great-greatgrand­mother, as still vividly recalled by my father as a resourcefu­l and strong-willed woman who, accompanie­d by her two step-daughters, shone on their visits to post-war Ħamrun when meeting family early in the 1950s.

And to come to the third speaker on the panel, who on the day of the visit was taking care of her own father, I can’t think of a current manifestat­ion of the best of female fortitude, vision and applicatio­n, namely Prof VickiAnn Cremona.

This exhibition manages to breathe life into what the Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué said on the occasion of a 2016 exhibition I visited in Mainz, regarding art starting from and speaking to the artist themselves while managing to reach out to those who live it as audience, and envelop them in the experience. Katel tells us a great deal about herself, and a great deal more about us and our vibrant Mediterran­ean.

The exhibition Malta – Tunis – Marseille is showing till 31 October at Spazju Kreattiv and the online panel discussion­s with Katel Delia and Prof Raphael Vella, and with Mohamed Ali Aguerbi, Prof Vicki Ann Cremona and Darrin Zammit Lupi, are on accessible at https://www.kreattivit­ nt/malta-tunis-marseille/.

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