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Impressions on National Identity

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Art invites us to explore the ideas and concepts that govern our daily life. We might take these ideas for granted, but good art startles us, encouraging us to re-examine these concepts. One group of Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) students examine our national identity through their art.

For better or for worse, our national identity shapes our place in the world. It affects the language we speak and think in, our cultural exposure, and the values we’re brought up in. But for four students, our sense of national identity can also be explored through the history we learn about, the spaces we live in, the fizzy beverages we drink, and the folklore we read.

Amy Aquilina – I Drink, therefore I Am

If we were to think of something quintessentially Maltese, Kinnie (Malta’s national soft drink) will almost certainly spring to mind. But in the recent past, the bitter, orange-flavoured soft drink wasn’t the only beverage enjoyed and produced locally. Drinks such as Winner, Splendid, and Queen’s Drink have almost been lost to the public consciousness — remembered only by a few, dedicated collectors. 

Amy Aquilina – Photo Courtesy of Amy Rizzo and Rhea Fenech

‘I wanted to create a product design that would encompass the Maltese identity and to modernise the user experience,’ explains Amy. Besides creating this fictional product, users can also customise their own soft drink through a vending machine. ‘Initially, I didn’t find the concept of a soft drink to be particularly interesting,’ she laughs, ‘but I was inspired by my friends, some of whom are collectors. I realised that there was a lot more to it and quite a bit of nostalgia as well!’

Amy started by taking photographs of the different soft drinks studied: the bottles and the logos in particular. From these images, she managed to create her own product design, which tried to capture the Maltese identity.

‘I interviewed a number of participants and asked them to write down the first thing that comes to mind when they think of Malta. The most common answers were the sun, the sea, and particular brands and types of foods.’ These answers were then incorporated into the logo. Incidentally, this also proved to be one of the more challenging aspects for Amy.

‘Finding a suitable logo that reflected the most popular answer was one of the harder aspects of this project. Not to mention finding an idea I was happy to work with for an entire year!’

While we might not give the fizzy beverages we drink a second thought, Amy shows us the rich history behind these brands, in particular how they tie into our perceptions of national identity. ‘I wanted to try and shine a light on this history and specifically what people remember.’   

Amy Attard – Bringing Prehistory to the Digital Age

Our national identity is closely linked to our national history, with the Maltese Megalithic Temples being one of Malta’s more iconic landmarks. Amy Attard wanted to find a way to effectively combine learning about our history with entertainment. ‘I noticed that certain child souvenirs from museums, such as colouring books and figurines, weren’t particularly educational.’

Amy Attard – Photo Courtesy of Amy Rizzo and Rhea Fenech

Amy designed a prototype for an online platform which digitises the learning experience. There’s a character, a young archaeologist named Timmy, who guides users through the application, essentially curating the experience. The user would be able to learn specifically about anthropomorphic artefacts and understand how they are relevant to us in modern times. ‘I wanted to implement something that educates people outside of the museum. I was inspired by my own educational experiences. I used to find traditional methods of learning like reading and writing quite difficult. But when we did fun activities or artistic elements, I found it easier to recall information.’ Amy’s experience also led her to pursue further research into learning theories, such as the theories of John Dewey and Jean Piaget. These two in particular served as the basis for her design strategy. 

Amy, working together with the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta, took photographs and videos and collected the information that would be used in the app. ‘Gathering information was a challenge. There’s just so much information; I needed to check it was accurate, so there was a lot of research involved!’

The entire application is incredibly well designed and manages to present historical information in a fun way. Aimed at children, the interactive app facilitates learning outside museums and helps bring a small part of our national heritage to younger generations.  

Bradley Spiteri – Finding Yourself in Folklore

The pariah of history, folklore, has fuelled the nightmares and fantasies of generations. It also served as the inspiration for Bradley Spiteri’s art. ‘Initially, it came from a personal place. I don’t really feel connected to my national identity, so I wanted to explore that. After a number of discussions, it led me to Maltese folklore. I had no idea about it, but the more I read, the more I started getting into it!’

Bradley Spiteri – Photo Courtesy of Amy Rizzo and Rhea Fenech

Bradley’s piece is a short film that mixes live action with 3D animation. A young Maltese girl is able to see a hidden, magical world which draws inspiration from local folklore. Yet when she tells her mother, she’s given a protective amulet to stop her from interacting with this mystical realm. ‘At its core, the film is about a clash in world views. The mother is conservative, while the daughter is more open-minded. It was important not to villianise either of these worldviews.’

Creating a film that combines live action and 3D animation is no mean feat. ‘The biggest challenge — other than CGI, which I only just started learning — was finding a thematic link between feeling like an outsider and the creatures I chose.’ By reading through local myths and legends, Bradley was able to draw inspiration for his characters. ‘There’s this one legend of a girl being chased by a Turkish slave. She hides in a cave, and a large spider creates a web over the entrance. The assailant, noticing the web, is convinced the girl ran off. In the film, the first creature the girl encounters as a teenager is a spider — so we could say the spider “saved” her by validating her feelings and making her feel comfortable.’ 

Besides the on-going clash of worldviews between mother and daughter, the film also hints at our views on cultural change and amalgamation. We might try to shield our children from a constantly changing world, but Bradley makes an astute point: ‘Culture is always changing. I want to re-invent these legends for a modern audience by putting them in a digital medium to hopefully raise awareness.’ 

Giulia Cicero Santalena – Bringing Your Identity Home

While some might not identify with their national identity, for those with a mixed heritage, finding a way to reconcile their identities can be just as challenging. For Giulia Cicero  Santalena, finding a way to reconcile with her Sicilian identity and her adopted Maltese identity led her to explore the commonalities between the two. ‘I wanted to combine two parts of my life: being Sicilian and Maltese. Even though I don’t consider myself to be Maltese, after 5 years, I do feel that I am a part of it.’

Giulia Cicero Santalena – Photo Courtesy of Amy Rizzo and Rhea Fenech

She started by examining visual elements such as patterned tiles, a common feature in both cultures. Drawing from this inspiration, she incorporated these stylistic elements into interior designs to create household appliances such as lamps and furniture. ‘I’d take a colour from one, create a 3D element and combine another. Or using words from Sicilian dialects and incorporating it into the design.’ These unique household accessories represent a hybrid of Maltese and Sicilian design.

‘It was really tricky to combine both cultures because they’re both quite similar and yet different. For example, Sicilian tiles use really bright and bold colours, whilst the Maltese tiles are less detailed. Combining them required a firm balance so one doesn’t overshadow the other.’

Through her prototype app, Giulia is even involving Augmented Reality. By scanning a QR code, the user is able to see how each appliance would look in their own home. ‘My aim was to create something that the user could interact with, to facilitate people who want to design their apartment according to their taste.’ 

These four students each form a part of an entire exhibition among their Bachelor of Fine Arts class. The exhibition will be held on the 20th and 21st of May on the fourth floor of the Faculty of Media and Knowledge Sciences building on campus. We’ll soon be exploring another group of students, this time taking a look at the concept of Self.

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