Uncovering history

Commissioned over half a millennium ago, Antonello Gagini’s Madonna and Child has been silently standing tall in a Franciscan church in Rabat for the past five centuries. Little was known about the Renaissance sculpture, but a recent study is tracing the statue’s history.  Caroline Curmi speaks to art historian Dr Charlene Vella and University of Malta student Jamie Farrugia about their findings.

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Busting out of the box

Magic wand
Aesthetic physician and artistic consultant Dr Joanna Delia traces her journey from medical student to successful business owner, telling Teodor Reljić that her experience at the University of Malta helped her resist excessive industry specialisation.  

Modern life is rigidly compartmentalised. Perhaps this is more true of the West than anywhere else, where the materialist, rationalist models that have aided efficiency and technological advancement also require us to absorb vast amounts of knowledge early on, and specialise later.  

Many educational systems reflect this tendency and the Maltese model is no exception. From a very young age, exams come in thick and fast, and cramming to pass them replaces a more holistic education. 

Dr Joanna Delia is not a fan of the word ‘holistic’—preferring the term ‘polyhedral’ for reasons that will be explained later—and has enjoyed a career trajectory that has flouted excessive specialisation. A doctor turned aesthetic physician with an interest in the world of contemporary art, Delia’s journey is an affront to such restrictive notions.

While she assures me that her own time at the University of Malta (UM) was nothing short of amazing, in recounting the roots of her intellectual curiosity, she is compelled to go even further back. 

‘Like every excited little girl, my dreams used to alternate and metamorph somewhere between wanting to be a writer like Emily Brontë or Virginia Woolf and a scientist who would make incredible discoveries and change the world like Marie Curie,’ Delia recalls. ‘I also wanted to be a doctor who would cure people in war-torn countries, yet fantasised about being Alma Mahler or a young Chanel surrounded by philosophers, drenched in fine clothes and surrounded by white rose bouquets…’

Delia recounts this awareness that we’re shaped to view these inclinations as contradictory. But for her, the intuitive desire to learn about and closely observe scientific phenomena matched the heights of aesthetic appreciation.

Vella’s own student enthusiasm did not come as immediately as all that, however. While she is now secure in her three-pronged role as writer, performer, and translator (also acknowledging her former role as a lecturer), forging an early path as a student meant first squinting through the fog. 

‘I just loved learning the science subjects… figuring out protein synthesis and DNA replication literally made me feel giddy, light headed, downright euphoric! I was a real geek,’ Delia says with disarming self-deprecation. ‘To me, it was just the same as reading an incredible work of literature or staring at a work of contemporary art alone in one of the silent, perfectly lit halls of a museum.’

Given this internal push-pull across various disciplines, Delia confesses that in terms of pursuing the later strands of her formal education, she ‘floated into medical school’ without feeling the need to strategise things much further. It was only upon graduation that the realities of being slotted into a specialised discipline dawned on her with an ominous pall.  

‘The day I graduated I felt a suffocating feeling: the thought that I had somehow sealed my fate,’ Delia says, though the sense of regret which followed did not linger for much longer.

‘Looking at one’s future through a tunnel vision perspective based on the imaginary restrictions of one’s degree is just that a self-imposed illusion,’ Delia observes. 

Her University years were active and inspiring, with Delia having happily taken on extra-curricular activities and also quietly rebelled against the notion of boxed-in specialised disciplines.

University and beyond  

‘University was amazing! I would repeat those years ten times over,’ Delia unapologetically enthuses. Though she does acknowledge that the Medicine course was challenging to begin with—citing the ‘competition among students’ as an additional factor—she looks back on both her time there, and her association with the UM’s Medical School, with immense pride. 

‘My lecturers were charismatic and experts in their field, which of course garners respect and made us feel honoured to be part of that system,’ Delia says, while also recalling her involvement in additional campus activities.

‘I was the chair of the environmental committee at KSU and served two terms as the Officer for the Sub-Committee on Refugees and Peace within MMSA. I loved my time on campus, and encourage all students to participate in campus affairs. We never stopped organising fairs, events, fundraisers, workshops, and outreach programmes with the community…’

Hinting at an essential discomfort with the idea of overbearing specialisation, Delia believes ‘the Maltese education system does not proactively encourage sharing knowledge’, but also notes that she did find hope, solidarity, and inspiration among her peers, from various faculties.’ I socialised with students from the architecture department, and attended their workshop parties. I was invited to history of art lectures and tours. I organised panel discussions to reduce car [use] on campus and lobby for [a] paperless [campus],’ Delia says. All these activities contributed to ‘a feeling of a hopeful future’. 

Adjacent to Delia’s academic efforts were her course-related travels abroad, which contributed to expanding her horizons. ‘I did internships in Rio De Janeiro and travelled to India and Nepal through the Malta Medical Students’ Association (MMSA), both of which were incredible experiences.’ During this time, she gained a keener interest in art.

‘My sister was studying history of art and eventually read for a Ph.D. in Museology. I followed her as closely as I could; her subjects fascinated me and a lot of her excitement about art rubbed off on me…’ 

But first, her early medical career needed seeing to. Delia admits that medical students in Malta are somewhat privileged since they enjoy a relatively smooth changeover from academic to professional life. However, the change happens very rapidly.

‘Young doctors in Malta have the advantage of an almost flawless transition into a job. This also turns out to be the toughest time in your life, but at least there there is a continuity of support at the start of your profession,’ Delia says, citing the diligence and discipline instilled into her and her peers by their University tutors and lecturers. This rigour was crucial to ensure that those early years went on as smoothly as possible.

Pausing to reflect, Delia feels compelled to add that a culture that leaves more breathing room for exploration and enquiry could only be beneficial for the future of Maltese medicine. ‘I wish we had a stronger culture of research and publication in Malta. We need to somehow find time for it as it will not only improve the reputation of the institution but also nurture us as students, alumni, and professionals, and keep us on our toes,’ Delia says, adding that these ideas reflect the same culture of hard work that her course promoted, which rewards diligence and depth. ‘I believe in constantly keeping astride with knowledge by reading publications and actively pursuing ‘continued medical education’. I wish that the institution instilled more of this into its alumni,’ Delia muses.

This approach of constant enquiry arguably gave Delia a fount of knowledge and inspiration to draw from when she found herself at a forking road in her medical career. 

Expanding horizons  

”After a few years of working at the general hospital, I was lucky enough to be chosen to pursue some level of surgical training, but by that point I had realised that the life of a surgeon was not for me…’ 

This was an ‘extremely tough decision’, with regret once again raising its ugly head. ‘However, the 80-hour weeks, and above all the realisation that my professional life would be all about facing and treating ill and dying people, forced me to make a decision to leave the hospital,’ Delia says.

This pushed Delia to explore other careers, and she now juggles her love of both medicine and aesthetics in a sustainable way.

‘After I stopped working as a hospital doctor, there were too many things I was hungry to explore – one of them was medical aesthetics. I started pursuing training in London and Paris, and essentially spent years of salary training with the best doctors I could find.’

Joanna at work as an aesthetic physician Photo: People & Skin

After working at a reputable local clinic, Delia finally managed to go at it independently, opening up her own place.

‘It was nothing short of a dream come true. I had to search hard within myself and build up entrepreneurial and management skills. I learnt the hard way sometimes, business-wise, but I was also fortunate to find help from my friends who excel in other fields like marketing, photography and architecture, to help me build my brand and clinic,’ Delia recalls.

In the end, her resistance to rigid specialisation helped her to open a thriving business called Med-Aesthetic Clinic People & Skin. She couples this work to her position as head of the Advisory Board at the newly-opened Valletta Contemporary, a boutique showcase for local and international contemporary art run by artist and architect Norbert Francis Attard. 

Which brings her story back to a ‘polyhedral’ conception of the world. 

‘I believe everything in life is polyhedral. I prefer polyhedral to ‘holistic’. Every square, or rather, every cube we think we’re trapped in, can be pushed out and reconfigured to welcome other disciplines. I don’t believe any of us purposely split the two fields, but I believe we don’t allocate enough time to explore all the wonders we could discover if we used both their lenses to analyse the world. After all, even Einstein believed that the most important thing in science is creativity…’ 

Paintings in motion

Vince Briffa’s contribution to the Venice Biennale in 2019 is OUTLAND. An audio-visual piece inspired by The Odyssey, a story intimately linked to the Maltese islands’ own folklore, the work unfurls over many layers.

On one level, it explores the lure of safety and the numbness that can bring—exhibited through Ulysses’ portrayal, who is caught in a bubble of his own making. ‘The plastic room replaces the island from the story, presenting a different interpretation,’ explains Briffa. Here, it is Ulysses’ own mind and thoughts that keep him trapped. 

The character of Calypso is also a reflection of the theme MALETH—port and safe haven. ‘She is both a lover and oppressor,’ Briffa says. ‘Calypso offers a haven for Ulysses during the seven years he spends harboured in her cave. But he is also her prisoner.’

Finally, there is fragmentation and distortion to create new from old. Penelope is Ulysses’ waiting wife, torn between longing for her husband’s safe return and an uncertainty she secretly harbours—is that even what she truly wants? Her presence in the work comes through the use of Emmanuel Mifsud’s poem Penelopi Tistenna (‘Penelope waits’). For Briffa, the Maltese language helps the story ‘take on a different life.’

The work’s duality is apparent. Images are juxtaposed against one another. One can observe two characters simultaneously, living their own truths and challenging each other. However, the conflict is not structured. ‘It’s a contemporary art piece, not film. There is no story. It’s more of a painting. I am, myself, a painter first,’ Briffa notes. 

So for those who find a narrative in this piece, know that it is uniquely yours. The question now is: will you share it?  

To watch and read more about OUTLAND visit www.vincebriffa.com 

Politics with a small ‘p’

Dù Theatre are back on stage after an absence of four years. Founder Simone Spiteri speaks to  THINK about her newly penned play Repubblika Immakulata co-produced by Spazju Kreattiv, the influences that motivated her to write it, and the importance of using daily language on stage. Words by Franica Pulis. 

Simone Spiteri

Repubblika Immakulata revolves around a Maltese family trying to cope, or not, with being involved in a general election, wedding, and local feast all on the same day. 

Premju Francis Ebejer winner Simone Spiteri (visiting lecturer, School of Performing Arts) wrote, and is directing, the satirical comedy as an exploration into Maltese identity and the climate of current affairs. 

‘So is it about political parties?’ is usually the first question most people blurt out when I’m only a quarter into explaining what Repubblika Immakulata is about,’ Spiteri says. But there is more. ‘The play tries to examine our relationship, locally, to straightforward politics drenched in election fever. But that is only part of the whole. The undeniable can’t be ignored. To say we are a country that is not affected, polarised, brainwashed even, by partisan politics would be a straight out lie. However, isn’t everything else that governs the rest of our lives another type of politics too? Don’t we all form part of smaller communities, and even smaller, family (or similar) units?’ she adds.

In the early days, Spiteri’s focus was always the people rather than the issues at hand. She was also very interested in exploring language. 

‘It was a time when most plays in Maltese didn’t tap into the mundanity of how we speak, how we sound, how we behave around each other. I was particularly interested in dissecting naturalistic dialogue. Code-switching from Maltese to English was not something you’d see characters do in most local plays,’ Spiteri points out.

‘I wanted to explore how the understated, rather than the epic and dramatic, worked in our mother tongue on stage and how audiences reacted to that. It was, relatively, a most welcomed effort. Not without the odd purist decrying the meshing of two languages in such a vernacular manner.’ 

   

Then, unexpectedly, came five years of writing commissioned plays for young people. It was not something Spiteri thought she could or wanted to do, but it was a challenge that ushered in a new way of thinking about writing. She describes it as a process that demands a thick skin. Young audiences were the toughest to please, she notes. The task demanded her to be exact, precise, and concise.

‘During these years, the niggling thought of going back to writing for an adult audience started bothering me. I didn’t feel the pull to write for pleasure. It felt more like the need to write to purge,’ Spiteri says.

‘There was plenty to write about. Perhaps that was the problem. All I had to do was read the daily papers or scroll through the latest bully-xenophobic-troll infested comment board online.’

‘Or eavesdrop everywhere on conversations between usually sensible individuals parroting away ‘facts’ straight out of a politician (of choice)’s mouth. Or take a stroll anywhere and witness every last speck of green on this tiny rock being gobbled up. Or observe everyone treat one other with some level of impatience, inconsideration, inhumanity. All I had to do was sit somehow and watch this fast-paced, technologically disconnected world pass by… and try to make sense of it.’

Spiteri reports this time in her life as one fraught with frustration, anger, and cynicism. The raw material was there, but moulding it into a play was proving a challenge. ‘I tried a few times, hated the attempt, and threw it away,’ she admits. ‘Then, last summer, the central character of Anon (portrayed by Andrè Agius) somehow popped into my mind and immediately all the disconnected loose ends clicked together.’ 

Anon (portrayed by Andrè Agius)

‘Here was my pivot to this rapid, sometimes nausea-inducing, merry-go-round. This character, who I didn’t want to define as anything but a voice, who speaks in the play, but you’re not sure is ever heard. Who speaks with authority one minute, but doubts that very same veracity a moment later. Who can be anyone… and no one at the same time. Who, by being there, is a blank canvas for us, upon which we project all those layers of beliefs, self-perceptions, subjective experiences of failure and success as a country, all the divergences of our multifaceted identity,’ Spiteri adds.

That’s how Repubblika Immakulata came to be. But that is not where the writing ends. Currently there is a new writing phase during which the actors imbue the script with their own interpretations during rehearsals. Then, there is the final act of writing: the process of each audience member looking into the metaphoric mirror the theatre stage should always be.  

Note: Repubblika Immakulata will be performed at Spazju Kreattiv, Valletta in March and April. For more information and tickets visit: www.kreattivita.org/en/event/repubblika-immakulata/