Malta has a strong heritage when it comes to the arts. From some of the earliest known civilisations of idol making Bronze Age people being found on the northern island of Gozo, to Caravaggio creating his masterpiece The Beheading of John the Baptist in the Cathedral of The Knights of Malta while on the run for murder, you can feel the reverberations of art’s presence in the sea-crisp air. The people of Malta are extremely proud of the artistic lineage – defiant in the face of its nearby counterparts of Sicily, Italy, and North Africa, whom each lay claim to the worlds best Classical, Byzantine and Renaissance art, Malta has had to shout head above water in order to claim itself art equal of its neighbours. Fortunately, the island’s rich association with its captivatingly esoteric knights (and the money they brought to it) has helped Malta secure its place as one with a rich visual history and artistic culture – a jewel in the Mediterranean crown. Everyone you talk to on the island is keen to tell you about the great creative people of the past who have visited Malta, from poets to painters to movie stars.

Aaron Bezzina - Position of Opposition, VIVA Malta 2015. Photo by Elisa von Brockdorff

Aaron Bezzina – Position of Opposition, VIVA Malta 2015. Photo by Elisa von Brockdorff

The island seems to have an air of artistic excitement – staunch medieval citadels whisper of the man-hours toiled at their creation, as their sculpted surfaces and frescos are circumscribed in the strong, white Mediterranean sun that casts equally stark shadows across their high-relief surfaces. Because of the island’s strategic positioning with Africa to the south and Europe to the North, its art and architecture is a melting pot of influences, from Hellenistic, Byzantine, Saracen and Moorish – you at once feel in several cultures. By night the streets become a living museum of the richly entrenched history of the island – you can truly feel the heady mix of myth, cult, religion and nobility present in the artistic atmosphere – never has a city’s history been so alive as in the cities of Malta.

It seems fitting then, that such a place would have a vibrant contemporary art scene. Continuing the traditions of the artists and craftsmen who flocked to Malta, plying their wares and trades to the wealthy peers, now a young generation of Maltese, who once would have had to leave the island in search of a bustling contemporary art vibe, are returning to their homeland and establishing their own studios and galleries. Slowly but surely contemporary art is becoming a visible presence on an island that is so indebted and enamoured with the arts of its previous centuries.

The islands capital is now playing host to VIVA (Valetta International Visual Arts Festival). Now in its second year, the festival plays host to both Maltese and international contemporary artists, helping to establish global networks whilst also promoting home-grown talent and engaging the public with contemporary art. The festival is a predecessor to a much larger year-long festival set to take place in 2018, when Valetta will be the European Cultural Capital of the year.

Spread over several venues throughout the city, the festival is made up of various exhibitions and public works. A table mounted with gold fists in the Pjazza Regina by Aaron Bezzina speaks of dialogue between friends and foe in a public forum – something that feels strikingly relevant surrounded by Malta’s café culture. The goldness of the bronze reflects the island’s history of wealth and use of gold in its art – only several hundred metres away is the Co-Cathedral of St. John where every surface is covered in glistening gold leaf. The work imbues the same pride in the legacy of Maltese culture that comes from the mouths of the people – a strong sense of identity and love for their city, as well as each other, is always at the forefront of the population and its art. Other highlights include an exhibition of Palestinian video Art in St. James Cavaliers – and old citadel building converted in to an arts centre, which highlights the plight of the countries people who face alienation and conflict daily, placing their art in a stark yet sometimes humorous and witty dialogue with the audience.

There is a also a brilliant photography exhibition of portraits of the inhabitants of the city by the photographer Zvezdan Reljic, a well-curated and riveting exhibition focused on the theme of ageing by the winners of last years curating competition, works created by convicts in the city of Valetta’s jail, a curatorial school taking place in the local university and outdoor cinemas are being erected in the courtyards of social housing in a bid to bring the art to the people.

Interior of exhibition on ageing, St. James Cavaliers, VIVA Malta 2015, photo by Elisa von Brockdorff

Interior of exhibition on ageing, St. James Cavaliers, VIVA Malta 2015, photo by Elisa von Brockdorff

The festival feels selective – there is very much a sense of quality over quantity. Careful curation treads the line between the island’s artistic legacy whilst engaging the wider audience. The art champions Malta as both honouring the past whilst being progressive.

Exhibitions can be taken in while exploring the islands winding streets, sampling the delicious local cuisine (which coincidentally shares the same identity issues as its art, mixing influences from all its neighbours) and meandering the beautiful churches, town squares and harbours. And with flights from all over the uk jetting you to some winter sun in 3 hours, never before has there been a better time to visit Malta.

By James Rutherford

For more information on VIVA Festival, or Malta, please visit www.viva.org.mt and www.visitmalta.com. For flights and hotels visit www.airmalta.com and www.lemeridienmalta.com. The arts festival runs until the end of the month and will be returning in 2016.