At Malta event, Turkish artists question “Fortress Europe”

The Republic of Malta is a three-island archipelago in the Mediterranean Sea, located 93 kilometres south of Sicily and 284 kilometres east of Tunisia, and the world's tenth smallest country by population, with 475,000 people.

Yet its location in the centre of the Mediterranean has historically given it great strategic importance, with a succession of powers having ruled: the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Greeks, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Sicilians, Spanish, French, and British.

The Crusaders of the order of St. John defended the island from Ottoman conquest, and the capital Valletta was built after the last siege in 1565. The Fortress Builders, which is of course located in a fortress, is a museum that documents Malta’s storied history of fortresses.

Photographer-academic Murat Germen, visiting from Istanbul, was standing on the terrace of Fortress Builders, in Valletta, facing a spot on the Mediterranean where many famed naval battles had transpired.

Murat Germen

“A startling place full of historical connections to Istanbul,” he said, smiling. “I already walked around half of the island -- fortresses everywhere.”

Referring to the metaphor of “Fortress Europe,” a recent exhibition here was called “Mahalla Share House,” part of the Mahalla Festival and contrasting the current political discourse on preventing migration to the European Union. 

The Mahalla Festival is a travelling art event that began last year with a parallel program in the Istanbul Biennial. It invites artists every year to a different country to form new narratives on current political topics: migration, armed conflicts, ecological destruction, the transformation of cities, and so on.

The main objective of the festival is to question a dystopian reality of excluding “the other” in the form of the migrant, the poor, the opposite sex, the animal, the environment, and the unknown. The title refers to the word used in many languages and countries meaning neighbourhood or location, from the Arabic “mähallä”. The word’s root meaning is “to settle” or “occupy” derived from the verb halla (to untie), as in untying a pack horse or camel to make a camp.


More than 50 artists from 14 countries exhibited and performed during the festival in Malta, demonstrating a spirit of diversity and unity so necessary in these polarised times.  Contemporary artists from the Middle East are central voices to question the dystopian reality around the current migration crisis ignoring that the area around Syria, Iraq and Iran are not the axes of evil but one of the cradles of civilization.

In one room, a shiny red toolbox sat on a podium, presenting resin objects as necklaces. The French-Turkish artist Mathilde Melek An uses family albums and covers of Turkish women’s magazines from the 1950s to create the resin-necklaces, wearable objects of collective historical memory.

Mathilde Melek

They present the different models of femininity she was exposed to as a child raised in a Turkish-French family. Her colourful, cheerful style stands in stark contracts to the melancholic pathos typical of so many artists’ work relating to immigration. Her toolbox is a treasure chest of multicultural identity.

“M multicultural background is always a tool for my art,” she said, during the Mahalla Festival. “I am living and producing in Istanbul, but I am travelling a lot.”

tollobox of Mathilde Melek

Studio 87, the space of Maltese restaurateur Justine Balzan Demajo, is located in a former warehouse close to the Valetta waterfront, where cruise ships dock. The author and artist Raziye Kubat invited her audience for a Rakı Table there in memory of her neighbour Katrin in İstanbul. The Rakı Table has a certain social function in Turkey, as a place where friends meet to drink and eat and talk about the personal, the political, and more.

golddess performance

For 25 years, Raziye Kubat had a neighbour of Armenian descent in Istanbul, Katrin, whose family had fled their home in Anatolia long ago. Katrin used to host a Rakı Table at her home, where meze would be served alongside the strong anise-based spirit.

Over the years, the rakı gatherings made the two women very close. In Malta, visitors were invited to join the gathering as a gesture of friendship. The rakı event opened the Mahalla Festival in Malta. Visitors were startled by the delicious food and the cheerful, chatty atmosphere.

Zvezdan Reliç, a photographer from Serbia, underlined the similarities of hospitality culture in the Balkans, which were part of the Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years. “I feel like I’m home,” he said, sipping from his rakı glass and eating grape leaves Raziye Kubat brought from her hometown of Malatya, filled with minced beef and rice.

Raziye Kubat

Beside Valletta, the work of Istanbul artists were displayed in an unconverted palazzo in Zabbar. The city is also known as Città Hompesch and located in southeastern Malta.

Zabbar was granted the title of Città Hompesch by the last of the Grand Masters of the Order of St. John to reign in Malta, Ferdinand von Hompesch zu Bolheim. The German aristocrat lost the island to France in 1799. The former noble town was then transformed into a place for the working class in the 20th century.

The Zabbar palazzo served as a police station in the 1950s, and locals burned a motorbike in front of the building as the uprisings against the British colonial forces began in 1958.

The festival marked the pallazzo’s first opening to the public since that incident, for the  Mahalla Festival exhibition “Zabbar calling Citta Hompesch”.

The artists produced site-specific works to underline the spirit of the space. Maltese and international artists united their creativity and transformed the palazzo into a place representing the spirit of the Mahalla Festival in Malta.

Antonio Cosentino transported a suitcase from Istanbul to Malta, a vintage model with a startling interior. A miniature Mediterranean harbour that hinted at all the magic of the sea and its harbour cities. His piece, “Portable,” shown in the entrance to the palazzo, highlighted ideas of travelling and migration.

Eda Gecikmez installed a work called “The Memory of the Bird,” which was linked to the poem “The Conference of the Birds” by the 12th-century Persian poet Fariduddin Attar. Drawings on linen quoted the medieval poem and referred to migrating birds and their hardships travelling from the Middle East to Europe. Her work connected conflicts of the past to ongoing battles, underlining the continuity of destruction and displacement through human history.

Eda Gecikmez

In one room, Istanbul-based artist Güneş Terkol’s presented “Whispering Tulle,” Tulle curtains along one side of an upper floor wall, fluttering in the wind and patterned with ivy motifs. They evoked the fairytale of a sleeping beauty shielded by thorny ivy around a castle, the vegetation proliferating in polluted parts of the Mediterranean Sea, or the fruitful growth of an idealistic idea.

Güneş Terkol

In the next room, Maltese artist Margerita Pulé created the “Cement Bakery,” offering bread and cake made out of a mixture of wheat and cement. She sought to increase awareness of the building boom in Malta; Sliema has emerged as a synonym for urban dystopia for many locals. Once a quiet fishing village, today the city is dominated by skyscrapers that have arisen with little planning. 

“I have to invite you to Istanbul,” Terkol told Pulé. “Your cement bakery would be very meaningful there as well.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.