Old saints with new messages around Valletta

I live in Valletta and roaming around the city is one of my very favourite pastimes.

Being a tiny grid, I thought I’d have exhausted its novelties a while ago, however the city is so rich in its intricate layering of detail that there’s a seemingly never-ending supply of things to notice.

Oddly-shaped balconies that give a window on Maltese ‘creativity’, intricate stonework on facades of buildings that seem to have been long forgotten even in the midst of the current influx of property agents, developers, investors all looking for the mythical last unclaimed bargains from anyone who has not yet woken up to the sudden price explosions. Little shops I can never seem to find open, churches, monasteries, signs, half-ajar doors that reveal another world still inside; not to mention the endless dance of PA permits that pop-up and disappear on most entry-ways, a tiny hint of the many changes the city is currently enduring. Yes enduring. Not because change in a 400 year old city is inherently negative, but because the overwhelming majority of this change is making the old lady less easy to live with, less approachable, less friendly to the common citizen.

The Pilar Chapel in Valletta with its two new angels.
The Pilar Chapel in Valletta with its two new angels. Photo by James Micallef Grimaud | Facebook.

It’s not all bad of course, and one thing that I have noted with curiosity was the appearance of two pop-up angels in niches on the façade of the Pilar Chapel on West Street. I’m not entirely sure when they first appeared, I just know I looked up at the façade of the church at some point and found my eyes resting on these two unusual creatures. Two black and white angels proudly adorning the old façade like some kind of yin and yang totems. The more muscular of the two, I’m guessing St Michael, stands defiantly atop all that is evil: the devil on a leash (of course), an oversized burger, piles of rubbish bags not unlike the ones that decorate Valletta streets daily. The slighter figure on the right looks contemplative and well-read perched on her piles of books and globe.

My first reactions were a double-take and a giggle. They seem to belong in a way, but also, of course don’t. How long had they been there, where did they come from? They seemed to be made out of card, definitely 2D cutout figures placed inside the stone niches made for saints. Much too high up for close inspection I had to make do with my view from below. Who had the mettle to erect these two new idols so neatly and fittingly in the cavities created to house stone saints? Was it an event I missed? Had someone just put them there one fine day while I wasn’t looking?

Street art popping up out of nowhere is a customary part of city life in most places. But not usually in Malta. And most definitely not in Valletta. Something in the neat stonework, the ancient walls, the grid network, the history, perhaps our culture, seems to command respect and perhaps urge a certain distance. Which of course made the appearance of these two figures all the more intriguing.

It took me months to finally solve the mystery. I was on my way from Fabrizio Ellul’s ‘What comes after 1 minute of silence’, (an exhibition that prods and questions the effects of terrorism that’s on at Spazju Kreattiv until the 8th of February), to a friend’s birthday party, when The German, the tall blonde most frequent companion to my adventures, suggested we go through Strait Street to check out ‘the punk band’. I honestly was not incredibly intrigued but somehow found myself walking through Strait Street on the way to Maori and had my way practically blocked by a big sign saying ‘Exhibition’ at Splendid. So of course we drifted in.

The house of expressive liberties - James Micallef Grimaud
The large version at Splendid during The House of Expressive Liberties, a collaboration between Spy Emerson, San Francisco, James M.Grimaud (a.k.a Twitch), Malta, Rachel Formosa, Malta, Lasse Ullven, Finland, Juan Matarranz, Madrid and Marcamix, South Africa; organised by the Malta Street Art Collective. Photo

No punk to be heard yet but a definite air of grunge was perceptible. A friend noted that this was the first time she had seen Splendid full enough to really feel like something was happening there. Up the stairs and into the main room I came face to face with a massive version of one of the sibling angels. And this time there was a name attached to him: James Micallef Grimaud a.k.a Twitch, also the guy behind the sacred heart Jesus who has popped up on a shop-shutter in Merchants Street and on a city-gate concrete barrier, and blurs the lines between evangelisation, irony and protest in a way that only art can so elegantly get away with.

Jesus by Twitch
The latest Jesus to pop up, this time on a concrete block at City Gate.

The exhibition at the Splendid, titled The House of Expressive Liberties was a re-interpretation and questioning of what we consider sacred and evil, a kind of updated religion warning against contemporary perils of mankind. Mysteries solved-aside, I loved Rachel Formosa’s Chapel of Saint Capital, a candlelit alcove dedicated to the adoration of money complete with a dodgy-politician table setting, a money laundering station and of course a request for donations on promise of prayer. The punk band eventually started and drove me out towards my original destination but I kept thinking about the visuals.

The Chapel of Saint Capital by Rachel Formosa
The Chapel of Saint Capital by Rachel Formosa.

I longed to know more but also didn’t, the art spoke loud enough and provided an intriguing trail of breadcrumbs that added to the one that had captured my imagination while walking the city months before. I decided not to dig further. Instead I’m keeping my eyes open for more new/old idols to hopefully grace the old lady’s walls.