Curator Interview: Gabriel Zammit
Interviewed by Ann Dingli
Portrait of Gabriel Zammit
Gabriel Zammit is a curator, writer and producer living and working in Malta. He studied Philosophy at the University of Malta, and later Art in Aesthetics and Art Theory with the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, London. He has produced and curated the exhition, Departures (2019), at the Malta Society of Arts, Valletta; co-produced and co-curated Darkness at Noon at the The Splendid in Valletta (2021); and Sea Sunset Moon, variations on solitude (2022) at Spazju Kreattiv, Valletta. Zammit’s curatorial practice is driven by a curiosity in art as an alternative method of meaning-making which is free from the limits of conventional ways of looking at the world. He derives most of his inspiration from literature, particularly mythology and poetry, and seeks to use conceptually driven projects to explore the limits of the human condition. Here he speaks to Ann Dingli for Valletta Contemporary about what constitutes the GROUNDWATERS in the gallery’s latest collective show.
Ann Dingli (AD): You talk about GROUNDWATERS as a show that brings together a group of 'outsider individuals'. What constitutes being an individual on the outside?
Gabriel Zammit (GZ): Towards the end of the 20th century, the artist and art historian Jean Debuffet defined outsider art, or more specifically, art brut, raw art, in contradistinction with what he called ‘cultural art.’ Cultural art, Debuffet contended, was enslaved by the vicissitudes of the culture industry and was trapped in an operation of mimicry, which couldn’t help but perpetuate the logic of capital, consumption and ultimately the unfreedom of the individual within society. The creators of art brut, on the other hand, were completely free. “These [types of] artists,” Debuffet writes in 1988, “derive everything – subjects, choice of materials, means of transposition, rhythms, styles of writing, etc. – from their own depths, and not from the conventions of classical or fashionable art,” and their art, therefore stems from outside the sanctioned centres of cultural or psychological normality.
I don’t fully subscribe to Debuffet’s definition and have chosen instead to orient my understanding in relation to art making which veers towards aesthetic practice as transformative ritual, thus also drawing into the circle of investigation religious art, ritual art and art-therapy-practices. Visually the work overlaps with various other categories such as naïve art or folk art etc., but the amalgam of what I am calling outsider art is hard to characterise except in terms of almost total stylistic freedom which cannot be pinned down. The term itself has become a site of conceptual conflict and this exhibition reflects that.
To attempt a clear answer to your question, however, what these individuals are outside-of, is a way of art-making which is overtly socially engaged, and self-aware, and therefore manages – as with Debuffet’s brut artists – to side-step the levelling mechanisms of culture. Of course, many of the people who make this kind of work also function outside the psychosocial boundary walls of culture, but this is not what makes them outsiders, in my eyes. The work in this show has been chosen due to the transformative energy which springs forth when objects are created as part of the attempt to give material shape to abstract wishes, desires, compulsions – it veers into magical territory and strays outside of the kind of art making taught in art school.
Installation view of GROUNDWATERS
AD: One of the curatorial threads in the show is described as a "deeply felt need which is transformative in intent". Can you talk about what that need is? A need for belonging, for expression, for acceptance, exposure, defiance?
GZ: Within GROUNDWATERS it’s all of the above. Transformation of desire into action via the communication between the physical and the metaphysical in the case of the Bocio fetish dolls and the ex-votos; transformation of suffering into hope within the work of Emma Attard; worldbuilding and the transformation of the idea of home within William Driscoll and Emma Johnson; expression (I presume) within Anonymous’ work. Belonging… perhaps… that’s also in there somewhere.
Fundamentally the transformative thread which weaves through the works is a universal one, and I think it is driven by a deeply human need, to return to your question, to shape our external and internal reality. This is platitudinous to say – we shape our reality all the time, when we cook, chat with our friends or withdraw money from the ATM. Allow me to specify. What sets the shaping energy in outsider, ritual and magical art apart is that there is necessity, compulsion, which, when twinned with the stylistic and conceptual freedom we’ve just spoken about, creates something really unique. It is at this point that the work taps into the groundwaters, the subterranean chambers of who we are. This compulsion is driven by pain, gratitude, mental illness, emargination, states of heightened awareness, prayer etc. But that is only the starting point, and really and it truly can be instigated by anything and manifested through anything, not just art. Here I guess I’m veering into an argument for ‘everyone who is genuinely creative is an outsider,’ which is an argument I’m not too fond of, but perhaps I must acquiesce.
Installation view of GROUNDWATERS featuring ex-voto work
AD: Can you unpack the central thesis of Russell's text as it relates to the show – how does the show extend from his content?
GZ: Charles Russell develops a synoptic view of outsider art in Europe and America in his book Groundwaters, a century of outsider art. In his book he grounds a reading of this genre of art in psychological theory and explores the different strands of outsider art – such as art brut, visionary art, art of the mentally ill, naïve art, and vernacular art – in relation to the sociocultural currents that shaped the development of these categories.
Russel’s final conclusion is that these individuals, either unafraid or in fact compelled to journey deep into their own interiorities and to the fringes of culture and normality, emerge with insights and unfold aesthetic logics which, although wholly unique, still manage to speak for the collective and shed light on the constellations of contemporary antagonisms governing the course of all our lives. They plunge, therefore, deep into the groundwaters of our collective subconscious. It is this thread which GROUNDWATERS picks up and develops within the Maltese context.
I also reached out to Russell, his book was published in 2011, and asked him to write a foreword to the catalogue for GROUNDWATERS, which he did.
Installation view of GROUNDWATERS
AD: You emphasise GROUNDWATERS' intention to eradicate hierarchy and prioritise openness. Indeed, you comment on the act of placing outsider art into the white cube as an act of disturbance. How do you reconcile the rationality of the gallery space with this theme of openness and pursuit of subversion?
GZ: There is no attempt at reconciliation, instead there is critique, I am pushing back against the obliterating flat whiteness of the white cube. The action of placing outsider and brut art into the white cube (as far as Valletta Contemporary can be called a white cube) has a disruptive intent. Nowadays white cube is the temple to what art has become in the 21st century, it is a monument to the sterile kind of meaning making that we prioritise, and it is also driven by capital, consumption, hierarchy and ultimately unfreedom. I want to explore alternative narratives, I think it’s time for different voices to take over the gallery and museum spaces. Especially here in Malta. Norbert Francis Attard, the creative director and gallery owner, has been extremely accommodating in empowering me to facilitate the artists in doing this.
In curatorial terms this has manifested via several physical changes to the space - I’ve painted walls different colours, flooded a room with water (groundwater itself seeping upwards out of the stone into the gallery) added in a sound design component built from field recordings constructed out of the mundane everyday hum within which we live our lives, changed around the lighting etc., and so I am attempting to make the white cube bend and flex in order to make room for alternative narratives and different ways of constructing truth.
To place outsider, naïve, unselfconscious, and brut art into a white cube space is to disturb and challenge the culturally sanctioned mechanism of bestowing the right to create truth. To empower outsider perspectives and visions of elsewhere to take over a space that is firmly rooted in a logic of meaning-making about the here and now is to question the validity of established ways of thinking about creativity and, by proxy, ourselves.
Installation view of GROUNDWATERS
AD: GROUNDWATERS looks at artists who derive their content and practice "from their own depths". How does this manifest vis-a-vis the viewer? How do you hope people will approach viewing the show?
GZ: I hope the show pushes people inwards and becomes a transformative journey which mimics the logic of the artworks on display. The narrative structure of the exhibition mirrors the conceptual logic of the artworks on display – the exhibition leads down into the groundwaters of who we are both metaphorically and literally, as the show takes you down into the well of Valletta Contemporary, which I’ve filled with water. We must imagine that the water in this well is the literal groundwater seeping upwards through the rock into the gallery space, and the hope is that the descent into these subterranean water-filled chambers is accompanied by a parallel internal descent.