top of page

Valletta Contemporary

Curator Interview: Maria Eileen Fsadni

Interviewed by Ann Dingli 
April 2024

intervier maria eileen fsadni.jpeg

Installation view featuring work by Inigo Taylor (Photo by Michaele Zammit)

Maria Eileen Fsadni is a curator, writer, and environmental activist. Through her writing, she delves into intersections between art, culture, and environmental justice. Over the past eight years, she has worked in some of the island's leading heritage and art NGOs. Maria holds both a B.A. and M.A. in Art History from the University of Malta and during her university years, she served as President of the History of Art Students' Association. In recognition of her environmental advocacy, Maria was honoured with the JCI Ten Outstanding Persons of the Year award for Environmental Leadership in 2023. In 2018, she began volunteering with FoEMalta, eventually transitioning to a part-time role within the organisation in 2022. Maria forms part of the team which is restoring and regenerating il-Forn ta’ Kemmuna. She speaks to Ann Dingli about the motivations and meanings behind her new exhibition at Valletta Contemporary (VC).

Ann Dingli (AD): Referring firstly to Daphne Caruana Galizia’s text, where she talks about the remaining inhabitants of Comino, reminding readers that there is still domestic occupation on the island. Her text feels similar to the environmental activist language that has been awakened in recent years across the board, reminding human beings that other forms of life inhabit and roam the earth, lest they be forgotten in our species’ self-propelled ascension into planetary omnipotence. Is this exhibition a similar reminder?

Maria Eileen Fsadni (MEF): This exhibition hopes to echo the sentiments of activists, but here presented through the lens of contemporary art. Each piece, including Daphne’s, brings to the fore the consequences of decades of unregulated human occupation on the island.


Daphne’s text was chosen to offer context to Comino’s situation. It pinpoints the distinct shift in the island’s sociocultural landscape, from a thriving farming community to a business-focused hub of tourism. The change in the lease agreement with the Government of Malta, and subsequently the arrival of the hotel in the 1960s, can be firmly identified as the catalyst which has led to the situation which we now face. Of course, the community of farmers also had an impact on the island, but it was minor in comparison to the free-for-all which exists today. Conventional farmers prior to the 1960s used practices which were more in sync with nature, they were in part custodians of the land, and it is

as though they co-existed with nature.


Today, there are only two people who still live on the island, both direct descendants of the farmers. Salvu Vella has become the public face of Comino and is pictured in the exhibition through a portrait shot by Inigo Taylor. In our conversations with him he shared fond memories of his childhood, where he recalled a quieter, slower life, one which he only experienced again during the pandemic. He recalled a specific moment where he observed herons returning to rest on the cliffs of Comino, an occurrence he had not witnessed in years due to the consistent presence of party boats which blare loud music at all hours of the day. Salvu is one of the sole remaining witnesses of the unrelenting environmental injustice which Comino and its community has endured.

Comino will be Different Next Summer-5 (1).jpg

Excerpt of text by Daphne Caruana Galizia (Photo by Sheldon Saliba)

AD: There has been so much environmental action around Comino in recent years. Do you feel that this is because, aside from its beauty, it’s one of the only places left within the archipelago that activists and the public at large still feel they can lay claim to, potentially salvage, and
exercise their civic – or even taxonomic – agency over?

MEF: Precisely. We are actually at a unique juncture in the island’s story. Not only is public outcry louder than ever but we are at a tipping point. Decision-makers have a choice. Do they continue with the long-outdated obsession with economic growth at the detriment of everything else? Or do they make efforts to allow nature room to breathe? Activists are calling on authorities to dismantle the wrongdoings of the past, and we need leaders who are brave enough to do so.

I open my curatorial statement with a quote from artist and academic Jenny Odell’s book, How to do Nothing, which reads:

“But if we sincerely recognise all that was already here, both culturally and ecologically, we start to understand that anything framed as construction was actually also destruction.”

Of course, it was chosen as an allusion to the monumental planning application which is currently looming over the old hotel and bungalow area. Both through protest, and legal avenues, civil society has put forward a strong opposition towards a potential new development. And yet, the Hili Group continues to frame their proposal as progress while cries towards authorities fall on deaf ears. This is touched upon by Sheldon Saliba, in his work Xandru l-Konkos (Broadcast Concrete), which creates a dialogue around the possibility of new development. The work, which takes over the double-height space, finds its roots in the 5G aerials which have cropped up across the Maltese islands and suspends concrete panels 4 metres in the air, the pink hue of the central panel is a subtle nod to the old hotel. Found objects collected by the artist
within the vicinity of the hotel are embedded in the panels. The piece questions how new construction is being presented.

It is deeply worrying to hear Prime Minister Robert Abela describe degrowth,* and the fundamental economic overhauls which come with the concept, as a ‘loser mentality’ when research shows it is integral to safeguarding our future. With that being said, it is my strongly held belief that through the power of an active and vocal civil society we will see change even if it takes time. Or, as future generations reflect on the islands’ story, I hope that the work of activists will be remembered for being on the right side of history.

*Degrowth refers to creating an economic system in which we respect the earth's planetary boundaries, decreasing energy and resource use, while improving well-being and social equality.

Comino will be Different Next Summer-28.jpg

Xandru l-Konkos (Broadcast Concrete) by Sheldon Saliba (Photo by Sheldon Saliba)

AD: Can you talk about the work selected for inclusion in the show. It ranges from photo-journalism to entirely new compositions. Can you describe what binds them together, aside from the island itself?

MEF: Naturally, the island remains the primary focus of the exhibition which binds each artist together. In my selection, however, I was careful to engage with artists who are seeking new avenues to interpret environmental injustice. Be it photography, like Joanna Demarco, Lisa Attard
and Inigo, or creating an imagined world through Mario Asef’s Kemmuna Nation and finally, through Sheldon’s site-specific installations. In their wider practice, each artist demonstrates the same drive to trigger discussions around injustices, environmental or beyond.

Bringing artists together who emerge from such vastly different disciplines presents an exciting curatorial challenge. From the outset, it was important to me to present a coherent exhibition from a visual point of view. The photography, and Mario’s work was already in extant before the idea for the exhibition came about but in our conversations Sheldon and I were careful to be sensitive towards the other artist’s work. In the last room, Sheldon created small paintings interpreting Comino’s coastline in reaction to the muted sandy and olive tones found in Inigo’s

Comino will be Different Next Summer-23.jpg

Installation view, featuring work by Lisa Attard and Inigo Taylor (Photo by Sheldon Saliba)

AD: The exhibition’s introduction mentions Comino’s “desperate cry to regain its dignity”. Has Comino itself lost its dignity? The island has always held a promise of natural hedonism – its unique alchemy of impeccable climate and crystalline waters calling out to creatures on twos or fours to visit and inhabit. How would you associate that inherent role with dignity or lack thereof? I would assume the erasure of dignity points to the people, not the land. Can you unpack this?


MEF: The island, or more broadly speaking ‘nature’, is being personified in the video piece Kemmuna Nation by Mario. His work conceives a fantasy world where nature is creating its own nation, to quote Mario:

‘In 2018, I was invited by FRAGMENTA Malta to present [a] thought-experiment. We took over the island of Comino to explore different aspects of the project. At different locations we had a lecture about lichens as an example of successful symbiosis, a lecture about Blockchain and its application for giving the network a voice, a participatory sound installation, a sound walk to sensitise our perception towards minerals and at the end an independence speech as a statement of this new-born nation.’

In essence, Mario’s work seeks to represent Comino’s cry for dignity. Dignity, which as you correctly pointed out, was forcefully erased by the presence of people. Sadly, its natural beauty matched with the inherent greed of humankind has caused its downfall.

AD: What do you hope the exhibition will trigger or enliven in its audiences?

MEF: That is a tough question to answer, it depends on who is in the audience.

Being that I work at Valletta Contemporary, I am offered the unique opportunity to engage with our exhibition visitors more than an average curator. In my work as an activist, it often feels like we are preaching to the converted, but actively observing visitors exploring the exhibition has opened my eyes to how far reaching our work can be.

Through our collaboration with Friends of the Earth Malta, and their project il-Forn ta’ Kemmuna, we brought new audiences to engage with contemporary art, many people stepping into the gallery for the first time. Conversely, others who regularly visit the Gallery have been introduced to activism, and the issues on Comino, through this exhibition.

Of course, there is a wider audience. Comino has proven to be a controversial topic. Before the exhibition opened, the gallery sent out a press release which was refused by a local tourism magazine. Although the exhibition is happening within the confines of an institution, it seeks to
ruffle the feathers of those at the very top.

Ultimately, my hope is that it triggers the question, how will Comino be different next Summer?

Comino will be Different Next Summer-25.jpg

Kemmuna Nation (2018/2023), by Mario Asef (Photo by Sheldon Saliba)

bottom of page