Where are you from?
PETER SERRACINO INGLOTT
The first is too stress that the first condition for having fruitful intercultural dialogue is that there should be a strong sense of identity on the part of the people who are about to engage in dialogue. Its only by having a strong sense of identity that you could enter into dialogue with others who are different from you without feeling threatened but with full self confidence which would enable enrichment to result from the dialogue.
Hopkins used to say that if a painter who had a real personality went into an art gallery and exposed himself to the influence of all the great painters whose works were displayed in the gallery he would come out enriched. He had no reason to fear absorbing the influence of others. If he started with a sufficient degree of self knowledge and self confidence, and obviously this is what is needed if you are to engage in cross cultural dialogue, openly and confidently. You must have a sense of your identity and that is why the installation which we have today is a contribution to our participation in cross cultural dialogue because it is enabling us to ascertain our own identity. As Julian said, and this is something about which we have deep questioning and that is a very healthy side, because there are only two things about national identity, an enormous problematic subject which I will mention now.
The first is that we shouldn’t think of any identity especially national identity, as fixed and permanent. Now an identity is something in evolution, it is something which is constantly undergoing change so a contribution, a stimulus, to our changing is not an attack on our identity but it’s something which will help us keep this identity alive, existing, because unless its alive it won’t exist. So we mustn’t be afraid that because an identity is changing, that we are loosing something. We could be losing something but we would also be gaining something. The important thing is that the identity is dynamic because otherwise it would be dead, deaf to all existence.
The other thing which I wanted to say about identity is that it is very strongly conditioned by context. It is always context which establishes the meaning of anything and perhaps the reason which has made many consider Heideger to be the greatest philosopher of our time is because he has insisted on this spot. Of course Heideger comes to this question from a very metaphysical angle, that is he is studying what is the meaning of being, what is it to exist, and then in particular what is it to exist as a human being. What is human existence and of course the contrast between existence in general in an absolute sense which could only mean the existence of god or being in itself that’s eternally free from time and space, while the characteristic of human existence is that it is determined spatial temporarily and those aren’t really two things because we know from Einstein that time is the fourth dimension of space.
So in a sense, apart from the first aspect, interesting aspect of this exhibition is that it makes us dissociate physiognomy from identity and this relates to the first point which I was making because we tend to have a stereotyped fixed image of what it is to look Maltese, basically it is thought that that a Maltese should be a brunette and not a blonde which of course would exclude me from being Maltese and in fact I have had this experience all through my life, travelling abroad, people when they hear me speak English or they hear me speak Italian or even more when they hear me speak Maltese they start wondering where does he come from, and very few people are able to resist asking me where I come from and so I tell them guess, and never has anyone said I think you come from Malta, the most frequent answer is Holland but I have heard proposals from all sides of the world.
Now if I can also be a bit autobiographical, obviously when I saw this exhibition what came to my mind was some time when I was rector of the university where during a week, (I would have preferred my secretary Margaret Zammit had been here to tell you the story because she was obviously in the office outside mine), and a gentleman with a, what we would say was an absolutely Japanese look, the eyes the colour of the skin, came to see her and he told her can I see the rector, so my secretary said do you have a appointment and he said no I do not have an appointment and so she said, well then you can’t see him and he told her but tell him that it’s his cousin! Oh my secretary opened her eyes wide but the gentleman produced a card, the card was written in Japanese on one side but in the other side it was written in English and it said Edward Inglott, so she was a bit impressed, she came in and told me there’s a gentleman that says he’s my cousin and he gave me this card, I said oh of course he’s my cousin I know him very well, I mean I knew that my great great uncle had an Italian girlfriend who jilted him so he wanted to commit suicide but he read in the times educational supplement that there was a vacant post of professor of English at Sophia university in Tokyo and he thought well that was almost the equivalent of committing suicide and so he went there and well he married a Japanese. I was told that he never learnt Japanese well and she never learnt English or Maltese or any other language well but somehow they managed to converse in a language which only the two of them understood. I mean this was told to me by his sons and daughters who often came to Malta and they all looked perfectly Japanese we would say but they were genuinely my cousins but the following week, a lady, a young lady came to the office and she was coloured, she had curly hair but it was well, the colour my hair used to be, what we call ginger hair, but very African looking and this lady told her can I see the rector and my secretary said do you have an appointment and she said no and so she said well you can’t see him so she said but give him this card, and this card said Shantal Inglott and my secretary was even more puzzled and she told him tell him I’m his cousin and if he doesn’t remember who I am tell him that her husband was the first person who had failed the law examination in Oxford for 400 years or something like that so she came in and I told her of course I remember who she is, her mother was Biancha Inglott and I told her exactly how she was related to me and in fact she had married somebody from Sierra Leone her mother had married someone from Sierra Leone and she was the daughter.
So I understand what this exhibition is showing perfectly well and I have always said no true Maltese is a pure Maltese because it’s the characteristic of our country. We have always welcomed sailors from all over the world and well you know what sailors do in ports and harbours and that’s the result. I mean if I look at my own name. Well I mean, Seracino is obviously of Italian origin but refers to ‘sarracance’ that is to the moors and my Inglott is an English name it means ‘little English man’ actually ‘anglo’ with an ‘ott’ I won’t tell you how they came to Malta, my mother’s surname is Kalamatta which is obviously of Greek origin, and my other grandmother is Borg which is obviously a Semitic name. So this is the Maltese identity and I think this is a very important thing to maintain. I think our identity has never been something special, rather the something special about our identity is that we are eclectic, that we are able to move equally at home in different cultures, that our main role has been that of middle man, of brokers, of interpreters, of people who can move from one culture to another and this is a very distinctive and valuable identity and role to have in the world.
I won’t develop this subject more although I could easily show it. Is there a characteristic of Maltese baroque? This is a question which has often been asked and in fact, there aren’t any distinctive characteristics of Maltese baroque except that in Maltese baroque we have the whole variety of baroque styles from the Portuguese to the Austrian in space and the whole variety of baroque throughout its development from its beginnings, the beginning of the 17th century till its end, in our case we even go beyond, in the middle of the 18th century. You can find all those elements here in Malta and that is what constitutes a very distinctive feature and makes Maltese baroque have a particular identity. I think that if you go all over the various dimensions of what constitutes identity you will tend to find that this is the characteristic. So I think that the exercise which has been carried out here is really hitting the nail on the head in the way of a search for the Maltese identity.
But I want to say something before ending on the second point which was hinted at by Julian which is where he spoke about how the exhibition changed from something just for the gate to something for the whole square, because as I said right at the beginning what has made Hiedeger the most famous philosopher of our time is that he has stressed that the characteristic of being a human being, of human existence, is that it is an existence which is located in space time. And I think what the exercise which Norbert has carried out here is an exercise of this kind. if it is space which defines us, many of us have been very worried because somebody who comes in through the city gate is expecting to find an emblem of Maltese identity. I mean that’s what he expects, come again at what is obviously a point of an access which goes straight down to St. Elmo. This is obviously a defining expression and many of us are dismayed that what somebody who enters the gates is getting as the emblem of our identity something like our coat of arms, something like what a coat of arms was to a knight in the days of chivalry and what he gets is this particular space.
What Norbert has done with this installation, he completely changes the way in which the context defines us. I mean if somebody comes in now and has this space filled with the installation then what he is seeing is what I have been describing, that is... perhaps the most perfect and complex statement of what Maltese identity is like and in fact even just looking at this space from this place for me was a very exciting experience. I had never seen it empty like this but the emptiness is amply compensated for by the images placed on the side which are conveying precisely this message. So, he is both giving value to this space as that which defines us, that which defines the human beings who occupy were active in this space and at the same time he is redeeming the space by making it, by turning it from something which we usually regard as very negative to something extremely positive which is precisely the function of art. To transform, what is in this case, worse than everyday ordinary, something which is actually ugly, into something which is exhilarating and which makes you rejoice in being human.