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Guido Stilon’s Valletta: community and architecture
June 13, 2021|Justine Balzan Demajo and Joseph Agius|0
5 min read
The exhibition From Where I Stand was set up as an exercise to invite the community to engage with their roots, their home, and their relationship with their city, in this case our beloved Valletta. When we are confronted with the same images of our daily surroundings, it is natural to become very familiar with our home and to take it for granted.
‘We used to live around the corner from here, on the left-hand side.’
With the help of Guido Stilon’s photography, made accessible by the Magna Żmien Foundation, through focus groups, 10 people were given the opportunity to select a photo of Valletta that spoke to them in a meaningful way.
Stilon, like the project’s participants, also hailed from this historic city. Born in 1932, in Strada San Paolo, he later lived in St Christopher Street. He was a modest artist who demonstrated a natural raw talent. Known by very few, he treated the craft of artistic photography like a hobby but proved to be very successful in every competition he entered.
He even exhibited in New York’s World Fair in 1964, after winning Kodak’s The World and its People competition. Sadly, Stilon passed away at the early age of 43, but his hauntingly beautiful photographs stand as his testament, frozen in time. After Stilon’s works were first exhibited only last year at the Postal Museum, we now get another peek into what his treasure trove of a portfolio has to offer.
These 10 Valletta enthusiasts involved in the project share with us their personal narrative that they closely associate with the photo of their choice. The images depict Valletta in the 1950s and 1960s before Malta’s Independence. This body of work creates a parallel between Stilon’s Valletta and the reactions of the present-day community.
Decades apart, their personal perspectives may differ but their principles appear to remain constant; that of unity, tradition, family life and the bustling energy that makes Valletta the city that it is.
With the stripping away of our local identities due to a rise in gentrification and the continuous development boom, a glance at these photographs, and the microhistories that accompany them, helps shed light on the incomparable beauty, history, traditions and inner core of our capital.
Are such images and values relevant in today’s society? If this is the case, they could serve as a reminder of what needs protecting – our cultural and intangible heritage and the ever-changing local communities. From such an exercise one observes the components that unite and develop a community.
The images depict Valletta in the 1950s and 1960s before Malta’s Independence
This is worth noting when considering that the capital’s community is often thought to be nearing extinction. It also results in giving the Valletta people a voice, one that is rarely heard in all the chaos.
“We used to live around the corner from here, on the left-hand side, just a few doors down. (…) I know that makes Valletta; you used to have people washing in the tubs; the conversations had, even across the streets. That’s the life I remember.”
Due to the nature of this project, the participants remain anonymous and names have been changed. The works exhibited will not be for sale as they form part of the Guido Stilon Collection, under the care of the Magna Żmien Foundation.
Capital cities and their photographers
Stilon belongs to a class of photographers who undertook to snap narratives of city life as well as document the unique architectural fabric, the backdrop for these chapters of captured time.
The French photographer Eugène Atget, one of the pioneers of the medium, documented all the nooks and crannies of late 19th century and early 20th century Paris, thereby leaving a priceless account of an evolving and sensual city.
Hungarian French photographer Brassaï elevated street photography to new heights. He scoured the streets of Paris and documented the French capital at night, when it transformed itself into the City of Lights. These works are universally considered as masterpieces of street photography.
Like Stilon, Maltese photographer David Pisani’s love for Valletta encompasses almost three decades of life in the city, from the early years of the 1980s, when the photographer was still a teenager, up to the first days of the demolition of City Gate in May 2011 when it was bulldozed to make way for Renzo Piano’s project.
Pisani’s Valletta witnessed the post-World War II decay, its depopulation as the citizens had to give up their properties to make way for a gentrification, a new cosmopolitan identity with the spillover from old palaces and common residences into cafeterias, restaurants and soulless franchises; a sociological consideration that together with its architectural regeneration, demographically changed our capital city forever.
These are photographers who were in love with these conglomerations of humanity and architecture; two capital cities that relinquished their secrets, their trysts, their undocumented history as narratives lovingly captured by their lovers, armed with cameras and lenses. In the words of novelist Italo Calvino, the author of Invisible Cities: “Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”
From Where I Stand, hosted by Studio 87, Liesse Hill, Valletta, is open from June 17 to July 7. Please consult the gallery’s Facebook page for opening times.
For more information on Guido Stilon, his work, and Magna Żmien, log on to http://www.magnazmien.com/. A big thank you to the kind sponsors that helped make this happen – Palais Le Brun, AP Valletta, I-lab Photo, and of course, the Magna Żmien Foundation for its time and generosity.
Curator Justine Balzan Demajo is reading for a Master in Museum Education at the Faculty of Education, University of Malta. This exhibition forms part of her research.
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