Gates and Gatekeepers

I just spent the last two years at DasTheatre questioning and articulating the role of curators and curatorship in theatre and the arts. I do not consider myself a curator since I have not yet found myself in the classic position of choosing artists for the theatre or a festival. I am more involved in establishing frameworks, creating events, conducting research and creatively producing in the independent scene. This brings me in contact with national institutions and policies and that is how I often find myself pondering about various aspects of cultural policy especially when I visit the micro-cosmos of the Maltese scene. 

So at the gates of the airport, I found myself thinking about gates and gatekeepers. Those of culture and the arts. For a moment I fantasised about what I would do if one day I would be sitting at some gate. Would I be a god in the trinity of the Christian tradition sitting at the gates of heaven judging or would I be more of the Le Guin’s the Master Doorkeeper at the School of Wizards on the Isle of Roke? The idea of a godly gatekeeper is attractive because it comes with a handful of power, being at the helm and the top of everything, deciding who is in and who is out. Who deserves the saintly title and who to send to live in hell. But is this the best practice for a cultural scene to flourish?

I am much more attracted to the doorkeeper in Le Guin’s fantasies. The old man looks young because of the smile on his face and his kindness. A wise man who is informed and knows everything and everyone. Who knows all those who knocked at the door. Who does not judge. Who teaches the main character a big lesson. He always allows everyone in after giving them a riddle to solve. The answer is simply to ask questions.  Also, he is a doorkeeper and not a gatekeeper. A door is more approachable than a gate. And let’s face it if you make it to the door or the gate, it already means you came a long way, travelled for long, traversed lands and sailed seas… 

The idea of a gate is maybe more of a place that everyone has to get through one day. Especially in the way arts are set up today where a lot of people invest in their higher education to get a document that certifies them as artists, and then go to the gate to sit in the queue to get their subsidy or wait in line to be programmed. Although Claire Bishop refers to the way policy and economies created  Artificial Hells in regards to participatory arts I think that the way things are happening today is quite artificial and quite a hell for most of the artists involved. 

…neoliberal cultural funding policies began to use art as a way to reinforce social inclusion agendas that were simultaneously being undermined by the privatization of education and healthcare. Among the privileged genres in this panorama of public funding were participatory art and theatre. in Europe, governments will support this work if it produces enough media attention (see for example the Cultural Olympiad in the UK, leading up to the 2012 Olympics). That said, with the recent turn to the right in Europe we are facing a situation more comparable to that in the US: conservative governments no longer want to recognize the creative industries as an economic generator, and in an age of austerity, culture is perceived as a luxury for the rich rather than as a basic right. Many European countries don’t have tax breaks for culture and lack a tradition of philanthropy, so the situation will probably get worse before it gets better.– Artificial Hells A Conversation with Claire Bishop 

In my opinion, It gets even worse when the same flawed UK system is imported to the island of Malta and the same way buzzwords such as ‘creative economies’, ‘creatives’ , ‘freelancers’,  ‘professionalisation of the sector’ and ‘internationalisation’ start to sprawl on all the Instagram feeds of cultural institutions of a tiny cultural island at the edge of Europe. 

I remember when I arrived at Dartington College of Arts and the bus stopped me at the bottom of a hill where a huge iron gate marked the beginning of the uphill lane that leads to the college. Passing through this (always open) gate felt like passing through and entering an institution of great prestige and history. Just because there was a gate with ornate lettering “Dartington”. I liked the idea that there was no gatekeeper here. I thought that in the past, there must have been but somehow this is not important and valid anymore. Of course in the UK I encountered different types of barriers. My housemates saw me as an exotic creature rather than one of their peers. They made fun of my English accent all the time and could not comprehend my love for cooking real food rather than eating canned and frozen fast food. I never really felt comfortable there, I never really felt welcome. 

So why do I find myself reflecting on why most of the old and newly established cultural institutions are relics of the British System while passing through the gates at the Malta airport? Because I believe that there is a need for a truly radical change in the way of thinking. Inside out rather than outside in. Otherwise, in my opinion, there is the danger that it (Maltese culture) remains forever a ‘weird’ aspiring to be what it can never be. 

The cultural heritage which has been celebrated as the nation’s heritage is in reality not. It is a heritage that foreign powers who had taken over the Island have left. I was brought up celebrating and being proud of the relics of the Knights and the British while we still lived a  quaint simple life close to nature. Postcards of pre-European Malta would either have the Baroque architecture from the Knights or a fisherman with his nassi (traps made out of cane) on his luzzu (a small Maltese wooden fishing boat). Maltese have always looked up to the foreign (powers) which ruled over the Islands. Such as the Knights of Malta, which were not of Malta at all since they were composed of seven languages (European mega nations). They were kids of kings and royalties and the celebrated baroque architecture left is the fruit of their rude abundance. The Maltese during the Knights are the Corsairs (pirates with a license) engaged by the Knights to attack Ottoman and Muslim ships in the Mediterranean, to protect Christian Europe from the invasion of Islam. That is our heritage which the British kept for a while when they took over. Corsairing. As Liam Gauci, the curator at the Malta Maritime Museum concludes in his interview.

“There was a community of people living in Malta who were not the Knights, the French or the British. They were Maltese and foreigners trying to make a living in Malta, and one of their livelihoods was corsairing.”

So gates and gatekeeping was always in the hands of foreign sovereign powers locally. Some 200 years ago the gatekeeper was the British Empire. Until fifty years ago Maltese had a British passport. As an aspiring artist one had to go to study in London or else in Rome (since the Italians being closer geographically always had a huge cultural influence on the island). There is not a real school of art of the Maltese.  However, this was an opportunity only for the elite. The majority of the Maltese were poor and being an artist was not even something that ever occurred in people’s head. With the exception of community theatres which were managed strictly by yet another foreign power, that of the Church.  There is not a real Maltese cultural identity, a culture that comes from the people, from the bottom up, a grassroots culture and until recently the British and Catholic culture was the most predominant and the most celebrated.

Those who have a long history of hardships and a priority to survive rather than to live often do not indulge in art and culture. The few that were in positions of power or could influence the people culturally were those who collaborated with the foreign power, those who facilitated their agenda. The culture we call Maltese is just a residue of what the foreign powers and locals who collaborated with left.

As Malta joins the European Union (in 2004), (maybe the latest foreign power that half the nation willingly signed for to colonise the Islands), things continue to become more complex especially in relation to gates and gatekeeping. Now I see the EU as the gatekeeper since there is EU policy to adhere to. Also in the fields of arts  ‘cultural identity became an an-all-of-a-sudden urgent topic. Now the Island is in a place with other (power) nations and their strong (cultural) identities and art scenes came into play. I felt that there was a sense of insecurity around the time Malta joined the EU. I remember at school we had assignments about Identity and questions of what Is it to be Maltese became very important. So for the past two decades, a new wave of national everything came to be, with a list of new national institutions and national artistic directors and national programmes of events and national educational art institutions and big spectacular national events. Everything started to be written in Maltese including localities and places on the road signs that have long had English names. Long term and courageous (financial) investment started to be pumped into the arts and heritage. 

If I look back at how it was all designed and developed I see how colonised we still are. Most of the money was spent on restoring the architectural relics of the past and not invested in the people and the local artists. Most of the experts and advisors to design policy were foreign (British or European) or from foreign schools. Of course, this brings a great deal of expertise but at the same time, it also brought its blindspots. Now the aspiration was the North West (Europe) and the gates to the North African continent were permanently shut. 

Coincidently along with Malta joining the EU was the advent of the surge of asylum seekers arriving from sub-Saharan Africa, many of whom were entitled to international protection. These people were trying to make their way to Europe. Malta became the southern gate to Europe in the middle of the Mediterranean sea. A gate that is highly political nowadays and is increasingly becoming the centre of controversy in the news and European policy. The “left-to-die-boat” investigation from Forensic Architecture what happens just outside of this gate, in the vast open sea. 

Although Maltese are very proud of the language (predominantly Semitic) very little of the Arabic roots is alive today since most of it has dissolved and disappeared during the British Rule. And the rest was castrated when joining the EU. Border policy such as those of open borders with Egypt and Tunisia were shut down because of the EU policy. 

The Arab World sees Malta as a gate. A gate in the good sense of it. Maybe more of a door since a gate is much more difficult to open than a door. باب لأوروبا A door for Europe. I learnt this when I was working at the Library of Alexandria and people would ask me where I was from and I would say Malta. They would promptly respond, `Ah jazirat malta bawwabat uwrubba ‘ (the Island of Malta the doors to Europe)”. Not any more – today it’s a fortified barricaded military guarded gate to Europe. Malta has been considered in several writings from the Middle East as the most occidental place in the Arab World. Nowadays one can easily consider it to be the bottom (the gutter) of Europe. Being looked down at from Brussels. 

So as I buckle up my seatbelt and the AirMalta plane direct flight to Amsterdam (the North-West of Europe) takes off and I find myself instantly hovering the blue of the Mediterranean I leave these thoughts of gates and gatekeepers to dissolve in the vast ocean. I leave them behind me and I go on dreaming and fantasising how I would do things differently, how I would re-open the gates and re-bridge the links to the North African continent and connect to the marsa(s) (port in arabic) of the Mediterranean, European and Arabic, how I would establish long term research projects to revive those strong links that connect us and bring us together. The winds and the waves that for centuries have brought people, tongues, writings, designs, colours, and beliefs to the Islands. How instead of building new national institutions which mimic European ones I would establish more fluid ones, the kind that has at their epicentre the exchange of knowledge and research. How Malta could be a hub, attracting scholars, artists, scientists to come together and discuss ecology, migration, poetry and the arts. 

But for now, I continue living in a self-made exile, here in the north of Europe where somehow I feel more welcome than home. I stay for as long as I am allowed and am capable of surviving. I stay to learn as learning has become of great importance and is somehow preceding the doing. Observing new ways, meeting new people, reading new authors, learning to unlearn, learning to undo, learning to dismantle and to rebuild block by block, one at a time.