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Compelling faces and mysterious scenes: photography in Malta

— July 2014

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Elliot Nichols, Gift of the Gods

Sarah Lawson was surprised and impressed by an exhibition at the Cavalieri Art Hotel in St Julian’s, Malta

I usually confine my hotel reviews to a few lines on Trip Advisor, but that was before I stayed at the Cavalieri Art Hotel in St Julian’s Bay in Malta. Any hotel has the odd picture on the wall, but the Cavalieri devotes its public spaces to serious exhibitions. I arrived at the end of a show of paintings by several artists, and the next day a new hanging went up with the wide-ranging photographs of Agostino Baldacchino, a noted Maltese photographer. His ‘Human Warmth’ took up the lobby and the whole ground floor and encompassed remarkable faces, domestic animals, and street scenes. Downstairs in the spacious lobby between the swimming pool and the restaurant were pictures by another Maltese-based photographer, Elliot Nichol. His pictures are more narrowly focused (so to speak) on the Maltese coastline in winter.

Agostino Baldacchino’s very striking portraits feature old faces, like aged Indian men in turbans and the hard-earned wrinkles of ‘Brigitte’, expressive even when completely at rest. But the faces are not all old. ‘Funky’ is a heartbreakingly young hard-as-nails girl with her cigarette and her half unzipped trousers. Her expression is not dramatic, but arresting in a way the girl herself would probably not intend or realize.

Other photographs catch the workaday world. A man shoes a donkey, firefighters spray a fire, construction workers (‘Pass it on’) feed a long thin pipe from hand to hand from one unfinished floor to the next. The pictures employ a variety of techniques: some are black and white, some coloured, and some evince an interesting manipulation of the image. Although most depict people, a still life on its own easel (Tutti Frutti) shows a carafe and cup in speckled monochrome with a similarly speckled monochrome background. Beside it, on a speckled monochrome plate, are kiwi fruit, grapes, and plums in very realistic colours and details, as though visiting from some other picture.

In the downstairs lobby below the colourful humanity of Baldacchino’s work, was Elliot Nichols’ exhibition, ‘Between Lands’ (a pun on ‘Mediterranean’). Here were mysterious, almost otherworldly black and white photographs with references to Greek mythology. His main subjects are scenes of the wintry Maltese coastline – not that you would easily recognize where the pictures were taken. With filters and time exposures of up to three hours, Nichols achieves strange ethereal images. The water around Malta is normally clear and, on a sunny day, an intense, captivating blue, but the water in these pictures often looks like steam or clouds. Nichol combines natural rock and the opaque sea with some man-made objects, usually iron bars or the remains of some unidentifiable structure. While rocks or pier struts look solid and changeless and can survive a long photographic exposure, the moving sea and clouds are rendered in unfamiliar textures.

One striking composition, Jason’s Last Task, shows parallel curved bars emerging from a steamy area like the handrails of steps in a swimming pool. Along parts of the coast of Malta where it is safe for swimming, there are ladders like those in pools, but the more vulnerable wooden parts are removed for the winter, leaving just bare rods and rails. With Nichol’s treatment the frothy rockpools can look sinister and bottomless.

Gift from the Gods shows what must be a popular place to bathe in the summer, for there are steps cut into the rocky shore and a shower pipe and head where one might stand to rinse off the salt. But here it is bleak, moonlit scene with white, misty waves breaking on the rocks. When the scene isn’t familiar from daytime in summer, it is all the more mysterious and evocative.

Creation from the Underworld is another eerie ladder effect: bars connecting one rough outcrop with another. The viewer wonders what the scale is and what this structure could possibly be in real life. Now the horizontal bars bridge a space with silvery-white depths that seamlessly join more silvery cloud-like space.

The Mask of Triton is a horizontal ladder-like structure running off into the middle distance with blurry clouds and blurry sea froth at top and bottom. A dark threatening sky echoing a dark threatening shore makes a suitably ominous setting for The Stygian Witches’ Cauldron. Now there are no man-made structures involved, but just a dark circular pool in the rocks.

Medea’s Revenge makes great use of the rocky coastline and diffused light. Again there is nothing man-made, and the dark rocky protuberances could almost be a mountain range with only the ridges showing above the clouds. Except when there are recognizable objects, such as the shower pole or perhaps those swimming-pool ladders, we have little to give us a sense of scale, so the time-exposed waves could be clouds or a solid surface for all we know.

Several of these compositions, such asPersephone’s Pomegranate, are nearly abstract with little indication of the scale or perspective of the scene. The very rough texture of the coastal rocks and the contrasting cotton-wool texture of the water make for a disconcerting atmosphere, even when you can guess what the subject probably is. Again, we could be looking at steps hewn in a mountain-top with clouds below. The eerie atmosphere derives partly from this uncertainty about scale and distance.

The Cavalieri in St Julian’s is not the only hotel in Malta to have art exhibitions in its lobby; I’m told it is a fairly common practice, and Malta has a rich pool of visual artists. The hotel managements must realize that it is a good way to decorate their lobbies and draw people in, and at the same time a very effective way for an artist to have work seen by hundreds of people. While some tourists may pass the pictures on their way to breakfast looking neither to the left nor to the right, others will stop to appreciate them and perhaps order a print.

As a more mundane day job, Elliot Nichol is a wedding photographer, specialising in an informal and candid approach rather than either the rigidly formal or the wackily eccentric. But there is competition. ‘Everybody is a photographer now!’ Elliot told me. ‘They all have phones and iPads, and before the bride gets down the aisle her picture is on Facebook!’ But he can be reassured that they aren’t likely to take pictures like these of the moody winter Maltese coastline on their trendy gadgets.


Sarah Lawson
Freelance writer and translator

Editor's notes

For more about the Cavalieri Hotel, St Julien's, Malta, please see the hotel website.

We regret that we have been unable to obtain any images from Agostino Baldacchino's exhibition.

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