'The Many Faces of The Mill' Unveiled
This year to celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Mill – Art, Culture and Crafts Centre in Birkirkara, the Gabriel Caruana Foundation issued an open call to Malta’s artists and illustrators, inviting submissions from across the island in a bid to find the ten winning artworks that would be published as part of a limited edition series of prints commemorating this very special birthday.
Officially opened in 1990 by Gabriel and Mary Rose Caruana, the former flour mill was repurposed as an arts and culture center, working to support emerging artists, engage in educational and outreach programs and act as a permanent home for Gabriel Caruana's ceramics and other artworks. While Caruana worked across a variety of visual arts mediums, he is perhaps best known for his ceramic works, evoking an original, contemporary and distinctly Maltese aesthetic. Originally dating back to 1724 and built by the Knights of St John, the Mill (known in Maltese as Il-Mitħna tal-Maħlut) was used as a means of flour production for over 200 years, only finally closing its doors on this chapter of its history in 1929 when, following the technological changes brought about by industrialization, it was replaced by steam-powered successors at the turn of the century. Since then the Mill has been utilized for various functions including as a blacksmith's workshop and a place of residence housing multiple families within its walls. Looking outside through the Mill's windows, it seems hard to believe that a flour mill could have been accommodated in the middle of a bustling Birkirkara, now the island's second most populous region.
Exterior view of The Mill (circa 1990s) © The Gabriel and Mary Rose Caruana Archive
“Yes, in fact back in the early days of the Mill, the main building we are standing in was actually surrounded by fields and even an orchard. The orchard used to extend from the front door all the way to there ”, Gabriel and Mary Rose's younger daughter and Executive Director of the Gabriel Caruana Foundation, Raffaella Zammit, says with a smile, pointing to the end of a row of parked cars in front of the entrance to The Mill. Raffaella has kindly agreed to give me a tour of The Mill and tell me more about her father, his work and the open call celebrating The Mill's 30 year anniversary. Following the outbreak of World War II, many Maltese families living in the Harbor region of the island moved further inland as Valletta and the three cities sustained heavy damage caused by prolonged bombing campaigns which saw more munitions dropped on Malta than any other place in Europe. Gazing at the busy high street now encroaching on The Mill's small surrounding area, one could feel a certain degree of dismay at what appears to be a symbolic representation of Malta's rampant urbanization. “The first floor was built in 1724 and the upper floor constructed in the 1860's”, Raffaella continues, gesturing around us. "In fact, you can see the different construction methods used, for example the arches on the ground floor changing to the use of wooden beams on the upper floor." Following The Mill's use as a blacksmith's workshop the building fell into a state of disrepair, lying abandoned until its restoration in the mid 1980's by the Maltese government. Following a period of consultation, a tender to turn The Mill into a cultural center was issued, with Gabriel Caruana successfully applying to transform the once agricultural building into a center for art and culture.
Gabriel Caruana, the celebrated artist whose life and work is the inspiration for the Foundation, was born in Malta in 1929. Following the outbreak of World War II and the subsequent closure of the island's schools, he began an apprenticeship in Valletta where he studied to be an electrician. The young Gabriel would use these daily visits to Malta's capital to visit the churches, immersing himself in the centuries-old artworks and becoming increasingly inspired to explore art for himself. This interest led him to enroll at the Malta School of Art and later join the Malta Society of Arts, shortly after joining its Board. Visits to Italy followed, as Gabriel continued his exploration of the arts world, always with a keen interest in modernity and originality. As we walk around The Mill, Raffella points Caruana's works to me and explains more about his background: “We have many of his early sketches, and as you can see they're already very stylized, very original. There are artworks dating back to the 50s, including an expressionist self-portrait that he completed in 1959. "
Gazing at the many works on display, I remark to Raffaella that much of her father's output seems to hint at influences of Malta's very early historical period. “Yes, he was inspired by the neolithic era and by the megalithic temples at Tarxien and Ħaġar Qim for example” she agrees. “In fact, this is something that Richard England has written about. He was inspired by these but transformed that into a modern visual language. ”Indeed, in 1975 Caruana joined celebrated Scottish artist and promoter of visual art, Richard Demarco CBE, on an 'Edinburgh Arts' journey, linking Malta's and Scotland's megalithic sites as they traveled 'To Callanish from Hagar Qim'. Overseas trips were hardly a new phenomenon for the Maltese artist, as his daughter explains: “Every summer we would travel to Italy, first to Rome where we would stay for a while as my father had a studio there. From Rome we would travel to Bologna and then onto Faenza, a place that in fact is very important for ceramics. ”
Gabriel Caruana and Richard Demarco (1975) © The Gabriel and Mary Rose Caruana Archive
I ask Raffaella more about her father's teaching and whether it had always been a big part of his artistic life. “Oh yes, absolutely. And his students really loved him ”, she says with a smile. “I remember my father recounting someone asking him how he managed the students so well and he replied, 'I just give them a piece of clay and they have something to do. They create something and it calms them '”. Teaching was a constant in Gabriel Caruana's career, in 1960 starting work as a technician in the Art Department of St Joseph Secondary Technical School, Paola, and from 1969–1989 teaching ceramics at Targa Gap in Mosta as well as at numerous other workshops and evening classes. In 1966 he was offered a teaching post at Ohio State University, though rejected the offer to continue his work in Malta. In addition to his teaching work he was heavily involved in Maltese cultural projects throughout his life, preparing prize-winning entries for Carnival celebrations across Malta over the course of his career, participating in the Malta Arts Festival, in the inaugural exhibition of St James Cavalier (now Spazju Kreattiv) and creating public art sculptures and interventions.
Gabriel Caruana was recognized for his work numerous times throughout his life, in a career spanning over 60 years that would take him all over the world. In 1999 he was awarded the Medal of Artistic Achievement by the President of Malta, and in 2003 the Malta Arts Council presented him with the “Premju Għarfien Kulturali”. Commendation by the Malta Society of Arts followed in 2014, with Caruana being awarded a gold medal of recognition for his work as an art practitioner and educator. In 2017 the University of Malta bestowed Caruana the Masters of Letters Honoris Causa. Since its formation in 2016 the Gabriel Caruana Foundation has worked to 'promote and preserve the artistic legacy of modern and contemporary art exponents, to encourage and provide opportunities for established and emerging artists and to raise awareness and promote quality modern and contemporary art in the Maltese Islands and beyond '(source: Gabriel Caruana Foundation website), in a continuation of the work and aims of the celebrated Maltese artist. In 2019 the Foundation was awarded the Investment in Cultural Organizations Fund by Arts Council Malta, which has contributed heavily towards supporting the organization. The Mill is of course an intrinsic part of this vision, the home of the Foundation and its numerous activities. As such, it seems only fitting that celebrations commemorating its 30 year anniversary took place this year, with '30 @ 20 - The Mill 'and' The Many Faces of the Mill 'the flagship projects for the event. While '30 @ 20 - The Mill '- funded by the Voluntary Organizations Projects of the Malta Council for Voluntary Organizations - focuses on the historical and experiential impacts of The Mill with research undertaken by art historian, Dr Nicola Petroni, who investigated and documented its archives and activities, 'The Many Faces of the Mill' was instead an invitation for applicants to creatively respond to the anniversary in an open call which saw over 30 applicants submitting their work for consideration.
Students from De La Salle College attending a workshop by Gabriel Caruana at The Mill (circa 1990s) © The Gabriel and Mary Rose Caruana Archive
“Initially we wanted to commemorate the event in person of course”, explains Raffaella. “But with the COVID-19 restrictions in place for public events our curator, Elyse Tonna, and I discussed various options and instead opted to focus on projects which could be completed online. Of course, it was a shame not to be able to hold a public event, but I must say that the quality of the work submitted and the creativity of the entries really made it worth it worthwhile. The main thing after all is the art! ” As the title of the ‘The Many Faces of The Mill’ project suggests, the purpose of the open call was to highlight the various facets of the centre’s identity and cultural function, its ‘many faces’ both artistically and creatively. But more than that, in many ways the project arguably represents very organically the true impacts of The Mill: it’s effect on artists in Malta on an individual level by providing a means of expressing their own creative response to its legacy. The winning submissions were announced on 2nd October and were awarded to Ed Dingli, Joyce Camilleri, Luke Caruana, MaltaType (Matthew Demarco), textpresso (Manuela Zammit), Noura Abdelhafidh, Steffi Venturi, Steven Scicluna, Te Fit-Tazza and Zack Ritchie. The selected designs range from sketch to digital works, each revealing a unique perspective on The Mill and the various ways it has been conceptualised by artists in Malta. Images of the winning submissions may be viewed at www.gabrielcaruanafoundation.org/millfaces/ and limited edition prints of the works are available for order. A pop-up exhibition will be held on the 28th November and 8th December.
It is clear that the legacy of Gabriel Caruana very much lives on in the hearts, minds and creative spirit of Malta's artists, The Mill an enduring monument to the importance of community, innovation and artistic expression. While 2020 has undoubtedly proven challenging for the arts sector as a whole, my visit to The Mill and the knowledge I've gained of the extraordinary work done by the Gabriel Caruana Foundation leave this writer yearning for the time it is able to open its doors once again, and I invite you to explore this cultural treasure at the earliest opportunity. It is my hope that in 2050 we will be celebrating another 30 years of the Mill's history, and the enduring legacy of one of Malta's most prolific modern artists.
By James Cummings