I: Strangers Coming To Stay

Predominantly representative  of  political,  historic,  and  other heroic figures, public monuments in Malta could be understood as one extreme of a scale dedicated to national identity. To many Maltese, a bronze statue of the founder of Valletta, Jean Parisot de Valette, somehow represents the communion of all Maltese citizens, a metaphor for what Benedict Anderson called an “imagined community.” The French Grandmaster of the Order of St. John has managed posthumously to epitomize whatever is considered to be authentically or even supremely Maltese by commemorating the high points of local political history, the same way English and Italian recipes have been appropriated by the Maltese kitchen.

At the other extreme of the scale, one would find whatever is alien, transplanted, “inauthentic,” and hence outside history, or, more precisely, hidden so deeply in history’s recesses as to remain invisible. Here one finds invasive pests and other so-called threats to the indigenous ecology. An exemplary pest is the red palm weevil—a beetle that deposits hundreds of eggs inside palm trees, eating them away from the inside—which was inadvertently introduced to Malta in recent years and is gradually decimating local populations of palm trees. If palm trees constitute indigenous history, the beetle’s larvae are its hidden, uninvited guests.

Such a description easily brings to mind, by analogy, the hundreds of migrants who have arrived by boat on the island in recent years, leading to many nationalistic protests and calls for “push-backs.” The status of such migrants is entirely dependent on economic and racial factors: while black individuals and families coming to stay are “immigrants,” white and more affluent persons based in Malta are “expats.” On the other hand, rich, non-EU “individual investors” and their families can apply for full-blown Maltese citizenship by contributing hundreds of thousands of euros to the local economy.

Pia Borg, Silica, 2017. Video, 22 min.
Part science fiction, part essay, Silica explores territorial constructs and the boundaries of the real and the mediated in an opal mining town in the South Australian desert. Charting the journey of a film location scout in search of otherworldly landscapes, Silica investigates notions of settlement and belonging through its exploration of a town in the midst of abandonment. With the opal resources increasingly depleted by the mining work—and fake replica gems, indistinguishable from the real thing, easily created in laboratories in Europe—people are deserting the town, leaving a fleeting trace on ancient landscapes that are also marked by the presence of indigenous Australians who walked the deserts for thousands of years.
Combining microscopic photography of opals with computer-generated landscapes and objects, Silica blurs notions of the actual and the imaginary to probe ideas of “value,” which support not only the gem trade but wider questions of identity, mythology, and cosmology. This blurring of the actual and imaginary is further embodied in the former sets of science-fiction films that are dotted around the town’s lunar landscape.

Floating device used by immigrant when crossing from the African continent to Europe. Malta Maritime Museum, Birgu. Courtesy Heritage Malta.
Photo: Alexandra Pace.

Joe Sacco, excerpt from “The Unwanted,” published in the Virginia Quarterly Review in two parts in the winter 2010 and spring 2010 issues. Courtesy the artist.