Historic Conference

A Historic Conference on Juann Mamo

Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci

The Malta Independent – Tuesday, 3 March 2015


Practically more than a year ago, on Saturday 26th October 2013, a conference which I consider to be historic was held at the University of Malta Valletta Campus – ‘Konferenza Juann Mamo’. It was historic for a number of reasons which I would to underline again today.

The Department of Maltese, University of Malta succeeded in integrating a plurality of minds from diverse spheres of research on the works of Juann Mamo. The author in question is the same one who was regarded by Prof. Peter Serracino Inglott, due to his political agenda, as a secondary and mediocre author. I clearly remember the politicized quasi ‘infamous’ attack that Prof. Serracino Inglott launched against my research on the artistic works of Emvin Cremona. In my introduction to this research on the Maltese artist, I comparatively posited and insisted that Maltese literature significantly overtook the visual arts, amongst them the works of Cremona. Fr. Peter’s attack was so violent that it ended up in his ridiculing of Juann Mamo’s works. My response was no less polemical, and my thesis was even defended by Prof. Peter Mayo. Fr. Peter and myself persisted with this rather turbulent discussion for a prolonged period. However, I accentuated that history would be the best judge of my assessment.

I didn’t presume that history would prove me correct so quickly.

With the 2013 conference, the Department of Maltese had the ability to unite a heterogeneous group of thinkers: the complexity of the literary personality of Juann Mamo was the centre of discussion between Prof. Oliver Friggieri, Dr. Adrian Grima, Dr. Immanuel Mifsud and Anna Borg Cardona, who studied għana and music in the works of Mamo.

Saturnina Tonna (Mamo’s daughter), Annalise Vassallo and Dr. Mario Cassar discussed the poems of Juann Mamo whilst Prof. Manwel Mifsud, Clifford Jo Zahra, Dr. Michael Spagnol, Dr. Albert Gatt and Prof. Albert Borg entered in profound detail into the language of the author. If I am not mistaken, this type of study and research was without precedence. Lara-Marie Cilia, Dr. Bernard Micallef and Prof. Ivan Callus spoke about ‘Ulied in-Nanna Venut fl-Amerka’, and here is where the conference reached its climax. The papers were all intriguing and provocative in their argumentation. Yet I hope that the organizers would forgive me for stating that the criticism and contribution of Prof. Ivan Callus, the Head of Department of English, was unique in his placement of Juann Mamo within the international spectrum of modernism of the early 20th century. Ivan Callus (whose activities at the University deserve a series of articles for themselves) concentrated on an integral aspect of modernism, in other words, that which is not read. The Professor of the Department of English managed to position the writings of Juann Mamo even within the sphere of alternative modernism and the relationship with that of Mamo. This paper was, one could say, complimentary to that which preceded it by Dr. Bernard Micallef who studied the role of the narrator when this subject is not actually narrating. The two contributions show the strongly modernist role of the Maltese Dimechian author. Whilst I was contemplating this interesting subject, the latter made me think of an intriguing interrelationship which should be studied – that between Mamo and Pier Paolo Pasolini, Federico Fellini and even that with Toto’, as well as with John Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes of Wrath’ (1939). In the discussion that arose, I tried to debate with Prof. Ivan Callus, for I believe that the reality of that which is unreadable is also a form of how the dominant class enforces that such books are not read, forgotten and even brings one to believe that such knowledge is unnecessary. In other words, besides the profound sense of ‘unread-ability’, there is the socio-classist context, meaning that social interest is invested in blocking masterpieces such as Mamo’s from entering into the collective consciousness of a nation.

‘Ulied in-Nanna Venut fl-Amerka’, besides being the work which is currently under study, is a form of subversive art. Mamo uses dialect as does Pasolini and for reasons of classism as does Dario Fo with his variations of Ruzzante. In fact, we can define Mamo’s work as a ‘modern gjullarata‘. At the same time, Mamo is conveying another picture of the ‘low class’ worker and farmer. He is radically contesting the idealist-conformist image which was being advocated by his contemporaries Edward Caruana Dingli, in painting, and Dun Karm, in poetry. Mamo is telling us that the dominant class is sedating a whole nation with deceitful images of social order. And thus in Mamo’s thought dialect is victorious, so is the ridiculing of the ‘low’ class itself. However, he does so not as an enemy, but on the contrary, as a Bakhtinian action of subversion. The dominant thought of the ruling class wants to blind the underclass so that it forgets the dire situation in which it is living. It is shadowed in darkness. On the other hand, if the underclass becomes conscious of its oppression, it would act upon it, rising up against the dominant class and its fears of insurrection.

And thusly Juann Mamo was killed.

Father Lawrenz E. Attard spoke in a socially powerful manner when he analysed the situation of the Maltese emigrant between 1918 and 1930, and how this is conveyed in the thought of Juann Mamo. Dr. Charles Scerri gave a beautiful and exciting account on the medical-scientific universe of Mamo’s time. Likewise, the engineer John C.Betts placed Mamo’s work within a greatly important historical context – the factory, or ‘il-frabka’, in other words the process of industrial and technological globalization. And here Mamo once again departs from the romanticism of Dun Karm and Caruana Dingli. He was conscious that the working class cannot be relegated to rural archaism where it would be eternally and feudally exploited, yet it must cast itself towards another future. This would be a future which by means of industrialization, the worker would emerge from the enslavement of ignorance, so that it may achieve the position and status of victory. It would also be an intriguing study to relate Mamo’s writings to Maltese painting, particularly that of George Preca. I may also include the works of Victor Diacono into this equation, an artist whose work unfortunately remained on a rather ‘folkloristic’ level, differing greatly from the fundamental expressive protest of Mamo. Hence we can see how and in a beautiful manner Maltese artists from diverse spheres provided Mamo-esque analyses of Maltese society.

Prof. Raymond Mangion from the Faculty of Law at the University gave a fascinating personal-historical account of the interrelationships which exist between the personalities in Mamo’s book and real personalities who actually existed. Anton Cassar, Olivia Borg and Adrian Grima also presented important and much awaited work on the research of the personalities in Mamo’s novella.

Together with this, during the conference a new edition of ‘Ulied in-Nanna Venut’ was launched, including an analysis by Annalise Vassallo on the poetry of the author. Around the same time as the conference, a symphonic work by Karl Fiorini based on poems by Manwel Dimech was showcased.

Apart from the need for the Juan Mamo conference and the like, aside from the importance of academic research, artistic movements which offered serious, modernist alternatives within the artistic development of our country should also be included. With this objective in mind, the Department of History of Art is currently running a research programme on the study of 20th century Maltese art.

The Department of History of Art in parallel to all of this organized a conference on Julian Trevelyan last year. This also consisted of the launch of a book on the artist by his son Philip. Trevelyan was an artist who had an integral connection with Malta and the Mediterranean and also an important tie with the Maltese landscape, both the rural and the urban. This was also a ‘challenge’ to the idyllic-archaic impression which a faction of the Maltese classics present. Part of this multicoloured spectrum was another conference which was also held with great success by the History of Art Department: this time the subject of research was the theme of death and art. In 2013, this conference took place in the Church of St Catherine in Valletta. In 2014, another edition of this conference took place in the Anglican Church in Valletta, and in 2015 this same conference will continue its academic itinerary during the Mdina Biennale. Other milestone events by the Department of History of Art include the Malta Baroque conference at the Warburg Institute (University of London) and visits by foreign academics such as Prof. Nigel Llewellyn (Director of Research, Tate), Dr. Letizia Treves (Head Curator, The National Gallery, London) and Dr. Antonio Ernesto Denunzio (Head Curator, Gallerie di Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano, Naples).

I strongly believe that these conferences should be organized as annual events so that research may continue to blossom. I forgot to underline the fact that these are public conferences and it is of great satisfaction that members of the public are involving themselves in the academic field, something which greatly and constantly impresses the academic organizers.

Malta is currently undergoing magnificent positive change, one which is rapidly developing without much awareness.


Article edited and translated by Nikki Petroni