The first edition of 2024, which took place on the 13 March – 31 May 2024,  was focused on a profound exploration of the Mediterranean from an insular perspective. This unique vantage point, shaped by Malta’s geographic isolation, offered new insights into the intricate relationships between Southern Europe and Northern Africa—a confluence of East and West.

Central to this edition of the Biennale was the notion that an island, far from being a singular entity, serves as a dynamic hub of composition and invention. It is a place of continuous arrival and departure, inherently fostering relationships and connections across the sea. The island emerges not as a barrier but as a vital point of interaction, challenging traditional political and social narratives. 

An exhibition room with intricately decorated walls and ceiling featuring Neo-Renaissance designs, showcasing contemporary art pieces, including sculptures and paintings, as part of the "Space and Time" exhibition during 2024. The room includes a fireplace with ornate carvings and several art installations on pedestals and stands.

‘Space and Time’ exhibition at the inaugural 2024, where contemporary art intersects with Malta’s rich architectural heritage, creating a dialogue between past and present

Malta, with its rich maritime history and strategic location, epitomises this concept. Over centuries, its natural harbours were visited by numerous seafaring cultures—from the Phoenicians and Romans to the Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, and beyond. Each wave of colonisation has indelibly shaped Maltese identity, embedding a deep sense of resilience.

Promoted by Heritage Malta, the inaugural was curated by Sofia Baldi Pighi, Elisa Carollo, and Emma Mattei. The biennale reflected on the Mediterranean’s cultural landscape, inherited from an interwoven tapestry of past narratives. Bringing together 72 artists from around 30 countries, the event spanned twelve historical sites across Malta’s cities. The main exhibition, aptly titled “Insulaphilia” and curated by Sofia Baldi Pighi, prompted artists to engage with Malta’s role as a nexus of North African, European, and Arab influences.

Migration, a poignant theme throughout the exhibition, underscores Malta’s contemporary relevance amid the ongoing migrant crisis. Data from the Italian government reveals that approximately 34,000 migrants undertook perilous sea voyages to Malta in 2023, highlighting the island’s critical position between continents.

An installation view of the Ukrainian Pavilion "From South to North" at 2024, featuring transparent panels with handwritten notes, drawings, and photographs, suspended in a room with partially unfinished walls and an open doorway revealing a video projection in the background.

The Ukrainian Pavilion “From South to North” at 2024 explores themes of imperial past and Russian aggression, linking Malta and Odessa. Inaugurated with a video address by Ukraine’s First Lady, Olena Zelenska.

“Insulaphilia” was shaped into four thematic sections: regional issues, facets of decolonization, political dimensions of the Mediterranean, and forms of resistance. This thematic structure delved into the pluralistic nature of identity, where encounters with diverse cultures and artistic visions were central. It also acknowledged the enduring trauma of colonisation. Beyond the main exhibition, the ethos of extends to twelve national pavilions, representing Austria, China, Franco-Germany, Italy, Malta, Palestine, Poland, Serbia, Spain, Turkey, and Ukraine. These pavilions contributed to a participatory network across the Mediterranean, fostering exchange, vision, and collective transformation.

In its entirety, 2024 offered a Mediterranean expedition into the possibility of harmonious coexistence, encouraging a reevaluation of insularity not as isolation but as a profound source of connectivity and innovation.

.ART interviewed two co-curators of, Sofia Baldi Pighi (SB) and Emma Mattei (EM). 

How was the Malta Biennale perceived by the local public, not only by the art lovers and professionals, but by the general public?

SB: Especially during the opening the public was mostly professional. I would say that we had a lot of curiosity, because it’s the first edition of the Biennale. Malta is not a place for contemporary art. It’s quite outside that system. The biggest connection is the cultural heritage of Malta. The idea to recreate a connection was quite strong. Together with Elisa Carollo and Emma Mattei, we have consumed a specific public program, trying to understand the works of art not just as the final outcome of an exhibition, but also as activators of social engagement practices. The Biennale is located in different cities of Malta, but not in all cities of Malta. In cities where we don’t have any exhibition sites, we decided to launch the public program. 

In your curatorial statement you are emphasising the insular perspective. How do you think this unique viewpoint shaped the overall narrative and thematic direction of the Biennale? How was it communicated in some of the selected artworks?

SB: “Insulaphilia” was from the very beginning my personal reaction because I’m not coming from Malta. It was my first time living close by the sea and also on an island surrounded by the sea. In terms of orientation, being surrounded by the sea totally changed my perspective about the topics that we wanted to focus on. For example, migration crisis. In Malta it is incredibly clear and loud, even visually speaking, that the Mediterranean is not just the south of Europe as some times we prefer to think. It’s also the North of Africa. Maltese language is a Semitic language, a Latinised variety of spoken historical Arabic. Starting from this idea of orientation, trying to replace myself, I started understanding the island as a laboratory, an observatory of what is going on in the Mediterranean. Somehow the island is able to reflect some tendencies that are going on outside the island. But because the island is isolated and confined, they are louder than in other places. We thought that could be a perfect observation point to pick up some local issues which are able to reflect global questions. 

EM: For me, it’s the alpha and the omega. So is the starting point and the end point of my kind of perspective. No matter where I am, I always feel like I come from a very small place. And it’s not just a small place, it’s a small place surrounded by sea and it’s also a country. So on the one hand, you have this crazy cosmopolitan approach to life here. It’s multicultural and quite an international place, but at the same time it’s very distinct that it’s an island. It has a spirit, its own unique identity. We wanted to look at the plurality of what it means to be Maltese. At the moment there’s a big discussion about nationalism going on throughout the world. For Malta being a relatively new, independent country, we still don’t quite know how to embrace our “malteseness”. But there’s a tendency to try and establish what it means. And I think that sometimes we shouldn’t have to define it, but we should celebrate whatever it is. It is a polyphony. We speak in Maltese and English at the same time. Maltese itself is a hybrid of Italian and Semitic. So I think for me, the journey has been to sort of remove myself from the island from a big part of my life and realise that I am intrinsically connected to this place, that I am very much a product of the place. Curatorial team had long chats about it. It helped us to come up with ideas about polyphony, migration and how they intertwine.

A lot of the works could be easily placed in both sections. But I think that one is discourse about who we are. And the other one is about where we come from.

Joaquin Segura’s participation in the Malta Biennale 2024 as part of the organization Artists Against The Bomb.

How was the process behind the selection of the locations for different pavilions, events and exhibitions of the Biennale shaped? And what has it signified? 

SB: We had a pleasure to work with Heritage Malta, which is an entity that apart from overlooking the Biennale, takes care of all the historical heritage in Malta. This gave us the opportunity to visit diverse heritage sites. So we understood quite quickly the site specificity of our location. We started thinking about the dialogue with places and react on it. We were questioning how to make the artists aware about the history of the places, which are not just historical venues, but they bring forward memories, which are at times difficult. 

We decided to invite other pavilions, because we thought it was important apart from our specific curatorial point of view for the main pavilion, to bring together other art professionals. Malta Biennale invited the embassies. There were 12 National pavilions. Each of these pavilions had their own curator who selected artists. In order to bring together different points of view, and also understanding the Biennale as a possibility for cultural diplomacy. We also decided to have thematic pavilions that were created as collaboration between diverse institutions. 

Every Biennale is such a grandiose event, which is trying to bring something to the local community and to leave some legacy behind. I’m sure that Malta Biennale is also pursuing this mission. What do you think will be the main impact? 

EM: I think it’s a combination of things. I think Malta is already inundated with history. So what’s been interesting about this is the idea of bringing the buildings up to the present tense, to the present day, making them more relevant and hopefully open to the local scene. Malta has a very international population. So we’re a place of transition as well. We have a lot of people coming through every year. One of the things we wanted to do was to create less of a divide between “the us” and “the them” and create a Biennale, which isn’t directed towards the tourists or the local, but something that should appeal to anyone who is curious. 

Our goal was to connect with our plural audiences. 

SB: Being a first edition, we also asked ourselves if we need another Biennale or not. This is why we have decided within the public program to focus our attention on artists rights, on cultural worker rights. We were trying to perceive the Biennale as a platform not just for the exhibition, but also to share knowledge and awareness.