Meet Elyse Tonna, the first-ever Female Maltese Curator for Malta’s Pavilion at the Venice Biennale

Elyse Tonna, capture by Therese Debono

As the 60th edition of La Biennale di Venezia is well underway, the prestigious international art exhibition brought to life in the ethereal Italian city on water, women are at the forefront of setting historic achievements, as they walk a path which has often been dominated by men.

2024 marks the year that Malta’s Pavilion, I WILL FOLLOW THE SHIP, a solo show by artist Matthew Attard housed within the Arsenale, will feature not only its youngest-ever team, but its first-ever female Maltese curator at the age of 33 – Elyse Tonna.

But Elyse, having had to swim against endless currents – originating from an island where curatorship is still not quite taken as seriously as it should be – is more than just a curator. An architect, visionary, activist, and weaver of ideas, rooted in her love for the environment, cultural heritage, and fascination by the Anthropocene – weaving all her interests and passions into her ever-changing and ever-morphing practice. A facilitator for many, a beacon of guidance for others, she is, at her core, a creative being deeply committed to the spirit of collaboration, discussions, learning-by-doing – and ultimately, a dreamer.

Beyond all these labels, the position she now holds is one which stirs hope for many young practitioners in the local contemporary art scene, especially women. As one woman emerges into uncharted territories, the seed of hope and boundless possibility is ultimately planted in the hearts of many others.

But what is it really like to emerge from the local scene into international waters? And what does it really take to be one of the curators representing your home country on the highest imaginable level?

This is a story characterised by perseverance, resilience, hard work, and what might just end up coming to life, if one even dares to dream.

Elyse and Matthew, captured by Eion Greally

1. Can you tell us about your journey in the art world, from your early experiences to becoming the co-curator for the Maltese Pavilion at the Venice Biennale?

From the very beginning, I learnt so much from colleagues, especially artists, and just by visiting important shows. I never had the opportunity to study visual arts or design at school, so I pursued architecture at university. In 2014, I was invited to join the Committee of the Malta Society of Arts (MSA). I had just graduated as an architect in 2013 and my written dissertation was about Palazzo de la Salle, so I had spent significant time there getting to know the behind-the-scenes work of/at the MSA. In 2017, I was invited to co-curate the first exhibition at the MSA, Human Matter. I was quite nervous at first, but I took on board the challenge, approaching it with a learning-by-doing attitude I usually apply in everything I do.

I started familiarising myself with different curatorial processes, remained open to learning and took plenty of risks – I loved every part of it! Concurrently, I was selected to attend the Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Innovators (thanks to Arts Council Malta – ACM). This was a life changing experience: it opened my eyes to all the endless possibilities. The only formal training briefly touching upon curation (although different) available locally was the MA in Cultural Heritage Management so I enrolled (very!) last-minute. Eventually I also decided to quit full-time architectural practice to focus on my studies. I was meant to return to architecture, but the universe had other plans. I met wonderful people on the way who invited me to collaborate on a number of projects forming part of the Valletta ECoC 2018 programme such as Baħħ Blu and Constellation Malta; each of which are very important to my journey.

I met Raffaella (Zammit) at the end of 2017 and I started volunteering at The Mill/Gabriel Caruana Foundation (GCF) in 2018, helping out in projects and dreaming of new ones. In 2019, I started collaborating with the GCF on a project-by-project basis and also became a part of ACT (thanks to Claude) which was a way for me to advocate for the arts, especially public art, and satisfy my ongoing need to push for change, even in relation to the environment. In 2020, with the support of the Investment in Cultural Organisations Fund (ACM) I became the Co-Creative Director and Curator of the GCF, a role I still currently hold. In 2019, I was also shortlisted and selected to create a project with the communities surrounding the Valletta Design Cluster (fuse). Collectively, these two commitments were very important to my development as a curator.

Since then, I have helped restructure the SPRING Programme for Emerging Artists at the GCF, where I currently lead the creative process. To date, I have curated 10 collective exhibitions in this programme and two solos, collaborating with over 35 artists.

I met Matthew (Attard) in 2019 and since our first conversation we immediately started developing new project ideas. In 2021, we collaborated on his solo exhibition, rajt ma rajtx … naf li rajt at Valletta Contemporary. The process was intense – lots of eye-tracking, research, production, site visits and long conversations. However this ultimately led to us developing a very close working relationship, and is the reason why we eventually decided to apply for the open call of the Venice Biennale (with encouragement by Maria Galea, a colleague and friend). Even though I believe that each part of my journey flowed from one adventure to the next (sometimes overlapping!), it would not have been possible without significant effort, risk, time and money invested and a continuous belief that I am on a journey equipping myself with skills and that I will continue to learn until the very end. I only mentioned some individuals and projects, however I owe it all to everyone I collaborated with (and will continue to do so), worked with or even engaged in conversation/s with. I owe it to my family, friends, colleagues and everyone else who believed in me, who supported me, pushed me and allowed me to dream big, because even if sometimes ideas seem crazy, with significant effort, anything is possible.

Screenshot from MALTARTI: Making ‘I Will Follow The Ship’ | Malta Pavilion - Venice Biennale 2024, featuring artist Matthew Attard and curator Elyse Tonna

2. What inspired your interest in curating art exhibitions, and were there any particular artists or exhibitions that influenced you along the way?

I’m very interested in site-specific art – more specifically, site-specific art which is positioned outside gallery spaces, which reacts to different environmental, social, cultural and political contexts. There is so much that could be explored, so many opportunities which could be unlocked and so many considerations to be taken into account when projects are situated in the public realm. I remember very clearly initiatives like Fragmenta; temporal, site-specific. I also have vivid memories of the Valletta International Visual Arts Festival. I wish I was old enough to experience the interventions by Caesar Attard, and other initiatives such as START. Nowadays I eagerly follow and sometimes collaborate with Margerita (Pulè) from Unfinished Art Space. My MA dissertation (Contemporary Art on Heritage Sites), supervised by Prof. Vince Briffa and Dr Reuben Grima, touched upon all of these projects, and I had the opportunity todiscuss many aspects with individuals such as Vince himself, Victor Agius, RaphaelVella, Norbert Attard, Bettina Hutschek and others – this definitely informed my practice in different ways.

Generally speaking, I believe there is still a major lack of awareness and knowledgeabout what a curator’s role involves, especially locally. On the one hand, the many exchanges throughout the years, with mentors, artists, curators, collaborators and friends definitely shaped who I am today. On the other hand, many of my inspirations come from outside contemporary art, and are mainly a reaction to what is happening around us. Beyond the theoretical and conceptual frameworks and ideas, the most important thing to me is to strive to remain open to learning, to stick to core values and to remain humble.

DREAM{OF}LAND, a collective exhibition curated by Elyse Tonna and Sarah Chircop at Valletta’s Spazju Kreattiv, 2024

3. How would you describe your curatorial style or philosophy? Are there specific themes or approaches you often explore in your exhibitions?

In general I try to resist having a particular curatorial style, especially since each artist has their own way of working, and it’s never a one-size-fits-all. Although it took me quite a while to realise and accept, I work on most of the projects using a process-based and research-oriented approach, I engage in constant discussions with artists and collaborators. As a curator, I feel more of a mediator or a facilitator; of ideas, stories, and people. I try to be supportive, encouraging artists to grow and enabling meaningful collaborations, both in the artworld and beyond. In general, I am very sensitive to spaces, their physical characteristics and even more, their stories. I strive to create spatial and immersive experiences whenever possible; I am very much into collaborating with artists to facilitate the development of new, site-specific work. It is not very common that artists are given the opportunity to develop newly researched work – there are obviously time and money constraints and other logistical considerations. However, it is always a thrilling and rewarding experience when exposing a subject in many forms to the public, not essentially solely in exhibition form.

It is also exciting when engaging in multiple collaborations with artists, because it allows us both to follow how our approaches and interests are changing over time. I also believe that curators have certain ethical liabilities – their work should not inform their own egos. They are more often accountable for facilitating connections, especially with audiences. There is a certain responsibility which comes along with this. I encourage artists to be as ambitious as possible, to realise their visions and dreams. It’s challenging, because it also means that there are expectations for the curator’s work to be seamless, overlaps the personal with the professional and so many other things.

Over the years, I have tried to refrain from merging both of my interests in the environment and art. However, more recently I have come to realise that these can be interwoven, together with my drive to be an advocate for creating change. I have recently become very interested in curatorial approaches related to ecological thinking, driving forward the post-Anthropocene or more ambitiously, the Symbiocene. Although I’m not particularly restricted towards this particular niche (which is very, very small locally), I further overlap these with elements of cultural heritage (both tangible and intangible), especially by creating projects outside conventional gallery spaces. My most recent project which will (hopefully) become pretty much a lifetime mission is Beyond What Drifts Us Apart; a project which investigates the beyond-human and post-colonial narratives in environments surrounding our historical coastal towers.

fuse, captured by Elisa Von Brockdorff

4. Curating often involves collaboration with artists. Could you share an example of a particularly memorable or challenging collaboration and what you learned from it?

I think every experience has both its most memorable and most challenging aspects and in general I treasure every collaboration I have had to date. If I had to single out a project which was meaningful yet equivalently daring and challenging, it would definitely be fuse. A context-specific and an interdisciplinary, community-driven project, it involved elements of creative placemaking, safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage and active community engagement and inclusion through storytelling. It involved a collaboration with 10 artists, a team of over 25 individuals and over 200 community members over 2 pandemic years. I had written:

“fuse is a symbol that communities matter, that their stories matter, that places encapsulate varied interpretations of histories, emotions, successes and treasures. Beyond fuse, what will remain is the memory of the experience, the relationships which have been built, a realisation that whoever you are, wherever you are from, you are equally important as any other.”

Nearly three years on, I still believe this legacy still lives on among the team, the artists, communities and myself. Surviving multiple lockdowns and an entire pandemic, all the risks, adaptations, changes, and challenges, I am still very thankful and respectful to the entire team for believing, persevering, keeping strong, adapting and striving to make it work.

Long to Belong, an exhibition curated by Elyse Tonna, credit: Gabriel Caruana Foundation Facebook page

5. Malta has a unique cultural heritage. How has your Maltese background influenced your approach to curating and exhibitions you’ve worked on?

More often than not, we take for granted the rich cultural diversity and heritage (in its broadest sense) we are surrounded with. We sometimes forget or dismiss how our mentality has been and is still subjected to colonial forces that linger from previous generations. Our surroundings are in constant flux; they are continuously being subjected to changes, especially our natural environment. I think all these contextual aspects have affected elements of my practice, particularly the thematics I generally explore. I am also incredibly affected by my background as an architect. I see architecture and curation to be very similar. Although our way of seeing architecture locally is still very linear, the role of an architect to dream, to imagine, to visualise, to detail, to create, can be adapted to so many scenarios, and so many parallels can be drawn with curation.

rajt ma rajtx… naf li rajt, a solo exhibition by Matthew Attard curated by Elyse Tonna at Valletta Contemporary, 2021

6. The Venice Biennale is a prestigious event in the art world. What does it mean to you to be the co-curator for the Maltese Pavilion?

It is both an incredible honour but also a huge responsibility. It is also definitely a life changing opportunity; I would never have imagined that at 33 I would be the youngest and first female curator representing my home country on such an international platform, forming part of the one of the youngest teams to put up a national pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Beyond these labels, I see it as hopeful; it not only further paves the way for younger active practitioners in the local contemporary art scene, but it is also an encouraging invitation for those who have a non-artistic or non-academic background to participate in such open calls. I therefore hope it will unfold into the creation of more interesting opportunities for colleagues and upcoming generations of curators and artists.

It is also a great honour for I WILL FOLLOW THE SHIP (commissioned by ACM) to have been selected from a competitive process and most importantly, to be working side-by-side with Matthew again. The project builds upon his incredible artistic practice and we are working hard to ensure that it raises important questions about contemporary society. It is also very special that it builds upon work that he produced in 2021, which we started researching for his solo at VC, and will be further developed and showcased on one of the most important platforms for the visual arts. It obviously brings along its own challenges, however they make it equally exciting and rewarding.

I WILL FOLLOW THE SHIP at the Venice Biennale captured by Eoin Greally

7. In the ever-evolving art world, how do you stay updated with emerging trends and contemporary art practices? Are there any specific artists or movements that currently excite you?

I am particularly interested in contemporary art practices which overlap ecological thinking with technology, especially aspects of new materialisms,the posthuman, post-fossil fuel paradigms etc. I am also interested in work which tackles our growing concern towards the climate crisis. In general, I prefer visiting the shows themselves, getting to know the curators, artists and teams behind the exhibitions which interest me. I believe there is a lot more to a show than what is written about it – and this is only possible to understand through the perspective of the makers themselves.

8. Beyond the professional sphere, who is Elyse?

A lover of summer, kayaking, Gozo, the outdoors and BBQs; a weaver of people and ideas, a subtle activist at heart.

The Malta Pavilion at the 60th edition of the International Art Exhibition La Biennale di Venezia is commissioned by Arts Council Malta. Maltese artist Matthew Attard (b. 1987) will be representing Malta at this year’s La Biennale di Venezia (Biennale Arte 2024). The exhibition, entitled I WILL FOLLOW THE SHIP, consists of a newly commissioned artwork weaving together cultural heritage and cutting-edge digital technology and is co-curated by Elyse Tonna (MLT) (b.1990) and Sara Dolfi Agostini (ITL-USA) (b. 1983).

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