Art or exploitation?
As you round the corner you see a large bus coach parked in front of the gallery. As you walk closer you notice that the bus is running and it is occupied. Through the windows you can see that there are about twenty or so African men sitting in the seats. The gallery is right next to the main police station in Valletta and this being Malta you conclude that these men must be migrants about to be transferred to an Open Centre. Not until you enter the gallery and read the program do you realize that this bus full of African migrants is part of the exhibit. The piece was called "Sitting on a bus, feeling like an idiot, wondering where to go and what to do" and it was part of an exhibition called Geography of Proximity. I attended the opening night at the Malta Contemporary Art gallery in St. James Cavalier, Valletta. It was on my last night in Malta and I had spent most of the past two weeks in Open Centres with men exactly like the ones I saw on the bus. When I realized that they were one of the exhibits, my first reaction was disgust and it pretty much stayed that way. The artist, a white Maltese named Mark Mangion, had presumably rounded up these men from one of the Open Centres (you would find it very difficult to find twenty black, African men living in Valletta) and paid them a few Euros to sit on a bus for the night. Meanwhile, wealthy hipsters pointed and took snapshots while sipping their wine and congratulating themselves for recognizing the - let us paraphrase the artist - "complexity" of the work.
I saw it as exploitation pure and simple. Had Mangion spent more than 5 minutes with any of these men? Had he gotten to know each of them and realized that they were not so different from him? Had he listened to one of the men tell him that he cries every night thinking about his wife and child back in Somalia who may or may not have been murdered? Did he then explain that he was going to use their situation as desperate, stateless, rights-less, displaced, and homeless human beings for an art-show opening? Did the artist and the gallery-goers pity the men on the bus? Did they feel clever because they could enjoy "controversial" art that some might see as exploitation? It did not matter. To them the men on the bus were not equals, they were exotic objects to be put on display, to wonder at from a comfortable distance, all in the name of art.
From Sitting on a bus, feeling like an idiot, wondering where to go and what to do by Mark Mangion, photos also by Mark Mangion