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Art Discussion Group - Malta





‘The Long Voyage’ is a highly educative itinerant exhibition organized at the China Cultural Center, Malta that has literally journeyed across the globe with the express intention to illustrate the history of the Martime Silk Road through the presentation of high definition images of relics found along its length and breath. Images or pictures are more eloquent testimony than written documents and more immediate on the senses than verbal description. Highly professional in design it is presented in vertical scrolls in equal modules to simplify its geometric display. Design is the hallmark in its itinerant concept, for its hyper-connective vision and in emphasising and demonstrating the influence and function of museums especially that of Fujian, China.

Since the main focus of the exhibition and the lecture by Prof. Wu Zhiyue is design in all its manifestations it is highly topical to reflect about the ‘ideal city’ stages on the Silk Road and ports on the Maritime Silk Road. A few weeks ago I traveled to Seville in Andalusia, Spain The atmosphere of this city is overwhelming but my real intention was to travel by fast train to Cordoba as there the melting of three cultures: Jewish, Moslem and Christian is representative of how people exploit difference to live in peace and flourish. 

Differences if tolerated and respected bring peace and integration, if resisted they result in conflict. A city is always an ideal notwithstanding its design – Siena, Italy with its concentric streets, Valletta, Malta with its grid system and Zamość Poland designed by the Italian Bernardo Morando with interconnected private gardens as passages between sectors as in early Moslem cities.

Plato in the ‘Republic’ Book X speaks of the ideal form and of imitation in art. He maintains that the ideal form (say of a stool) is in the mind of the Creator, that of the carpenter is once removed from the ideal and that of the painter twice removed implying that the stool of the carpenter and that of the painter are imitations and only a reflection of the ideal. Probably Plato was hinting that art is an imitation, a lie or fiction but it educates as the reflection might be more beautiful than reality.

Perhaps Plato is right as the relics in the exhibition are the result of imitation, of tradition, moulded by function and influence. A good example is the Greek amphora. There were several depending on use. The water amphora had three ears or handles as it could be tried above the ground to a wall. Possibly its design took hundreds of years to perfect, thickening the clay here and thinning it there. Perhaps even the shape changed too to make it lighter and stronger. It was different from the oil and wine amphora. The relics in the exhibition are all the result of intelligent design.

Since relics are eloquent testimony or a wonderful language of our ancient past they become part of our history. They become the story of mankind and man being human, inquisitive and curious studies relics with relish. Archaeology which is regarded as an auxiliary science to history helps man to analyse relics scientifically. Archaeologists belong to different disciplines (such as under water archaeology) and can analyse both container and content. Can even date and trace an object to a region. In the exhibition there are two Persian ceramic vessels found in China as a result of trade or commerce.

In the ancient city of Chang’an in Shaanxi Province archaeologists excavated an extinct species of gibbon (Junzi imperialis) found in 2,300-old tomb of a Chinese noble woman, Lady Xia, grandmother of China’s first Emperor Qin Shihuang (259-210 BCE). In 2004 archaeologists excavated 12 menagerie-grave pits that contained the remains of lynx, black bear, leopard, two species of crane (unidentified) and several domestic animals. The find throws light on the noble woman’s rank and on the gibbon that 1200 years later became a high status symbol.¹ Beer amphorae were found in two underground pits dated 5.000 years ago with related tools and possibly a recipe.²

The Silk Road is not merely physical, just a road or land bridge. It has become a myth, a symbol, an extended metaphor meaning connection, fusing, melting of ideas, visions, concepts and civilizations. Really it started as a story and it became history. But history is born in myth and history at times becomes myth and it is difficult to tell between true fact and fiction. Perhaps the oral epic is a good example. Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey, especially the latter which means going out seeking adventure is a classical narration of an epic journey perhaps based on events that happened 1300 BCE. It was written much later probably from many sources. It is a kind of sung fable or legend about war and peace. It was sung around a bonfire by the troubadour or minstrel accompanied by flute and string music. It must have happened during long journeys and voyages to entertain the travellers on cold or cool nights under the stars or in enclosures. It was a way of life and Marco Polo might have enjoyed the singing on the Silk Road.

The Silk Road as a title is just a reference as not only silk was traded but various goods: horses, salt, precious stones, gold, ceramics, glass, lapis lazuli, wine and oil. One of the images in the exhibition is a Canton porcelain bowl for punch, exotic and beautiful. Perhaps it influenced Limoges potters with its gold and multi-coloured glazes. The exhibition is really worth visiting.

¹New Gibbon species found in China, COSMOS, accessed 22 June 2018.

²Recipe for 5,000-year-old Chinese beer, Cosmos, News, Archaeology, accessed 24 May 2016.

E. V. Borg

24. 06. 2018

Title of Exhibition: The Long Voyage

Venue: China Cultural Centre, Melita Street, Valletta

Open to public: 25 June 2018