Malta to Milan and back - A Retrospective Reflection

On the 10th of September 2018, I waved at my father for what would be the last time in months and boarded a plane to Milan. I had long thought above living abroad and after realizing I was not getting any younger, I decided to go for it. It was not easy leaving my full-time job to enter student life again, but the feeling of having unfinished business was consuming me from within. So after many sleepless nights, I applied to read for a Master in Photography and Visual Design at NABA Milano and the rest, as they say, is history.

It was my first time travelling alone, and as the day for me to leave got closer, anxiety (which stems from fear of the unknown) became a bit of an issue. By and large, though, I managed to keep it in check thanks to self-help books, motorcycling and some weight-lifting.

Just before the plane took off, I took a photo of what was outside the plane’s window, knowing very well that any subsequent returns to Malta would have me looking at the island in a different way. And so it proved.

Usually, landing in a new country gives you a rush of adrenaline and a huge sense of joy. My first time landing in Milan was totally different. Yes, the adrenaline was there, but let me tell you that I felt no joy. Instead, I felt overwhelmed by everything. A million questions raced through my mind – “Did my luggage (in which I had my most basic personal belongings) arrive safely? How do I get to my apartment in time for the check-in? Which is the way out of the airport?” Luckily, other than for being naively ripped off by an eagerly helpful taxi driver (just use public transport in Milan!), I arrived at my apartment with little hassle. And then as the check-in lady left, I stood alone in my empty room, face-up on the linen-less bed, staring the ceiling.

It was a weird feeling. In a way, it felt comforting having finally arrived in my room and standing there alone. It allowed me to gather my thoughts. But a mixture of hunger, thirst and realizing that my room lacked enough sockets to power my photography equipment made me realize there was a lot to do. And that made time feel like it was escaping away. So I decided to get up and at least buy some food for the next couple of days. Luckily, my flatmates, who happened to be there when I arrived, were very helpful and directed me to the nearest supermarket.

What followed after this eventful first day is best described in periods. The first week was all about learning about Milan, buying the basics (extension cords, bed sheets, a quilt, soap to wash with etc.) During the second week, I started getting out of my comfort zone (my room in the apartment I was sharing) and exploring the city and during the third week, finally, my course started.

Coming from a very result-driven education system in Malta, it took me a while to understand that at NABA (where I was studying), yes, exams were important. But the learning process was valued twice, if not three times as much.  Coming from an education system where qualifications are all that matters, having no clear set of objectives to work at had me feeling lost. I even thought that my course lacked direction. But as time went by and we started to work intensely on our personal projects, I understood why. Fine art academies are very different to universities in that a lot of focus is placed on the process of achieving something, rather than on achieving something.

The university, goal-driver approach is very good at fostering discipline but unfortunately, it stops one from thinking critically or creatively.  The pressure to get good grades means you take no risks and instead, reproduce what has been proven to work. It takes no genius to realize that this conservative approach should have no place in a creative educational setting. Yet having been trained all my life in such an educational set-up, it did take me around three to four months to understand why as a fine arts academy, NABA placed so little emphasis on exams.

All the emphasis was on the creative process and that is where I felt I grew the most.  Prior to studying in Italy, I approached most of my projects almost from a purely aesthetic point of view. In a commercial setting that is driven by numeric goals, this works. But in an artistic setting that is driven by a personal meaning-making process, this approach will have you running into problems the minute you start.

A year or so before I decided to leave, I remember having a conversation with one of Malta’s finest artist (who also happened to be one of my lecturers at the University of Malta) Vince Briffa. During this conversation, he told me how studying at an art academy teaches you how to think. I was a bit baffled hearing him say this but his words somehow stuck like an echo in my head. A subconscious curiosity was probably ignited in me that day.

I got my answer to this question around two years later when during my Master in Photography and Visual Design, two of our tutors, Francesco Zanot and Domingo Milella, introduced us to the works of Luigi Ghirri and his concept of ‘pernsare per immagini’ (thinking through images).  This made me look more into Ghirri’s works and read about his photographic philosophy, and that is where I believe I got my answer as to what Vince Briffa had referred to when saying ‘art academies teach you how to think.’

While working on Crafted Landscapes, a book I created under the close mentorship of Francesco Zanot and Luca Andreoni for the Master’s western-move themed group-exhibition called Stardust, I put this new-found philosophy into practice. And that is where I really started to reap the benefits of the process-based approach to learning commonly found in fine art academies.

This learning was further solidified during my two-month internship at A14- Stampa Originale d’ Arte, where among other things, I produced my book for the exhibition. This print atelier, headed by Daniela Lorenzi, specializes in limited-run art books and prints and under her tutelage, I learnt a lot into the thought that goes on behind creating and executing an artistic project. Learning from someone of her ilk did me wonders of good and by being so hands-on, I really got to understand the importance of reasoned decisions during the production process in order to convey your ideas as clearly as possible. Things that we take for granted, like the choice of printing paper or printing techniques, actually say a lot about what we communicate with our works, be it artistic or commercial. 

The two months I spent interning at A14 were probably the two most beautiful months of my stay in Milan. Besides giving me the chance to put into practice all that I had learnt throughout the course, I also got to meet many interesting people who either worked at the studio or who were esteemed artists making use of the space. They were two months I will always cherish and I have no doubt that when the right project comes along, I too will be revisiting the Atelier and making use of the space.

Spending a year in Milan reading for Master in Photography and Visual Design was a wonderful life-changing experience. A special mention here goes to the Malta Arts Scholarship, who I have to thank for sponsoring part of my studies. Given the costs involved, their contribution sure made my life easier! 

I invite anyone who has been thinking of doing a similar experience to do it as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the tougher it will be due to life commitments (buying an apartment, long-term relationships, children, old parents who need care etc.) I did it at 25 and in many ways, I think it was a very good age because I was mature enough to handle the pressures of moving abroad, yet young enough to be free of adult life commitments which would otherwise have made it extremely difficult. If I have children in the future, I will definitely encourage them to live abroad for some time. You gain much more than you can imagine. And if you are planning in making a career in arts or other creative fields like design, engineering or advertising, studying abroad will help you in ways you cannot imagine. Do it.

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