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Explosive (Hi)Stories

The Run-Up
Crafts
Disappearing
Explosions
Filfla
Fireworks
Hobbies
Malta
Namra
Performance
Post-Colonial

In the context of his artistic practice, the Maltese artist-researcher Jimmy Grima has repeatedly focused on unknown and marginalized communities, as well as their particular traditions of expertise and knowledge. Most recently, this has led him to research namra. The term describes a strong passion for certain leisure activities in Malta. It is believed that namra mostly is experienced by men and, as it overrides rationality, bears great risks. It is also believed that namra lasts a lifetime and that it is inherited. In spite of this, some of the practices Grima has looked at are on the verge of disappearing, such as bird trapping, the hobby of a community that includes his father. With Nassaba: Song of a Bird, Grima delivered a touching homage to this community. Other activities that have caught his eye can best be described as booming, such as the production of fireworks that plays a central role in his latest work Kaxxa Infernali: Explosions. Grima’s contribution to V/A is a text based on his research for this performance, which led him, among other places, into a “room of fire.” The piece marks the beginning of a cluster on “crafts,” in which we explore approaches that combine aesthetic practice with crafts, hobbies, and/or the everyday.

Text Jimmy Grima
Images provided by the author

Recently I often find myself pursuing two activities: “re-writing history from below” and involving non-artists in the making of art, two processes I greatly appreciate as part of my practice. As an artist, I hold a license, not to make fireworks, mind you, but a poetic license that allows me to unearth peculiar and controversial histories, practices, and communities. There are places within the art world – the theatre, the gallery – that usually serve as a platform for my work, and on this platform those histories, practices, and communities receive a voice and a space to become alive.

In 2021, in collaboration with rubberbodies, I co-authored the solo stage work Kaxxa Infernali: Explosions. It unfolds an auditory landscape made out of voices, sounds, noises, and personal and national histories connected to different types of explosions on the island of Malta: military, ritualistic, artistic, criminal. They range from fireworks during the festa to military and crime-related bombs. The work is the preliminary result of long, laborious, and unfinished, research.

1. Filfla: An Explosive Memory Site

When one speaks of an explosion, fireworks are not the first thing that comes to mind. It’s mostly images of war, destructive bombs, or a tragic criminal incident, but on the island of Malta, we find these scenarios intertwined in the military and religious customs, their histories, and how they developed from past to present. Since this intersection has not yet been analyzed in a scientific, historical, or artistic manner, I felt compelled to contemplate it, and so I found myself investigating these explosive matters for nearly two years. 

The work embraces multiple interconnected themes: local (traumatic) military history, numerous skilful fireworks makers, and the quiet yet potentially explosive Maltese character. The raġel ta’ ftit Kliem (eng. “a man of few words”), Għall-kwiet (eng. “to stay in silence”), and silence itself are matters which became central to the final artistic work. Masculinity also played a crucial role since these topics mainly concern men. In this context, women are generally either left out altogether or serve as supporting figures, located in the back rows and on the periphery of things.

I found a local site where all of these elements seemed to come together. It is a memory site in the sense of Pierre Nora’s “lieu de mémoire,” which is described as “any significant entity, whether material or non-material, which by dint of human will or the work of time has become a symbolic element of the memorial heritage of any community.” My site of memory is Filfla, a small, mostly barren, uninhabited islet 4.5 kilometres south of Malta. It served as military target practice. This piece of land was repeatedly bombarded by the Royal Air Force and The Royal Navy during British Rule, that is, from about 1800 to the 1970s. Later, after Malta gained its independence, it was also used by other NATO air and naval forces, especially the US Navy and the US Airforce. This history has been overshadowed by the fact that the islet became a natural reserve in the 1990s, which is how my generation knows of it. I grew up gazing at the site from ashore and from afar. From that distance, it is very difficult to see the damages of the heavy bombardment, which has been long forgotten, faded away with time.

Today, Filfla is a different place. Many sea birds find the rubble of destroyed rocks very convenient places to build their nests. It is also a no-go protected area. No one can access or go anywhere near it. I never understood whether this is because of the sea birds or because of the perils of the unexploded ordnance, which the British Army repeatedly refused to clean up after leaving the Island in 1979.

2. Fishing for Unexploded Bombs

An urban legend survives, a rumour that is more than a fiction in the places close to Filfla. It grabbed my attention and became the anchor point of my artistic research. In the past, between the 1950s and the 1980s, fishermen and later fireworks makers would salvage some of the unexploded ordnance from the military practices. They would then bring these undetonated bombs ashore and extract the explosives – gelignite, TNT, Cordite – sometimes failing with tragic consequences, but oftentimes also succeeding.

I found it very compelling that the Maltese not only found a way to reuse or re-cycle these bombs, which are, after all, also artefacts the British Empire left for the Maltese, but that they turned them into something of great significance. Fireworks makers of the past used the insides of a military bomb, which was primarily designated to destroy, and turned its (explosive) contents into the creation of a spectacular art form: poetry in the skies. The loudest bangs in the festa, in my childhood, might have very well been composed with the gelignite from unused explosives lying around Filfla. This I found fascinating. 

The festa (eng. “feast”) is celebrated in every village on the Maltese islands; some villages even have two or three. They start at the end of May and run right through the entire summer and well into September. The festa is both a religious and secular celebration. The “Maltese call festa (pl. festi),” writes the Maltese anthropologist Mark Anthony Falzon in What’s in a Bang? Fireworks and the Politics of Sound in Malta, “the annual celebration of a patron saint(s). Every town and village in Malta has at least one festa. Festi typically takes place in summer and are spread over a number of days. Every festa is made up of a composite of two related types. Festa interna (lit. “internal feast”) involves that part that is limited to the space of the church, which is draped in all its finery and where special ceremonies are held. Festa esterna (lit. “external feast”) is a more elaborate matter. The streets come alive with bunting, statues, confetti, and lights, and brass bands play marches and solemn anthems. The peak is reached when the statue of the patron, usually a Catholic saint or the Madonna, is carried along the streets in procession. Festi involves an astonishing collective effort by “dilettanti,” groups of men and women who spend most of their spare time working away to produce the sounds and sights that they believe give a particular flavour to the event. Most places in Malta have more than one (usually two) major festi.”

3. Organic Archives

I spent several months researching the National Archives, looking through documents for leads about this rumour, skimming through old governmental administration records and local newspapers. I found a lot of documents concerning the colonial and post-colonial political history and diplomatic affairs surrounding the bombardments on Filfla. I found several pleas from different Maltese administrations asking the United Kingdom to clear the remnants of unexploded ordnance and military wrecks around Filfla. In newspaper archives, I found several notices notifying the reader of when and how the Filfla bombardments were to happen, but I also found a long list of reported incidents about homemade improvised explosive devices, constructed to kill people or damage property ending with the recent series of car bombs that plagued the island and disrupted its peace from 2010 until today.

However, I found nothing in regards to the practice of fishing out undetonated bombs or the salvaging of unexploded ordnance to use for fireworks. I only found one small excerpt, a reportage in the Times of Malta on October 5, 1955, titled “Illegal Possession of TNT”: one resident was “charged with having been in possession of 27 lbs. of T.N.T. powder and ten drums of fuses and detonators, without a Police permit or a permit from a competent authority… He stated that some persons were landing on Filfla and salvaged unexploded bombs after target shooting practices by the British Army. These bombs were dismantled and the powder was sold to the quarrymen… Gauci told Police Sergeant Pace of the C.I.D. that he had bought the T.N.T. from a fisherman some three months before and had paid £60 for it.”

After accessing the National Archives and skimming through local newspapers, I turned to a different, organic, form of archive: memory. I started interviewing people, asking them about what they knew and what they remembered. My primary source was my relatives from Qrendi, a village a stone’s throw away from Filfla. I interviewed them about the salvaging of bombs from the islet. My aunt and uncle, both in their late 50’s today, recalled the times when they were still kids and could easily reach Filfla by hopping on a boat of one of the local fishermen. Unlike today, access was not a concern. One could spend the day swimming at Filfla if one wanted to (and was not scared of military bombs lying all around). My uncle recounted how his elder brother brought home a shearwater chick and tried to rear it. Luckily it escaped after growing back the primary feathers he had pulled out in the first place to prevent the chick from flying away.

On the topic of fishing for unexploded bombs, they both said that fishermen from Wied iż-Żurrieq and Għar Lapsi, two bays opposite Filfla, sold explosives that were used in the quarry industry and that they sometimes made use of TNT themselves for the notorious and destructive TNT fishing. According to my uncle, the fireworks makers salvaged these bombs themselves and did not procure them from fishermen. He also told me more about how the explosive materials were extracted from the unexploded ordnance. He told me that the bombs being salvaged were “the ones that the British Army and later NATO forces were shooting from the destroyersAt first, there were so many that you could see the bombs on the surface.” Later on, the Maltese would dive for them. 

He explained how one could easily find them since a lot of defective bombs from military practice would not go off and fall into the sea still intact. This type of shooting practice happened every day especially in the 1960s. The army did not really care where the bombs would fall, and, soon enough, the sea of Filfla was surrounded with unused bombs. 

As my uncle tells it, fireworks makers themselves started fishing out these bombs to use the gelignite for the making of petards, especially for the salut: 21 petards of 5 inches wide and 5 inches long, fired to signal specific moments during the festa. He also explained what he knew about how these bombs were dismantled. “They would pick them up first on a luzzu, a small fishing boat, take them onto land, and go to a faraway secluded site so that no one would see them because it was illegal. There they would try to discreetly remove the fuse. When they couldn’t loosen the fuse, they would put a bit of gelignite with the bomb. Then it would either explode or split open. The aim was to split it, not let it go off as they were after the gelignite within it.

Both my uncle and my auntie recount an event when a man from Qrendi died on the eve of the Feast of the Assumption, on August 15, 1969, while meddling with one of these unexploded bombs. …My auntie clearly remembers the event. Although she was still very young, she recalls that it was lejlet Santa Marija (the eve of St. Mary). “Some men went to open some bombs to then use them for petards, take the gelignite and so on. One of the bombs exploded and one of the men died…” You may ask yourself: Why would someone risk their life for this? According to my auntie, there weren’t any fireworks provisions as there are today, and it wasn’t as accessible and easy to procure these kinds of materials back then. Today everything arrives legitimately.

4. Fire Masters

Since the era of fishing out bombs from Filfla, from the 1950s to the 1980s, a number of reforms were initiated. The law and the way fireworks factories procure materials have been radically revised and changed for the sake of health and safety. What did not change and instead has evolved and flourishes to this day are the numerous skilled artists playing with fire. In contrast to the rest of the world, in Malta all the work is done voluntarily. It is primarily a contribution to the community, and it is often supported by that same community in which the fireworks factory is located. The word factory here could be deceiving as most of these factories are isolated buildings or compounds in the countryside. In Maltese, we call them kamra tan-nar (eng. “room of fire”) as they came to be isolated tiny rooms built out of rubble walls in the countryside. 

Making fireworks is a dangerous practice, but as my auntie says: “You are putting yourself in danger, like with everything else that exists.” For her, life is full of dangers: bħal kull ħaġa oħra (eng. “like with everything else that exists”). Making fireworks is just another danger that some people voluntarily take on in their life, most probably because they inherited the namra.

Namra (from lat. “amor”, eng. “love”) is a word used in Malta for the incomprehensible passion that people have for their practices. It is often used in reference to activities such as hunting, trapping, and making fireworks, and it is believed to be inherited. The practice of fireworks making, just like that of hunting and trapping, is mostly dominated by men. The last stage of my research was meeting these men by visiting a fireworks factory. There I discovered another realm – an “artist studio” with its discipline, technology, vocabulary, and traditions – for which I have developed a lot of respect.

On my first visit to the fireworks factory, I got a taste, a glimpse, of the day-to-day life of these men and the long and complex process of creating their works of art that are displayed in the skies, for example, the impressively laborious process of creating charcoal. On Malta charcoal is derived from the dried twigs of vines, and in this particular factory, it is produced from scratch: collecting the vines, burning them, storing them in barrels, and later, crushing, pressing, and creating various sizes of granules to be mixed with other ingredients. If I understood it correctly, the process of collecting the vines takes about three months because the volume and quantities needed are very large. Then turning it into granules and air drying takes the rest of the year. 

I was struck by their silence and their nearly monastic routine. A lot of work is done either alone or in small groups, without much talking, mostly in silence. It’s also a highly repetitive process since they produce large volumes of materials. I witnessed the making of charcoal, pressing it and passing it through different sieves, mostly by hand. It struck me how organic the process was. It felt like cooking food: the gestures and the process are very similar to those in a bakery. Whereas a baker prepares the dough, these men prepare a large amount of charcoal, the basic and most important ingredient for the making of gunpowder, which I learnt is the backbone in the making of fireworks. The gunpowder is then mixed with various other chemicals to create a large amount of petards, rockets, and ground mechanical fireworks, which are fired-off over the course of a week or two.

5. The Anatomy of a Firework

From the very beginning of this artistic research, I wanted to dissect a firework – a petard – in front of a live audience as part of a theater performance. According to the law, and also to common sense, the dismantling of a petard is illegal and should not be done; however, the theatre, just like the movies, allows for make-believe. I wanted to show people the insides of it, at least to have a glimpse into this highly intricate art practice, which, unlike all other work with explosives, is exclusively done to bring joy to a whole community. I thought that there has to be a moment when I embody the fireworks masters, those who prepare and make fireworks. I also thought it was important to bring what’s usually in the skies and outdoors, inside the theater space – splitting petards in half on stage.

For me, it was important to reveal the unseen, to look inside. While the majority have seen the outcome of the rockets and the petards, the colors and the sounds which cover the sky at night, few know the anatomy of a firework. I never had; I only heard my grandpa, uncle, and cousins speak about the fuses and the black powder, the potassium nitrate,how each firework has a lot of tiny explosive elements embedded inside it, and how everything is made out of paper and organic compounds. My family was and still is involved with making fireworks, but I am not. I never looked inside one of them. Ever.

Looking inside the making of one of these fireworks and having the opportunity to look inside the community of those who make them revealed yet another reality to me: I had to get closer to these usually very isolated and closed communities of men who silently, diligently, even delicately spend the whole year laboring and dedicating all their leisure time in a fireworks factory. To create this mega spectacle for their community.

Acknowledgement

A word of thanks to my uncle Saver and auntie Carmen for giving me access to their memory, to Prof. Mark Anthony Falzon for being on my side from the start of this research, to Godfrey Farrugia for passing on his knowledge on fireworks, and to Adrian Mamo and Ira Melkonyan from the rubberbodies collective for reading a draft of this text. 

Source of images

Photos of Jimmy Grima’s Kaxxa Infernali: Explosions taken by Lindsay Bahia
Pyrotechnic Malta by Godfrey Farrugia
National Archives of Malta
Times of Malta
Photos taken by Jimmy Grima during a visit to a fireworks factory

Text Jimmy Grima
Images provided by the author
The Run-Up
Crafts
Disappearing
Explosions
Filfla
Fireworks
Hobbies
Malta
Namra
Performance
Post-Colonial