by Marika Azzopardi

Victor Camilleri is well known in Zurrieq and its environs as an established family doctor with a busy practice. However, not everybody knows that he is actually a Gozitan hailing from Rabat, whose wife brought him to Zurrieq for keeps, and whilst he keenly misses his native island, he does enjoy fishing in locations that allow him a glimpse of its shores, namely Marfa and Cirkewwa.

But certainly, when Good Friday approaches, Gozo is put slightly aside as Dr Camilleri’s workload doubles dramatically. This is when a good number of village folk and not only,  make it a point to visit his annual exhibition of statues depicting Christ’s Passion through the Stages of the Cross.

“It all started quite a considerable number of years ago, through a vow I made. Way back in 1979, when I first visited Zurrieq, I was invited to see the village feast. I was dismayed to experience a lot of negativity, fighting and underhanded behaviour, which did not do justice to the people of this village. I swore that I would do something to unite all the folks of Zurrieq together.”

At the time it was just a wish that was kindled in his heart. The wish turned into a firm idea that developed in 1997 when he visited the Good Friday procession of Cospicua. That was to be the last Good Friday procession he attended, as his decision to create a Good Friday exhibition took shape there and then.

“As a young boy I often participated in Good Friday processions in Gozo. But this was something different I had in mind.”

Together with a close friend, Alfred Grima, he set about getting things organized. He designed two sets of statues to be executed in clay, whilst Grima designed one set for the wax medium. These were made to their specifications by two expert statue makers – Lino Fardell from Zejtun who made the clay statues and Luigi Magri from Siggiewi who made the wax statues.

The exhibition was to be set up in Dr Camilleri’s basement garage – a good 100ft by 21ft of space that would, ultimately contain an exhibition of 260 statues.

“The statues are in three different sizes, the smallest being one foot high and the highest nearly two feet high. There are 22 large statues (vari), then there are 18 biblical personages and there is the Holy Sepulchre.”

Initially the statues were displayed against a plain black background. But each year saw marked innovations, so that the statues today reside in a fully fledged church-like ambience – a veritable miniature church.

“First we designed and had wooden framework rigged up to set off the statues, as they would be in a typical church. The following year, I decided that I wanted traditional black damask for a background. This I could not find in Malta, so I ordered it from the States.”

The damask made a strident impact, which was intensified when the artistic designs of Jeremy Cachia were incorporated at a following stage of the decoration proceedings.

It was then decided that the interior of this impromptu miniature church would need ceiling paintings. The wooden framework extended onto the walls and ceiling, is today embellished by original biblical paintings by Cachia and provide an even more impressive backdrop for the whole exhibition.

This year’s innovation is seeing the inclusion of craftwork done by Dr Camilleri’s daughter in the form of Ganutell flower bouquets in front of each ‘vara’.

Speaking of the preparations for the exhibition, Dr Camilleri explains, “It takes two months to put up, and two more to dismantle everything. Preparations include the mammoth task of bringing all 260 statues down three flights of stairs from their storage. This is done two at a time, and I allow absolutely nobody to carry out this job, because the clay and wax are so very fragile. Unfortunately I do cause damages myself, and that is a massive problem, because breakages cannot be fixed very rapidly.”

Setting up the exhibit involves great patience and work, both his and his friend’s Alfred Grima and they do all the handiwork themselves, including lighting and woodwork installation.

But what about the exhibition proper? Work is done with the intent of creating an even more dramatic impression on the visitors who turn up in their hundreds, actually thousands, as last year registered a record attendance of 3000 people. This is very heartening for the exhibitors whose main aim is to gather funds for charity. This year, as in the most recent past, the proceeds all go to Dar tal-Providenza. “We have also helped other charities, including the Eden Foundation, but the Siggiewi home is always in dire need of assistance, so we have repeatedly offered what we get by way of donations to this cause. Most of the visitors are Maltese but we do have a few tourists who come in and these are always incredibly amazed by the work put in.”

Seeing the whole set up of this very effective exhibition, makes one believe there could not possibly be any other additions. But Dr Camilleri thinks otherwise. “My next ambition is to create an audio multilingual interpretation to help foreigners understand what it is all about, the different stages and information about the biblical characters depicted. It might not happen next year, because each project usually requires a lot of input both personal and financial. But once we are ready to do it, we will.”

Exhibition is held at 89, Triq Mon. P.P. Pullicino, Zurrieq. This year it will be officially inaugurated on March 28 at 19.30. All Synapse readers are invited to attend. The exhibition closes on April 7. Opening hours: Daily from 09.30 – 12.00 & 16.00 – 21.00 except on: Maunday Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Saturday from 09.00 – 21.00.

All donations made by visitors will be in aid of Dar tal-Providenza.