Every year, on the weekend before Ash Wednesday in the Christian calendar, crowds of Maltese festival goers take to the streets of its capital, Valletta. It’s part of a long tradition, a carnival, which takes over the city’s streets. Costumes in every colour, celebratory music, specially choreographed dance routines and artistic floats fill the streets to mark the occasion. Little did the festival goers know that this year would be different, one of the last mass gathering events before lockdown was implemented in March.
“I’ve known about carnival for a long time,” says the photographer Lucy Pullicino. “I’m half Maltese and have been out to Malta for carnival in the past.” It was an important year for Malta’s carnival. The year previous, a large storm swept through the island so the carnival promised to be a memorable celebration for all involved. And with that in mind, Lucy ventured to the archipelago to document the event.
She was interested in photographing Team Toto Perzuta, a float team preparing for the Carnival. She was lucky enough to have seen a rough sketch of their carnival designs online (the final design, costume and dance routines are a closely guarded secret) so when the team agreed to let Lucy follow their work in progress, secrecy was of the utmost importance.
It wasn’t until the big reveal at the carnival when the whole city could see what Team Toto Perzuta had been up to. Each year, the participating teams choose a different theme for their float. Team Toto Perzuta chose the Maltese singer-songwriter Freddie Portelli, otherwise known as the Elvis of Malta, adorned their float. With teal and pink costumes and perfectly zhuzhed quiffs to signify the singer, the dancers also paid homage to the national treasure and his music in a bespoke dance routine.
“The float and costumes looked incredible and it’s such a labour of love,” says Lucy. “Family and friends across generations work together throughout the year to prepare their team for carnival, and everyone I spoke to referred to their carnival team as their extended family.” Welcomed wholeheartedly at the time, she remembers the experience fondly, full of community spirit and joy.
One image in particular encapsulates this experience for Lucy. It was taken on the first day of the carnival, after all the dancers had prepped themselves, makeup perfectly intact, for the first day of celebrations. Once they were on the bus, Lucy recalls the cheering, clapping and singing: “There was so much laughter and excitement and I felt so lucky to be a part of that moment,” she recalls. A love letter to her culture, Lucy’s series Bells and Whistles is a celebration of this carnival tradition and the hard work of the community. “Carnival is huge in Malta and it’s a part of my culture, and I want to understand and connect with it more,” she finally goes on to say. And whenever it’s safe to do so, she hopes to explore a longer-term project on the island too.