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category: Culture,Politics

The New Face of Maltese Culture

Saturday, September 6, 2014 by

Five years ago, Malta made international headlines for the banning of a play by a board that didn’t even get around to seeing it. Banned for being blasphemous, perverted, offensive to Auschwitz victims, and celebratory of child murderers and sexual assault, the Stitching debacle was a sign of the times for Malta. The ideals of freedom of expression and art were put under duress and were forced to see where they stood in a contemporary Malta keen on entering a Europe that had a very different view toward culture and art.

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The Context

With European values knocking at our doors, yet still under a non-secular and conservative administration, one could see that a clash of cultures was under way. Less than a year later, a creative writing piece in a University magazine was declared obscene and pornographic. Students were taken to court, intense media coverage followed and protests over perceived censorship were organised, until, eventually, a public declaration including a funeral march and a blackened coffin stating that “Art is Dead” in Malta, ensued – right inside the now demolished entrance to Malta’s capital city.

At this point, culture as a governmental portfolio still fell under the tourism dossier. Yet a shift in government mentality could also be noticed by those looking closely enough. In the 2010 annual budget, an increase of 13.2% is announced for the culture budget, while the idea of a creative economy is prioritised for Vision 2015. In 2011, Malta successfully launches its bid to become European Capital of Culture in 2018 and a National Culture Policy is officially launched, with more talk of building foundations for a creative industry.

It seemed, most importantly, that the politicians were changing their perceptions as well.

“Stitching wouldn’t be banned today. Even if a play is pro-abortion, for instance, I don’t see a reason for it to be censored. It can only lead to a healthy discussion. In fact, I ended up watching Stitching myself at a dress rehearsal – and I left feeling more confirmed in my pro-life stance,” smiles Owen Bonnici. As Minister of Justice, Culture, and Local Government since April this year, one could easily say that he has way too much on his plate – reforming the justice system in Malta alone would be an arduous task, let alone taking on the culture portfolio, which the artistic community has been desperately crying out for years to be looked at.

However, at just 34, Bonnici may be the culture minister that Malta needs in 2014. Touted as one of the most energetic ministers in government right now, a man who grew up listening to Metallica, yet is an avid fan of South Korean pianist Yiruma, and who enjoys going to local band clubs to look for innovation in performance, he goes on to tell me how much he enjoyed Malta Design Week (“Chris Briffa is the new Richard England”) and his ideas on where Malta needs to go from here, culture-wise.

The Ideas

Bonnici may have inherited the culture ministry at the right moment; V.18 is well underway thanks to his predecessors, the Malta Council for Culture and the Arts just moved location and was given a new lease of life as the Arts Council Malta, further to gaining the outspoken Albert Marshall as chairman, and every year more and more people are applying for the Malta Arts Fund.

Yet, Bonnici may be better suited to the culture portfolio than any of his forebears. Having been involved with culture since his entry into politics, Bonnici first (literally) came to my attention when I found him by my side at one of the previously mentioned protests over censorship. As Opposition Spokesperson for Youth and Culture at the time, it was sincerely heartening to see a politician come out to a protest in the streets to support a non-traditional view over a controversial issue in Malta.

This kind of behaviour was practically unheard of, and years later, when censorship has been all but removed, seeing Bonnici sitting in the office of the Ministry of Culture seems somewhat redeeming – and most definitely deserved.


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His views on art must be novel to Malta. “The discretion on art should not be left to the police; an artist should never be taken to court over art,” he points out, and I realize how banally obvious it sounds – yet, in a contemporary Maltese context, it actually needs to be said.

“The Arts Council Malta should become to Malta what the BBC is to London,” he continues. “The chairman needs to be in a position to criticise me; I believe in taking an arm’s length approach to influencing culture.”

“However, we are on the right track. What we are looking at right now is creating a legacy. And this has to happen on two levels: on an infrastructural level, and how we as Maltese look at creativity.” Whilst this has often been repeated by government officials related to V.18 and culture in Malta, Bonnici elaborates a bit more.

“As it is, it is hard for a creative to evolve in Malta. Going abroad as a creative can only be a good thing…Yes, there is a bit of a creative brain drain in Malta, but I believe that the people who make it keep their ties to Malta,” Bonnici stresses. “We have to focus on the niches that we have. Look at e-gaming, for example. We have a creative space at University of Malta specifically for cultivating ideas in this field.”
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I mention how Malta is also not doing too badly in the electronic music scene either, with global artists hitting our shores every few weeks to party down. He smiles knowingly – maybe he had VIP tickets to Richie Hawtin recently?

However, when it comes to non-commercial art innovation, it still seems like Malta isn’t ready to focus. While e-gaming is a great example of innovation and cultivation that can show its borne fruits through a bottom line, other, less profitable genres may still have to wait before they are given a hand.

“My main hope is that economic investors start getting more involved. Funding is crucial right now. The government is giving substantial amounts to the art scene, but I want to increase the role of private investors and decrease the role of government. However, as far as government investment is concerned, even if at first we are making no economic gain, it is still worthwhile; as a government we must assist artists until it becomes a profitable enterprise for themselves.”

This sounds all well and good. Culture can be a massive contributor to the economy, with the potential to become a leading sector that can generate growth of the overall economy. However, for this to happen, not only must the foundations, infrastructure, and operators be top notch (apart from having private patrons with a keen interest in the scene to foot the bills) but the culture itself has to be compelling.

“We need to make Maltese culture contemporarily relevant,” he argues. However, in a country where Carnival, Eurovision, and festas are held by the majority as the epitome of our culture, this is going to be hard. It seems that the less sophisticated and more drunken the event, the more the Maltese enjoy it…and there is not much anyone, even the Culture Minister, can do about that.

While there is a burgeoning, younger contingent of Maltese creating their own type of Maltese culture, most notably in Valletta, the overwhelming Maltese culture that is sold to the Maltese, and to foreigners, is one of light, easy times, fitting in with our Mediterranean surroundings – you don’t have to think much, just open up that Cisk and enjoy the fresh fish and sun.

“There is much more to art than tourism…but tourism cannot be ignored. We have to find our niches and be realistic.”

The Drugs

With the release of a White Paper and a two month consultation process, Malta is finally proposing a more realistic method of handling drugs in society. Decriminalization is on the table, with people caught with drugs having to deal with a justice commissioner, instead of court, who has the discretion to send you before a “social board” who will berate you some more. The board will be made up of social experts, police officers, and ex-judiciary members – exactly the kind of people you want to speak to about your drug use on a Monday morning.

However, it is a step in the right direction. An exception for cannabis has even been made where they will not have to appear before the social board, even if they are repeat offenders, and cultivation of cannabis for personal use if no longer punishable by imprisonment. Medical marijuana is also now acceptable, if recommended by a medical consultant.

Distinctions between hard and soft drugs, between social users, street traffickers and drug barons, and between crime and habit, have finally been realised. “We’ve decided to listen, and created a very courageous paper. We are in for a very healthy discussion.” Bonnici smiles.A recent Justice minister, Carm Mifsud Bonnici, had attempted to table a drug reform before – but it was a little too little, as far as reform went, and a little too late, as far as he went, being voted out of Government before anything could be made of it.

“We are getting nowhere by throwing drug users in jail. When it comes to addicts, I don’t believe it is an issue of justice or criminality – they need help, it is a medical issue,” Bonnici asserts, similar to other forward-thinking politicians. However, when asked whether he believes there can ever be a recreational drug user, he says “no, drugs are essentially bad for your health,” followed shortly by “I heard medical marijuana is useful in fighting certain diseases, especially palliative care,” making me feel like Malta is still a tad too traditional for a mainstream politician to speak too positively about drugs.

“The government is in good faith. We want to show support by helping the victims. I have noticed that people have a “zero tolerance” approach to drugs…until their family gets affected. Then all of a sudden we can make exceptions,” Bonnici sighs.

Having spoken to Chris Said, former Minister of Justice, a few years ago, about this very topic, it became apparent that Bonnici is far more in touch with this issue than any of his predecessors. Whereas Chris Said knew nearly nothing about drugs (“We need to win the drug war and drugs are bad mmkay”, c. 2012) and was happy to continue with failed policies even when it was clear that they were not helping the Maltese drug user, Bonnici is refreshingly open to discussion, and, more importantly, understands that this is not just a black and white issue.
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The Future

“I always say you need 100 days to feel comfortable in any position,” Bonnici laughs. And it’s true – he has barely been in his ministry long enough to know the layout of the building, let alone change our cultural views and social mores. However, buoyed by the support of the Maltese people and their willingness to allow social change after years of stagnation, and with new ideas more in tune with Malta’s place in contemporary Europe, Bonnici may be in the right place at the right time.

However, decades of art and culture being associated with tourism and family friendliness will be hard to overcome in 100 days – or 1000 for that matter. While it is essential that Malta’s culture minister has more contemporary views regarding issues like censorship, art funding, and niche genres, one cannot help but feel that changing the Maltese’s perception of art and culture is nothing short of a Herculean task – especially after years of stagnation in policies and celebration of mediocrity in the public sphere.

An infectious good nature is a rare thing in a politician. Seeing Bonnici’s face beam as he talks about Maltese architects (“Maltese architectural design, eh, we’re the best”), some of the recent live shows he has been to, and some quality local cultural operators, it is easy to feel like all is going to go very well from here on out. However, as Bonnici himself points out, we need to give the man time to prove himself – and then we can judge his legacy and really see if Malta had been on the right track.

Written by Johnathan Cilia
Photography by Matthew Grech

This article can be found in Issue 4 of Patron Magazine.

Category Culture,Politics

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