Malta for Dummies #4: Cultural absurdity

In Malta, where everything is upside down and topsy-turvy, this guide is designed as a brief induction into the operational methods of the smallest State in the EU. The ideal dummy is visualised as a foreigner, an outsider, a barrani, a person of European origin who’s been instilled with European values since birth. Our weekly articles are aimed at helping you to (somehow) get ‘Malta’.

You are right to think that culture is a highly- valued aspect of human life. It is, in many ways, what makes us human. Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci, Zola, Goethe, Picasso, Mozart – Europe is abundant with cultural excellence. But it’s not just reserved for the high-art brigade.

Included is the ‘ordinary’ culture of everyday life, daily routines and modes of behaviour, rituals, language, festas as well as the social, economic and political frameworks in which these occur.

‘Culture’ has long since been contested territory but it’s safe to say that receiving the title of European Capital of Culture is not something to be taken lightly. Valletta was awarded this honour in 2012, the Valletta 2018 Foundation being responsible for compiling the bid and implementing the project.

In 2013, the Labour Party swept to power and in May that year Jason Micallef, former Labour Party Secretary General and former Chairman of One TV (the Labour Party’s television network) was appointed as Chairman of V18.

His appointment was made by the then newly appointed Parliamentary Secretary for Culture, Jose Hererra, now Environment Minister – an environment consistently being destroyed by a multitude of fiercely resisted planning decisions taken by the Planning Authority, such as the recent green light given to the DB Group high-rise project which hinged on the votes of government appointees to the Planning Board.

Things only get worse.

After a spectacular sequence of ‘unfortunate’ events – including Micallef declaring he didn’t need an Artistic Director (because why would a man with his credentials ever need such a thing?) and concerned reports being filed by the European Commission Monitoring Board, six months before the much-awaited inauguration of the biggest cultural event in Maltese history, both the Executive Director, Karsten Xuereb, and Cultural Programmes Co-ordinator, Marguerita Pule, were abruptly removed without explanation.

This inevitably caused some disquiet within the artistic community and a petition was duly signed, but time was of the essence as the cultural preparations continued in full sway.

The ‘party’ was, however, interrupted in a brutal way. On 16 October, less than three months before the festivities were due to begin, Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated.

After the Prime Minister’s promise to leave “no stone unturned”, the V18 Chairman, and thus presumably a cultural bastion, proceeded to campaign vociferously for the removal of the makeshift memorial to the journalist, the focus in previous instalments of this Dummies Guide.

Although the government’s role in ordering the removal of the memorial was made public on 15 September, and blogger Manuel Delia filed a constitutional case against the government for breach of human rights, we can’t simply assume that despite Micallef’s vilification of Caruana Galizia both in life and in death, he played an active part in the memorial being cleared 20 times in 11 months.

After all, the City of Culture, under Micallef’s direction, is one ‘grand festa’ and the festa, like culture and like freedom of expression and like the right to protest, is of and for the people, isn’t it?

Nevertheless, Micallef’s behaviour has provoked international criticism, in particular for his Facebook post on St Patrick’s Day. Parodying the final words of the assassinated journalist and drunk on his own satirical skills to the point of grammatical inaccuracy, Micallef revelled like those in his attached photo, bragging that ‘The situation is desperate. There is [sic] happy people everywhere you look.’

Since then, Leeuwarden, our twin city of culture, has refused to send official representatives to Valletta. Over 250 international writers, amongst them Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan, signed a letter demanding Micallef’s resignation. The same demand has been made by 72 MEPs and echoed by over 100 artists here in Malta although, as is customary in this culture that is Malta, some preferred to remain anonymous.

So at this point, I’ll come clean, reveal my own identity, unmask myself now. I’m a writer who was selected to create a one-act play as part of the City of Culture programme. I wasn’t commissioned by V18 but the project for whom I wrote the play works in collaboration with V18. I wasn’t paid and fulfilled my obligations. Tonight, at Spazju Kreattiv, Friefet Bojod, a play about corruption dedicated to Caruana Galizia, gets its debut performance and I shall not be there.

In protest at all the atrocities which have occurred within this grotesque parody of ‘culture’, I’m boycotting the production of my own play. The show must go on? Business as usual? It’s the job of the artist to say no.

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