This was my ‘stab at reason from the realm of buoyant lead and sinking cork’. This title was too obscure for the newspaper and it was changed to indicate what the content was about. The views of the artist as an artist are important as much as anyone else - what I mean is that writing this article definitley does not make me a journalist and not being a journalist does not make this content less worthy of consideration. However it is importnat that the text is accessible and inclusive so everone can consider the points it raises. 

A note on ‘The realm of buoynat lead and sinking cork’ - is a translation from the Maltese ‘ mid-dinja fejn iċ-ċomba tgħum u s-sufra tegħreq’. This phrase my dad coined decades ago and now forms part of his verbal anthologies. He was trying to describe the topsy turvy elements that characterise Maltese culture and accepted norms. 

Link to the article on Times of Malta. 

Austin Camilleri’s ‘Siġġu’: a stab at reason

'Monuments have their particular tradition in art history with their added functions towards memory, heritage and identity'

Installation View | photo by Joe Smith

Malta is taking the plunge with its first large celebration of visual art at various sites across the islands, committing to hold this festival biennially. This initiative – – is held under the patronage of the President of Malta and UNESCO and is also supported by Arts Council Malta and Heritage Malta.

Amid acclaimed work by internationally invited artists such as Tania Bruguera, Ibrahim Mahama and Laure Prouvost, highlighting this art bienniale is Siġġu, the only invited work of a Maltese artist – Austin Camilleri – by Sofia Baldi Pighi and the curatorial team. The fresh recipient of the Malta Society of Arts Gold Medal Award hardly needs any introduction. Still, one would do well to take time and revisit his previous work (specifically Deposition, Żieme, Le.Iva, Homo Immortalis, and his winning entry for the artistic expression of the Maltese Republic) before making up one’s mind about the idea behind this particular entry.

This exquisite execution of Austin Camilleri’s own hands is disturbing us. But is this a hefty price? Sadly, some have felt affronted at this confrontation due to their loaded baggage of pre-existing leniencies and agendas. Others have stopped at its colonial linkages and forgot Camilleri’s preoccupation with the notion of power in his previous work. History has shown that it is tough for colonized and parochial minds to drop such baggage even temporarily to consider something new in its own right, making it easier to silence the prophet, especially one’s own. The lingering question is then, can we be truly free to make up our minds about anything if we cannot accomplish this?

Anthropologist Tim Ingold argues that ‘for the thought to be an idea it has to disturb, to unsettle, like a gust of wind ruffling through a heap of leaves. You may have been waiting for it, but it still comes as a surprise. Those, however, who aim to get from A to B as quickly as possible have no time to wait. For them, the idea is an unwelcome guest, threatening to throw them off course, if not with losing their way altogether. Yet were it not for ideas, we’d be trapped.’ (Ingold 2020) 

In responding to artistic ideas and eventual work, I always consider the medium against its context, the artist forming part of that context. I would also exercise caution to any work commenting on power whilst reveling in sensational controversy in its strive to be relevant. Getting hoodwinked by the flow of popular belief is not something to be desired, but escaping self-delusion might prove trickier. At this point, I want to underline the existing inverted monumentality already present in Camilleri’s work. Following his practice over the last three decades, I observe someone engaging on par with anyone else on the international platform, true to his practice and genuine in his approach. With this in mind, I rest in hope, for all of these attributes are extremely important when considering Siġġu against our National Heritage and colonial repercussions on our present.    

Monuments have their particular tradition in art history with their added functions towards memory, heritage, and identity. For this reason, it makes their appreciation more particular and complex. Confronted with the vacant replica of Queen Victoria’s chair I see a contemporary artistic response, not just to one statue/site/context but also to the very tradition of monuments and their function. Beyond that, here the considerations at play go far beyond responding to the past and more towards triggering our present.

A decade ago we were confronted by Żieme and had the chance to reflect on the work and its public response. That work also divided opinion with some petitioning for it to be removed while others for it to be permanently left installed. Considering the latter category, I wondered if they failed to appreciate the dichotomy in a work made of bronze for a temporary festival. Beyond its form and aesthetic, that work already commented on the notion of power in this dichotomy. As we are gradually considering that art might not be mere entertainment, where to like or dislike something disintegrates into neither here nor there, hope blossoms for people to contribute towards Siġġu’s meaning rather than seeking the label and forgetting today’s real issues behind it. 

In the case of Żieme, I satirically suggested that we might as well kill the amputated horse by asking the artist what it meant. Now, the artist leaves us more clues beyond the artifact itself, however, it will take some dedication and more than following/broadcasting a 5-second social reel or answering a dumbed-down preferential poll. At the main guard, one can find the proposals for this work, including a maquette, relics, responses from the authorities, or lack of them. 

We encounter a rare glimpse into the artist’s mind and an opportunity for more clarity between the two sites. Albeit temporarily, siġġu was not allowed to replace the statue of Queen Victoria. The dedication and polished finishing touches behind Siġġu’s plinth against the timeline from commissioning to the making of the artwork suggest that the artist had foreseen this response from the authorities and decided to opt for the current dialogue between the statue, the sculpture, and the public. 

When I weigh the responses plastered across the media from the realm of buoynat lead and sinking cork, the possibility of removing the statue, even temporarily for this art Biennale still seems far more probable than our collective ability to consider the implications this would raise. From an artistic perspective, it would be interesting to consider how these material changes would affect the artwork and its concept. But are we able to be open to such considerations? Before making any attempt, certain things need to be clarified: 

This is not another cancel culture stunt. Camilleri is not trying to erase history. The replication of the queen’s chair including her insignia vouch for this. Siġġu affirms history with the added opportunity for us to acknowledge the sound of our voices. One cannot deny the knights of St John’s impact on our legacy and yet Grandmaster Manoel de Vilhena’s memorial was relocated twice after Queen Victoria’s monument superseded his. In this context, it is good to consider what Neil MacGregor (the former director of the British Museum) stated, ‘statues usually tell us not so much what the people on plinths did, as what we, the people who put them there, want our society to become’ (the Art Newspaper, September 2021). Commenting on rehomed statues at Coronation Park, following India’s independence, British art historian and writer Bendor Grosvenor argues that ‘if such monuments do have a connection to history, it is because they attempt to shape it, not reflect it’. For those who petition historical learning from them, he adds that ‘it would be like a judge choosing only to hear testimony from the defense’. He concludes that ‘public statues are political acts; when the politics change, so must the statues’ (The Art Newspaper, July 2020). 

To stop at Siġġu with the comparison against the sceptered figure behind it, would be a shame indeed. Far from a petition to remove the queen or deny historical colonial rule, Siġġu humanely points out that this is not a casual vacancy. Far before and long after Victoria, the seat was never vacant.  In a fashion after Thomas Jefferson’s theory, it is Individually and collectively occupied since we have elected those whom we have deserved. We have, and continue to keep, or delegate that power. At what cost?


All artwork © Joseph Calleja | Please do not download, reproduce or share without permission

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