One of Valletta’s iconic bright red telephone boxes was bubble-wrapped and strapped tightly on Monday morning, as part of an art installation.

As patrons of Republic Square cafes sipped coffees and tucked into pastizzi, artist Keit Bonnici placed wooden corner protectors, bubble wrap and ratchet straps around the Grade 1 protected telephone booth located close to Café Cordina.

After strapping it securely, Bonnici slapped a bright yellow postage sticker with details of the telephone booth. The sticker read “Origin: United Kingdom” but remained blank under “Destination”.

The artists at work. Video: Giulia Magri

Before Bonnici wrapped up the booth, French artist Niels Plotard hand-washed and scrubbed the telephone booth, in preparation of its transformation. 

Titled ‘Fuq L-Art’, the performance and installation is the brainchild of Bonnici and Plotard. The duo created it as part of the Maltabiennale.art which opens later this week, March 13 and will run until May 31.

The work seeks to prompt questions on the significance of the booths in Maltese heritage and public spaces. 

Designed by Sir Gilbert Scott to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of the coronation of King George V in 1935, the booths today play a purely symbolic role, serving as a photo prop for tourists or meeting point for locals. 

Keit Bonnici performing 'Fuq L-Art' on Monday. Photo: Matthew MirabelliKeit Bonnici performing 'Fuq L-Art' on Monday. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

The phone booth installation is just a stone’s throw away from Siġġu by sculptor Austin Camilleri, another installation unveiled in the past days as part of the upcoming biennale.

Camilleri's sculpture of an empty chair was installed directly in front of the statue of Queen Victoria outside Malta’s National Library. 

Both works share similar themes of decolonisation and question the role of historical public monuments.

Decolonising Malta is one of the central themes of the Pavilion. Other themes focus on the politics of the Mediterranean sea, piracy and matriarchy.

The telephone booth will remain tightly bubbled wrapped throughout the Maltabiennale.art which opens on March 13 and runs until May 31. Photo: Matthew MirabelliThe telephone booth will remain tightly bubbled wrapped throughout the Maltabiennale.art which opens on March 13 and runs until May 31. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Bonnici and Plotard believe the phone booths colonise the physical, mental and social spaces of the Maltese islands.

“The telephone box, installed by the British on Maltese land, now belongs to the public, owned by a private entity and situated in the public realm,” a card placed along the installation reads. 

“How do we negotiate these layers of difficult heritage? Could it ever be reconfigured or displaced?”

Niels Plotard performing his part of Fuq L-Art, as he scrubbed and cleaned the telephone booth. Photo: Matthew MirabelliNiels Plotard performing his part of Fuq L-Art, as he scrubbed and cleaned the telephone booth. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Bonnici is no stranger to controversial and thought-provoking performances and installations. 

Last year, the artist climbed onto the 36-millimetre-wide barriers that separate parliament from Freedom Square in Valletta, in a creative manner to question the need for them.

In 2021, Keit sparked a discussion on whether the George Cross should be removed from the flag, after designing a Maltese flag without it.

He also sent a postcard written in Maltese to Queen Elizabeth, asking her what she thought Malta should do with a statue of her ancestor. 

In 2020 he created the custom artwork 'Perch' which allowed him to sip on a home-brewed coffee on the ledge of the hotly contested outdoor dining space at is-Suq tal-Belt.

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