An artistic sculpture in the heart of Valletta has sparked a debate on how to tackle our identity and colonial past but also drew a barrage of derogatory remarks.

Austin Camilleri’s new work, Siġġu, was described as a “monument of a toilet” by one historian but lauded as an important platform to discuss Malta’s colonial history.

The sculpture, which features an empty throne erected right in front of Queen Victoria’s monument in Pjazza Reġina, drew several negative comments but also praise about the need for art to challenge the status quo.

Made from globigerina limestone quarried before 1974 (the year Malta became a Republic), Siġġu was produced as part of the Malta Biennale and will stand in the Valletta square until May 31. The throne is a replica of the one behind it portraying Queen Victoria, built in 1891.

Many commenting on social media said it is futile trying to “eradicate” Malta’s history, while others felt it was out of place.

Commenting on Facebook, historian and well-known Anglophile Simon Cusens said: “This is the first time I’ve seen a monument of a toilet… Or was the artist perhaps inspired by Napoleon’s defeat at the battle of Water-Loo.”

On the other end of the aisle, historian and well-known Francophile Charles Xuereb praised Camilleri’s work as well as an installation by Keit Bonnici and Niels Plotard showing a British-era red phonebooth being wrapped and returned to sender.

'Congratulations to thinker-artists'

He said: “Congratulations to thinker-artists who are debating themes from my book Decolonising the Maltese mind, in search of identity… Let’s hope the colonial agenda reaches politicians as well, since it is of national importance.”

2024 marks the 50th anniversary of Malta becoming a republic, just 10 years after the island obtained independence. Siġġu challenges the viewer to question how they define their own national identity, resulting in having to confront some hard truths.

Camilleri said: “My work just asks questions. It is the task and duty of an artist to do so. Monuments are always markers that contribute to the narrative of the communities they are connected to. People are attached to their national surroundings and develop a sense of belonging. It is hardly unexpected for them not to feel discomfort when any of it is challenged.”

It is still fresh. The generation before me were British subjects and this was part of their identity. But we need to address this idea that the British ‘built’ us- Artist and writer Ryan Falzon

Artist and writer Ryan Falzon agrees that the work has created a much-needed dialogue. “The colonial mentality cannot just be shaken off by a statue. We need a wider debate, and the public definitely has to be involved.

“It is still fresh. The generation before me were British subjects and this was part of their identity. But we need to address this idea that the British ‘built’ us. The truth is we were a colony and they used us. So why should I be grateful?” said 36-year-old Falzon.

Statue of Queen Victoria 'a staple symbol'

He added, “Nonetheless, the statue of Queen Victoria is a staple symbol. We nationalised. We made ours what was never ours to begin with.”

Artist Kenneth Zammit Tabona had a different opinion.

“Love it or hate it, we were a British colony. It is a part of our history. Take Times of Malta, for example, it would not exist without colonialism.”

He said the Maltese paid for the Queen Victoria statue to be built to celebrate her Golden Jubilee. The statue by Giuseppe Valenti was commissioned by public subscription.

Love it or hate it, we were a British colony. It is a part of our history- Artist Kenneth Zammit Tabona

“Let’s not forget this was not forced upon us, we chose it.”

Zammit Tabona admitted he was shocked when he first saw the work. “That was until I noticed the Queen Victoria statue was still in her place, with her favorite pigeon perched on her minuscule crown!

“The empty throne makes a refreshing change from the plethora of men in suits we have come to expect from our monuments. They all seem to be cast out of the same mold and possibly the same tailor too. The empty throne has given us something to discuss, and that is what a biennale is all about,” he said.

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