Queer happenings at St James | Emanuel Bonnici

He made a pack of edible chocolate Baby Jesus statues, which were consumed by exhibition visitors, and he’s crafted a Virgin Mary out of Lego. Now, the young and always playful artist Emanuel Bonnici speaks to us about finding a home in MILKSHAKE, a collective visual arts exhibition challenging the accepted notion of gender roles at St James Cavalier.

'Neol(eat)hic-age' by Emanuel Bonnici.
'Neol(eat)hic-age' by Emanuel Bonnici.

You've studied both in Malta and abroad (like a lot of your colleagues). How would you describe the difference between the two countries from a visual arts context?

Thankfully lecturers at the University of Malta are very inspirational although art resources are very limited. Most lecturers are also contemporary art practitioners themselves and have encouraged me to further my studies overseas. The variety of resources and specialisation is what makes foreign universities look much more vibrant! It is only natural that a bigger country has more to offer in terms of visual culture. Big art events and exhibitions are varied and more accessible. Malta, although small, is lucky to have a vigorous artistic community. 

What attracted you to the Milkshake project, and how would you say your work fits into their initiative?

'The queer body' is a very intriguing topic and queer (or 'odd') objects were always part of my work. I've also been fascinated by the notion of cultural acceptance, homogeneity and stereotypes from a sociological point of view. Perhaps it is only stereotypical judgement which makes us believe that mundane objects such as shoes convey minimal but 'revealing information' about their owners such as age, social status and gender. What happens when this 'revealing information' is smeared? Does it challenge our stereotypical understanding?

You're known to be a 'playful' artist. Could you give our readers a run-down of your most notable works - some of which concerned quite touchy cultural topics. What kind of reactions did your Chocat(h)olic and Collective Conscience inspire?

Most of my work is a playful remodeling of familiar objects - the 'gardjola' is merged with the iconic British telephone box, the Neolithic statue of the goddess of fertility juxtaposed on the shape of a burger while religious icons are made of unexpected objects. Chocat(h)olic - where I set up a food stand with chocolate Baby Jesus - was one of my earlier works, which some considered to be cheeky. I considered it more of an experimental exercise. At the time, I had just started reading for my M.A and was intrigued by Jean Baudrillard's writings about simulacra and simulation. I wanted to test its relevance in today's world, and thus set up the installation in different locations - both in Malta and abroad. The perception of the installation changed from blasphemous to artistic depending on the context it was exhibited in and venue. In the case of Collective Conscience, I just wanted to see how a Madonna built out of Lego would look like!

How do you feel about your fellow artists exhibiting in the Milkshake exhibition?

It is always very interesting to see how other artists express or interpret a common topic.

The exhibition - which is supported by the Malta Arts Fund - opens on 8 March. Log on to Emanuel Bonnici's website for more information and a portfolio of his work.