A Mintoff for all seasons

The discussions surrounding the various proposed versions of a monument to Dom Mintoff prompt TEODOR RELJIC to investigate what makes us so keen to commemorate political figures

Sculptor Noel Galea Bason (right)
Sculptor Noel Galea Bason (right)

Monuments have a way of getting people talking. But they kind of ask for it, don't they? Preening as if to say, 'I am historical, I am important', they call for our attention and demand our respect just by virtue of being there.

It's not surprising, therefore, that a monument to a divisive figure like former Labour firebrand Prime Minister Dom Mintoff will set tongues wagging almost instantly after it's announced. Perhaps equally unsurprising is the fact that more than one monument to Mintoff is currently in the pipeline.

Though the Labour Party has officially unveiled its statue of choice, as designed by veteran sculptor Noel Galea Bason, the 'Ghaqda Duminku Mintoff' beat them to the hype last week, with plans to honour Mintoff in his own hometown of Bormla.

Mooting the idea that not one, not two, but three statues of Mintoff would be in the offing on Ghaqda's own initiative, its chairman, Josef Grech, proudly defended the association's integrity, remaining unfazed by the fact that the Labour Party has yet to officially recognise the association.

"We don't need any approval. Mintoff worked tirelessly for the whole country; he belongs to all of us. His famous slogan of 'Malta first and foremost' confirms this," Grech said.

'Mintoff belongs to all of us' says one thing above all: we're not just talking about a person here. The most commonly uttered cliché you hear about Mintoff is that people either 'loved him or hated him'. This already suggests a larger-than-life presence - someone who can only be experienced in extremes.

But a statue or monument is bound to cement (no pun intended) whatever reputation a politician may have even further. Literally freezing a particular interpretation of history - or rather, historical figures - in time, monuments don't allow for ambiguity: what you see is what you get.

But what you 'get' in this case, can be extremely loaded.

The flow of history

Though Ghaqda's sketches for their take on the Mintoff monument - not officially endorsed by the Labour Party but overseen by Transport Minister Joe Mizzi during a press conference - go all out in aiming to depict Mintoff as a firebrand reformer, the PL's chosen sculpture is a far more sober affair.

Rather than placing Mintoff on a plinth festooned with archetypal figures recalling a nostalgic view of 'idyllic' Maltese life, Galea Bason's design - selected from its competitors by the Labour Party - opted for a quieter take on the former prime minister, depicting him in a calm, collected pose and draping him in 'Oxfordian' attire. It's clearly a younger Mintoff than some (most?) may remember, and it's miles away from the rabble-rousing reformer donning his trademark belt buckle.

Galea Bason suspected that the latter version of Mintoff's public personality would be a knee-jerk inspiration for many of his fellow sculptors, and he opted for a less flamboyant approach partly to gain an edge on the competition.

"Assuming that most entrants would probably be seduced by the fiery, gesticulating figure portrayed in most photos, I opted for the thinking politician, believing that in the end it could be more acceptable to a wider range of the population," Galea Bason said when contacted by MaltaToday.

Asked what he thinks about the fact that more than one monument to Mintoff may be dotting the island, Galea Bason was refreshingly frank: "I only hope the authorities will not allow amateurish rubbish; there is so much of that already."

But though a restrained approach to such a famously raucous figure is perhaps instantly commendable, not everyone was enthusiastic about the Labour Party's choice.

Former Nationalist MP Michael Falzon has complained that, in fact, such a selective take on local history leaves far, far too much out.

Writing in today's edition of MaltaToday (see page 21), Falzon says that Galea Bason's design "probably does [Mintoff] more credit than he deserves".

"So Labour has chosen to celebrate Dom Mintoff's memory in a way that, perhaps, most expresses his original political spirit: the spirit that a later Mintoff practically abandoned when he gradually assumed more importance than the party he led and played havoc with the democratic principles that were part and parcel of the soul of his party as envisaged by those who founded it," Falzon writes.

Clearly, you can't please everyone. But neither can you blame people for piping up when they feel like monuments are misrepresenting history. Because, as anthropologist Elise Billiard suggests, they may be the most public, the most tactile form of history we are confronted with on a daily basis.

"Monuments are political tools in many ways. By choosing to portray a limited part of the past, monuments make history, and history is always an interpretation of the past as influenced by the interests of the present," Billiard says, adding that this process may also omit significant parts of the past.

Billiard, who lectures at the University of Malta, also contends that monuments to political figures are a particularly Western phenomenon, given our culture's predilection for hero worship and even, perhaps, the way we process the notion of time.

"We tend to believe in the 'one man made it all happen' mythologies. As if Mintoff - to stick to this one example - was not a product of his time, like all of us. As if he could have done it on his own," Billiard says, while underlining that this phenomenon is definitely not limited to Malta.

But perhaps monuments serve an even deeper - if, ironically enough, invisible - function in Western culture. According to Billiard, they serve as very obvious 'markers' for the way we section off periods of time.

"If we are to take public monuments as a materialisation of history, it's no coincidence that they are also particularly numerous in Western societies. The modern conception of time is linear. So we need great stories and myths to create history as we know it - history as it is embodied by monuments."

Paradoxically, perhaps, in striving to represent the essence of Mintoff, a monument simply places him alongside his other, now-deceased colleagues. Abandoned to the ebb and flow of time, perhaps Mintoff can finally become 'for everyone'...

Mintoff was not just a political figure. Mintoff was a giant . If anyone deserves a monument ,it is him and not the pipsqueaks who came before and after him.He wasn't one to award himself honours or presidencies,so it is only right we do it for him.