Edging the secular from the religious | Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci

With preparations for the 2015 Mdina Biennale already underway, we speak to curator Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci about this ambitious celebration of modern and contemporary Maltese art which, as a “lover of paradox”, Schembri Bonaci is keen to move the traditionally religious-themed event into a more secular direction.

Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci. Photo by Charlene Valentina Giordimaina
Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci. Photo by Charlene Valentina Giordimaina

During our animated conversation about its merits, history and - inevitably - its future, Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci is keen to assure me that the Mdina Biennale is more than just a long-running collective exhibition dropped slap-bang in the middle of Mdina.

Schembri Bonaci, an artist and academic at the University of Malta, was not, it seems, a natural choice to head the Biennale, owing to his own reservations about the initiative and the way it was run in the past.

"The first thing we should mention is the theme of the upcoming Biennale. Instead of being organised under the banner of 'The Mdina Biennale of Sacred Art', this new edition - set for 2015 - will have the theme 'Christianity, Spirituality and The Other... because the 'Other' is very important to me..."

This does not mean that Schembri Bonaci, in his role as a curator for the Biennale - which will also include international participants - will be ignoring its traditionally religious roots.

"Many have expressed surprise at the fact that I'll be heading the Biennale this time around, as I've always been quite vocal about my anti-clerical leanings! People have been bemused by this even when looking at my own work. 'If you're so critical of the Church, why do you insist on painting crucifixes?', they would ask. But the fact is that - whether I agree with its tenets or not - Christianity is very much part of the culture I grew up in, so it will inevitably inform my work.

"With the Biennale, what I really want to do is create a bridge with the past and the present. I'm not interested in accepting mediocre religious work - but high quality work which is also thought provoking."

Mediocrity, sadly a frequent watchword in the sphere of local art, was in fact one of the things that has kept Schembri Bonaci away from the Biennale in the past.

"When they asked me to be a judge for last year's edition of the Biennale, I decided to drop out after seeing the works presented... the work presented was so mediocre that I didn't accept any of it."

Bracing himself for the worst, Schembri Bonaci was pleasantly surprised to discover that his feedback was not only appreciated, but acted upon in the boldest possible way.

"I assumed my comments would create conflict but in fact, they decided to annul the Biennale on the strength of them! I thought this was going to be the end of the story, but then they actually approached me to take up the Biennale in the future."

Schembri Bonaci accepted to curate the 2015 edition of the Biennale on the condition that he allows for "no interference".

"I don't mean to sound presumptuous, but we must remember that in art, there is no democracy. Only artistic criteria will determine participation, and in the end it is I who get to choose what goes in and what doesn't. And I intend to be draconian," he says with a smile.

Schembri Bonaci is currently keeping himself busy by engaging in discussions with local artists, so as to determine how their participation at the Biennale could best be calibrated.

"I'm making the mistake of meeting a lot of people at once, and of not refusing anyone outright! But that's the way I work - I like to have a large pool to start off with..."

There are, however, certain elements in place - conceptually and thematically speaking - which will seek to root the artistic direction of the festival. Seeking to fuse contemporary-as-can-be installation art with high-quality traditional art forms like painting (recalling the modern era), Schembri Bonaci has chosen the figures of Karmenu Mangion and Joseph Kalleya as symbolic standard-bearers for the 2015 Biennale.

"Karmenu Mangion and Josef Kalleya are two of the most important 'fathers' of Maltese modern art. Both have a strong spiritual connection and a strong modernist idiom and language. In fact, I am thinking of either including them both, or maybe choosing one of them for the 2015 Biennale, and showing the other in 2017. We are still discussing the issue.

"Karmenu Mangion is an incredible tour-de-force in Maltese art: violent expressionist with Fauvist colour; 'savage' but excellent drawing, challenging Cezanne and Rouault; his link between abstract art and Maltese megalithic architecture brings him in the forefront of European modern art. His spirituality permeates in all his works and his religious works are subtle and even subversive. Greatly underestimated, for obvious reasons. An excellent etcher and engraver. Despite his legendary modesty and humility he is a giant in art. No art study, no artist can escape his overpowering 'gaze'."

Clearly, there's a lot to play around with. And Schembri Bonaci is adamant about maintaining a sensitive approach to the general atmosphere of the Biennale.

"We won't just be using the underground space at the Mdina Cathedral - a beautiful space, to be sure - but we'll also be positioning artworks at the refectory, and even the space in front of the Cathedral and Museum. In addition, we'll also be making use of De Piro Palace, and the Carmelite Convent.

"The idea, really, is to create a 'micro map' of the place. I really don't want to have works jumbled together. Because every work kills the other..." 

Dear Jessica, Although Dr. Schembri Bonaci's words may seem severe, it is evident throughout the article that he is trying to combat the mediocre standards which predominate in Maltese art exhibitions, especially those dealing with religious subject matter. For a coherent programme to be carried out, a curator/artistic director with a strong vision and intellectual preoccupation must determine the theme and selection criteria. The most successful contemporary art biennales were always led by curators with vehement ideologies and clear projections for their ambitions. Contrary to your understanding, this doesn't mean that the biennale will not feature stylistic variations, but that the exhibited works will be of a high standard, and thus will imbue the event with much artistic and intellectual value.
“Only artistic criteria will determine participation, and in the end it is I who get to choose what goes in and what doesn't. And I intend to be draconian," he says with a smile.” With all due respect to Mr Schembri Bonaci, I do not think that a one man jury is a good thing especially when it concerns a collective exhibition. Different artists who work in different styles cannot be subjected to scrutiny by a possibly biased jury consisting of only one person. What he says, albeit accompanied by a smile, smacks too much of self-importance and artists generally do not take kindly to such an attitude. It would be interesting to see what “artistic criteria” he will apply to carry out his draconian judgement!