No time for nostalgia

Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci is looking forward as much as he is looking back, in his new role as Artistic Director for Strait Street, he assures TEODOR RELJIC

Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci: “Strait Street only looks small once you step into it” Photo: Ray Attard
Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci: “Strait Street only looks small once you step into it” Photo: Ray Attard

Appointed artistic director for Strait Street under the auspices of the Valletta 2018 Foundation earlier this week, Art history lecturer, curator Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci appears confident and comfortable in his new post, and if he appears jumpy about its implications, I get a sense that it’s enthusiasm rather than nerves that are talking. 

“My family has quite a history with Strait Street – we were all involved with it in some way, not least my father, who was among the musicians competing for supremacy of the best spot on the street,” Schembri Bonaci said when asked why the Valletta 2018 Foundation approached him in particular for the artistic director spot. 

But while turning Strait Street into a bona fide artistic hub has been something of a dream for Schembri Bonaci since the late ’80s, it doesn’t mean he has a regimented master plan in mind. 

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to start rigidly programming everything to death at this point. Of course, we’ll have a timetable further down the line – you’ll know when certain performers will be performing, and where – but I would love to cultivate a spontaneous spirit. It’s like I’m clutching a bunch of marbles in my hand, and I’ll be throwing them onto Strait Street to see where they’ll land…”

Notwithstanding this ad hoc approach – and the fact that potential early participants are still being drawn up – Schembri Bonaci has strong opinions on the kind of philosophy that should underpin his Strait Street project. Asked about what he thought of the more recent ‘regeneration’ of Strait Street – which saw establishments like Tico Tico, Str.Eat and Loop inject some life back into the street – Schembri Bonaci admits to being “happy, and a little bit jealous” about this development. 

“I’m only jealous because I’ve been wanting to do that myself for quite some time, but didn’t have the financial means to do so!” Schembri Bonaci said, adding that he’s “very happy” that the area has been given a lease of life, and that he would “love” to work hand in hand with the private sector on his project. 

“However, I must admit I am a bit wary of this tendency to copy the 1950s and ’60s,” he said, referring to the overarching war/post-war aesthetic that informs the milieu the majority of the new establishments in Strait Street. “It runs the risk of becoming trendy in a negative way. And while I understand why it exists, we have to find a way of dealing with it…”

The best way of “dealing” with this, Schembri Bonaci suggests, is to recognise that a place is defined by its “spirit”. 

“In this case, the ‘spirit’ of Strait Street has a lot to do with live entertainment, and I think it would be a mistake if these establishments eschew live music altogether. Because apart from contributing to the vibrant atmosphere of the place, the competitiveness between musicians could also have a positive financial impact on these establishments…”

In the true spirit of a ‘hub’ – a term Schembri Bonaci acknowledges as being ripe for trendy exploitation – the project will seek to incorporate various art forms, and Schembi Bonaci admits to being at something of an “advantage” in this regard, since his interdisciplinary professional life already supplies him with a hefty contacts book from creatives of various stripes: from musicians to poets to visual artists.

“But this doesn’t mean I’ll be limiting myself to people I’m familiar with – not at all! But it goes to show what my process is like – first I’ll consult with whoever is close at hand, and hopefully they will lead me to fresh talents…” 

More artists and performers, however, may mean that more spaces need to be opened up. And this is yet another small mission that Schembri Bonaci would like to undertake within the context of his new post. 

“It’s frustrating: there are plenty of good spaces in Strait Street that are boarded up and not in use, and that could make for great venues. The problem here of course is that they’re owned by the government. But I’m a lawyer myself, and I know how this could potentially be circumvented: if the government will allow the building to be classified as ‘in uso’ [in use] by any individual artist, it would be a great compromise: the artist will be charged with taking care of the venue – it’s in their interest not to have any water leaking from the ceilings for example – and the government would still retain the property.”

Because as Schembri Bonaci reminds us, “Strait Street only looks small until you actually step into it…”

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