Bonnici on the rails: artist walks the democratic barrier outside Parliament

Artist Keit Bonnici’s performance act highlights the complexities of democracy, institution, state, public and collective public memory

Keit Bonnici, ‘Thirty-six Millimetre’ 2023, Freedom Square, Valletta (Photo: Joanna Demarco)
Keit Bonnici, ‘Thirty-six Millimetre’ 2023, Freedom Square, Valletta (Photo: Joanna Demarco)

Artist Keit Bonnici’s balancing act on the Valletta barriers that keep away protestors since the 2019 political crisis has created a conversation on the implied barrier between citizens and the institution of democracy.

Bonnici, whose perched chair at a Valletta al fresco restaurant on Merchants’ Street in 2020 served as a protest against the occupation of public land, climbed onto the 36mm-wide barriers outside the House of Representatives, and walked across six of them.

The performance is being shown at an exhibition in Vienna.

The barriers have been in place ever since the 2019 crisis provoked outrage and mass protests, leading to the resignations linked to the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. They remain in place four years later.

Bonnici, whose acts of civil protest highlight the gulf between citizen rights and institutional unfairness, highlights the physical barrier being the opposite of what the space outside Malta’s parliament should be serving for.

Bonnici described his performance, ‘Thirty-six Millimeter’, as a performative intervention about the “fragility of democracy”.

“I placed my body on the barriers between the complexities of democracy, institution, state, public and collective public memory,” he told Times of Malta.  “I am questioning the thirty-six millimeter. Why is it there? What does it mean to be there? How is public space thought of? What is Freedom Square?”

In 2021, Bonnici used a personal, handmade postcard to ask Queen Elizabeth II about the prospect of removing the statute of Queen Victoria – her great-great grandmother – from Valletta’s Pjazza Regina. “Although Queen Victoria was known as the grandmother of Europe, many people in Malta view her statue as a sign of oppression. And in the wake of statues being removed in the USA, the debate whether to remove her statue from Valletta has appeared,” Bonnici said.

His response is to send a postcard to Victoria’s great-great granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth, to find out what her thoughts are. Bonnici hand-made the postcard and wrote the message in Maltese.

In 2020 Bonnici erected a wooden chair with unusually long back legs to be able to actually see what’s happening inside the redesigned Suq tal-Belt’s newly elevated terrace. Bonnici’s installation, Perch, was a protest at the gentrification of the Valletta market. “I explained that I wanted to look and grieve at what was stolen from us. They sipped on their beer.”