Lassana masterpiece: gnashing of teeth betrays the frailty of Maltese identity

As we witness the shrill indignation of idiots whose small world has been brought into frame by the audacity of the Lassana portrait, Manuel Farrugia’s artwork reveals the frailty of the Maltese psyche

The work of young Gozitan artist Manuel Farrugia with his representation of the murdered Lassana Cisse at the St George’s Basilica is a work of modern religious art whose contemporaneity is further confirmed by the gnashing of teeth of its detractors.

On 6 April 2019, Lassana Cisse Souleymane, a 42-year-old migrant worker from the Ivory Coast, was killed in a racially-motivated drive-by shooting in Ħal Far. Armed Forces of Malta soldiers Francesco Fenech and Lorin Scicluna were charged with the murder and attempted murder of two other African migrant workers injured in the shooting, along with the attempted murder of another migrant in a hit and run attack the previous February.

Farrugia’s representation of Lassana, on one side held by a priest as he is succoured by the Church, and on the other side a member of the public holding a smartphone, representative of the influence of social media in the spread of news and opinion, is manifesting itself not solely by its mere representation as art, but by the public’s own reaction to his work.

On one hand, we have been reintroduced to the Church’s central role in advancing contemporary notions of Christian social thought, migration itself being a central theme to Francis’s papacy. Only last Sunday, Pope Francis made an impassioned plea to end the practice of returning migrants rescued at sea to Libya and other unsafe countries where they suffer inhumane violence. “I express my closeness to the thousands of migrants, refugees and others in need of protection in Libya,” Francis said. “I never forget you, I hear your cries and I pray for you.”

On the other, the smartphone in this artwork is redolent of the deleterious commentary from detractors and racists incensed at seeing the Church wading into one of the most contentious political debates in Europe – migration, but also identity, specifically of the third-class citizens of our society.

The social media post of triggered firebrand Anton Cutajar displays clearly the high-pitched alarm at seeing a murdered black man represented on the walls of a Maltese church. In him, we see the profanity of those who benefit from unfairness and inequality: a zookeeper whose operations are mired in planning illegalities, a man who organised the counter-protest to the Black Lives Matters remembrance of Lassane himself, a cantankerous racist who thinks Maltese victims of crime are putatively ranked for immortalisation simply because they are white and Maltese.

It this nativist reaction that Farrugia’s artwork reveals unto us: an inexplicable anger foisted into the ether of social media by that very smartphone, and the prejudice of those who dislike the Church for the pointedness of its social conscience, but only revere it for its indulgence for festas, saintly patronage, and Catholic pageantry.

On its own, Farrugia’s art should be showing us the humanity of Lassana and the men and women who like him, flee from persecution, death and poverty across the treacherous Mediterranean to then live inside a modern European society that will consider them as slaves.

But in a society where social media and television amplifies the shrill indignation of idiots whose small world is suddenly brought into frame by the audacity of the Lassana portrait, Farrugia’s artwork reveals the frailty of the Maltese psyche. It is especially foreboding for the time when Daphne Caruana Galizia, a victim of a mafia assassination, will have to be rightfully immortalised with a memorial by the Maltese State.