For Dennis Vella

If you wanted to be pedantic, Dennis Vella and I would not have been considered to be ‘close friends’. Not in the sense that we met regularly every week. But we were friends over a long period of time. And when we did meet, often bumping into each other in Valletta, or at some concert, it was difficult not to get engrossed in some conversation on art, food, love, music and the movers and shakers in Malta who would occasionally rudely interrupt Dennis’s world.

For a short period of time, when I was setting up Heritage Malta, I was technically his boss. He was patiently waiting for some bureaucratic mountain to be moved so he could finally do what he was born to do: get people to understand that modern art in Malta deserved a museum and that artists deserved a voice, a friend, a scholar to put what they did into context.

Everyone has a personal picture of Dennis. Mine is goggle specs, a book on Sciortino seemingly permanently tucked under his arm, even in the middle of a drunken party. Vague, smiling, wispy, gentle, anarchic, elegant, even dapper, sometimes. A fine chef. Owner of a Pandora’s treasure chest of art at his house – many of them artists he had discovered, encouraged, sponsored. He bought my brother Shaun’s piece called ‘Three White Scum’ for the museum just as racism started to rear its ugly head in this country.

A brave guy, easy to forget, particularly if he came to stay with you – because he could bury himself in a book or spend hours admiring something in your house that you had forgotten you owned. Never ever boring. He once cooked this incredible lamb casserole, and being the only single guy at the lunch party, kept a spare seat for a Russian icon he had just bought from some antiquarian in London.

Now he’s gone, at 56, I just hope someone will have the grace to see his lifetime project to its conclusion. And set up a Museum of Modern Art in Malta, in his memory.

So many of us have lost a person that in some way, contributed to making our lives more interesting – and this country, that much more bearable.

Yesterday, as I was preparing to leave my office, my eye caught a Norbert Attard print I have hanging on the wall. It’s an old present from Dennis, to coincide with my return to Malta, all those years ago. It’s called ‘Intelligence of the Heart.’

I’m just so glad I bumped into you, Dennis, over the past 30 years.

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