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Basking in the original sin | Gabriel Buttigieg

A quirky piece of juvenilia by a now-renowned local playwright, the 24-page chapbook – an illustrated blend of prose and poetry – Alfred Buttigieg’s ‘Dik il-Qtajra’, first (self) published in 1983, is now being thrust back into the spotlight by his son Gabriel Buttigieg, whose upcoming exhibition takes its cue from his father’s sexually explicit and somewhat nihilistic booklet  

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
3 November 2017, 7:51am
Gabriel Buttigieg: 'Everything boils down to sex and the need to survive'
Gabriel Buttigieg: 'Everything boils down to sex and the need to survive'
What led you to collaborate with your father on this project? And how much of a collaboration was it, in fact? 

The book Dik il-Qtajra (The Droplet) was published in 1983, long before I was born. From an early age I used to pick this book and go through it. I always found it fascinating and at the same time rather shocking. It’s the themes, the ideas and feelings in it rather than the book itself that have always fascinated me. This isn’t a collaboration. The book is more an inspiration which led me to create a series of drawings and paintings based on the book’s themes – anger, helplessness, violence, sarcasm, egocentricity. Much of what it said made me think about our origins, both as human beings and as individuals. Its strong insistence that our sexual drives and selfishness are molded into us from the very beginning resonated with me. No, my father and I never had any formal conversation about the book. It’s more that I’ve always been aware of certain traits in human nature, as he has been.

 

Why was your father’s chapbook censored back in the ‘80s? And how do you both feel about returning to it now? Does it feel like Malta is truly ‘ready’ to embrace that which it had previously censored? 

It’s a very small, short book, just 24 pages long, self-published, handwritten, and illustrated with doodle-type drawings. The public libraries refused to put it on their shelves. Bookshops refused to stock it, my father used to tell me. He used to go round bookshops himself and none of them would touch it with a bargepole. They were all afraid to sell it. One page they found especially shocking included a holy picture of the Virgin Mary where the unborn child is pleading to her to protect him, rather than protect his mother, during labour. 

Baby 2 (from Babies series) by Gabriel Buttigieg
Baby 2 (from Babies series) by Gabriel Buttigieg
Baby 6 (from Babies series) by Gabriel Buttigieg
Baby 6 (from Babies series) by Gabriel Buttigieg
They were shocked by the language used and some of the illustrations. I suppose things have changed a bit now. In fact, a couple of years ago, the National Library in Floriana asked my father for a copy. 

But in the early 80s I suppose we weren’t prepared for such works, both as regards language and themes. However, my father says he used to give the book away for free and pass it on to friends, copies changed a lot of hands, and it became quite well-known in the 80s. To tell you the truth, I’ve always dreamt of resurrecting this book. It’s a pity such an uncommon work never received the exposure it deserved. 

This is why I decided that for my third solo exhibition, I’d share my response to it with the public. I also felt this was the right time because I’m now close to the age my father was when he wrote the book. He was 22. I am 24. 

 

Is this the first time you’re adapting words into images and if so, how did you find this process? Given that the book itself is already illustrated, how did you seek to make your own mark on it, as it were?

It’s not a question of adapting words into images but more of trying to capture the general mood of the book. I didn’t set out to illustrate it anew, at least not for now. But I’ve always been haunted – or better still, hounded – by the themes in it. My father’s personality emerges strongly in this book. It’s there in his later works too, but unlike most of his other works, Dik il-Qtajra is not a play, so his essence is palpable here. 

Whereas in earlier exhibitions my works were based on reality, in this one they feed on fiction and the imagination. I tried to make these imagined moments look like snapshots, spontaneous and transient. That’s why there’s a greater attention to the lines, which I’ve always loved a great deal. 

Dik il-Qtajra 1 (from Dik il-Qtajra series) by Gabriel Buttigieg
Dik il-Qtajra 1 (from Dik il-Qtajra series) by Gabriel Buttigieg
DIk il-Qtajra 10 (from Dik il-Qtajra series) by Gabriel Buttigieg
DIk il-Qtajra 10 (from Dik il-Qtajra series) by Gabriel Buttigieg
DIk il-Qtajra 11 (from Dik il-Qtajra series) by Gabriel Buttigieg
DIk il-Qtajra 11 (from Dik il-Qtajra series) by Gabriel Buttigieg
DIk il-Qtajra 12 (from Dik il-Qtajra series)
DIk il-Qtajra 12 (from Dik il-Qtajra series)
 

What themes and particular images did you find interesting enough to adapt into the visual medium? 

My works have always had a strong psychological element. If a subject leaves me cold, I’m not interested in interpreting it. As for this exhibition, it was interesting to fuse my mind with my father’s in expressing our attitudes towards human nature. Some of the works are in colour, many are monochrome. They give a taste of the book and convey the ideas at its heart – that we have no say in who our parents are, yet the genes they pass on to us determine us completely.

Our personality is forged the very moment we are conceived, and it is forged to be self-centred. Babies, children, though of course innocent in the sense that they are pre-moral, need to survive and therefore instinctively put themselves first, before their parents. I know it sounds pessimistic, but that’s how I see it, and that’s the portrait of humanity that Dik il-Qtajra paints. The man and the woman are consumed by their lust, while the child, as I depict it, is fantasising about satisfying its own sexual needs when it is older. 

The way I see it, everything boils down to sex and the need to survive. 

Honesty and instinct are crucial elements in my work. They make it what it is and give it immediacy. That’s why I had a problem with the University of Malta, because their intention seemed to be to use art for intellectual ends, for artists to make some intellectual statement and display how au fait they are with the latest developments in aesthetic theory and philosophy. What I want to do is blast the canvas apart. I want to trigger memory, hunger, passion, things all human beings understand. 

 

Do you envision more collaborations with your father in the future? 

Yes, we will be collaborating in the future. We’ll be working on a new edition of Dik il-Qtajra which will be entirely illustrated by me. I’ve just illustrated the front cover of my father’s collected plays in English (translated from Maltese) which will be published shortly and launched in December. I also intend to make a set of prints for Dik il-Qtajra and illustrate it page by page. I believe in his work and in the importance of the themes he has explored all throughout his life.

Dik il-Qtajra’ & ‘Babies’ Series of works on paper by Gabriel Buttigieg will be on display at Iniala5, Mosta from November 22 to December 9  

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...
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