‘I’m going to start practicing social media distancing’ | Seb Tanti Burlo

Among the many cultural casualties of covid-19 was Seb Tanti Burlo’s exhibition ‘Other Places: Because Let’s Face It We’ve Fucked This One’, which was set to show off the political cartoonist’s more wistful side before the artist and curator Ann Dingli decided to pre-emptively postpone the opening in the interests of public safety. He sits down at a safe distance from TEODOR RELJIC to talk about how the pieces set to be shown carry an added resonance in these quarantined times

The paintings forming part of Seb Tanti Burlo’s ‘Other Places’ series are made up of imaginary fragments of various places the artist had visited in the past
The paintings forming part of Seb Tanti Burlo’s ‘Other Places’ series are made up of imaginary fragments of various places the artist had visited in the past

Now that social distancing has led to the closure of the planned ‘Other Places’ exhibition, would you say that the wistful escapism inherent in the works becomes all the more poignant? With even less fantastical places becoming forcefully ‘othered’, do you see the potential for the works slated for this exhibit to resonate even deeper?

Possibly. I may have created these Other Places as a reaction to the fact that I do not particularly like the world we’ve created for ourselves. Exasperated inequality, short term and myopic infrastructural upgrades, wasteful construction and a horrible dependency on one of the stupidest economic drivers: tourism. Now that people are forced to sit with themselves through self or forced quarantined in their homes, they may begin to come to terms with the fact that maybe the flat they took out a back-breaking loan to purchase ain’t really worth it, or actually makes their quality of life worse than they previously thought. But they may also just not even bother and enjoy their L-shaped sofa they bought from IKEA while wasting away in front of Netflix or social media. Personally, I think I’m going to start practicing some good ol’ fashioned social media distancing.

You’re best known for your satirical cartoons on national media. Was ‘Other Places’ something of a holiday from all that?

No, not a holiday. Perhaps more a revisiting of a younger self. Or another self. I suppose the work, although different to my satirical and political cartoons that are published in the media, dip into the same ink well from which they’re born. Other Places deals with the same issues and problems I deal with in my cartoons, only expressed in a different form. My satirical work is reactionary in its nature. It stems from journalism and current events – it’s a social commentary about a specific moment in time. Other Places is similar as its scenes are reactionary pieces too. Escapist or confrontational, they are places that will never be, but places that I hope to see.

Seb Tanti Burlo. Photo by Simon Tanti Burlo
Seb Tanti Burlo. Photo by Simon Tanti Burlo

Walk us through the actual process of coming up with and designing these ‘other places’. What took precedence as you were thinking them up? Was it the actual architecture and geography, or more of a general mood or atmosphere?

I wouldn’t say there was an actual process to creating the works. Some of these places illustrated in the series have been sitting in my head for some time – they were just waiting for something to bring them out. That something was the paper they’re painted on. Old government issue typewriter paper. A little longer and narrower than a A4 sheet, yellowish with age, flimsy and translucent, with encircled GM water marks over the surface.

I found a stack of them. I drew a line across one with a black ink drafting pen, I liked the way the paper took the ink – clean crisp line, no bleeding. Offhandedly, I ran a brush busting with water colour to remove the excess water and, again, I liked the result. Thin washes of watercolour opened up fairytale landscapes and the thicker application of the colour (to which the paper handled remarkably, to my surprise) allowed me to paint in stark detail.

The architecture and geography within this series of work are parameters painted in to tell a story. All the buildings and surroundings are taken from different countries I’ve travelled to. Places I’ve seen and experienced. The fairy tale atmosphere of the paintings was dictated by the paper, I simply went along with the story.

What were the appealing, perhaps even escapist, characteristics that most clearly motivated you to come up with these other places? What are they ‘other’ to, exactly?

Yes, escaping from this place into these paintings was appealing. I guess that’s why I created them. I got to escape this world and sit down in my studio at my desk, listening to whatever I wanted to, and forget about the world outside me while getting lost in drawing ancient steps or painting leaves on some forgotten tree temple.

Whereas at the same time I am drawing everything from the same reality I am escaping. The vernacular architecture is stolen from scenes I’ve encountered here and there, and landscapes tweaked and exaggerated (or not) to create these Other Places, which when distilled, belong to this place only to be seen in different lights. Are the scenes other to this or other to that? I don’t know, they’re just other places.

The paintings forming part of Seb Tanti Burlo’s ‘Other Places’ series
The paintings forming part of Seb Tanti Burlo’s ‘Other Places’ series

What do you make of the local visual arts scene? What would you change about it?

I suppose there is a scene in as much as there are people that meet up, exchange ideas with each other, drink and dance together, argue amongst ourselves. That’s a scene I guess.What’s to change? The scene is what the scene is at any given moment in time and all I can do is throw my work into the mix. Plus with such luminary characters as Jose Herrera, Jason Micallef and Phyllis Muscat leading the government’s cultural institutions, the visual scene is bright: a carnival of colour. If there is a scene, it is I suppose fragmented, albeit packed with talented individuals both local and foreign.

With the covid-19 pandemic set to stretch into indefinite months, what role do you think artists have to play in bringing comfort, support and enlightenment to the wider population?

I don’t presume to know what an artist’s role is on a ‘normal’ day, let alone during this pandemic. All I can offer is that anyone professing to being an artist knows that their art stems from their own examination of life around them, and that there is something (within me at least) that compels me to mark these observations – be it through drawing, painting, writing – and in other people’s cases – song, music, dance, film. So as long as there is life there will be someone who will examine that life from their point of view and try in their own way to create something.

And if they are compelled like me (from some form of twisted hubris), they will share their work. This may indeed enlighten, comfort and support the wider population, but it could and should also make people feel uncomfortable, question themselves and prod.

But, yes, if I can make somebody laugh at these trying times or bring some form of enlightenment then I guess… job well done.

"Something simple that’s been happening for centuries: if you like an artist and you’ve got the capital, then become a patron to that artist"

But there’s also the matter of artists needing to support themselves while they work. What kind of positive structural changes (institutional, social, cultural) would you hope to see once the current crisis abates?

How should I know? I just paint and draw. I desperately do not want to deal with these issues. There are many people who fetishise over controlling and setting up these aspects about art, I don’t want to have anything to do with it.

Something simple that’s been happening for centuries: if you like an artist and you’ve got the capital, then become a patron to that artist. Stop buying expensive white Audi SUVs, you wankers, and buy art!