A yearning for instinctive longings | Gabriel Buttigieg

Painter Gabriel Buttigieg returns ‘The Beach’ onto its native shores, after the titular series debuted in Gdansk, Poland last year. He speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about the primordial Mediterranean undercurrents that inform this latest foray from the prolific young artist

Gabriel Buttigieg. Photo by Clint Scerri Harkins
Gabriel Buttigieg. Photo by Clint Scerri Harkins

Could you jog our memory about the ‘Beach’ series, and its trip to Poland?

The Beach started off following a conversation with Ambassador of Malta to Poland, Dr John Paul Grech. He had a strong desire to fortify the connection that exists between both countries, both of which enjoy a familiarity and intimacy with the sea, albeit in different ways.

I employed large-scale paintings with a Mediterranean feel, to transmit the heat of the islands onto a colder context, with the idea that both Malta and Gdansk serve as ports. It was an amazing journey, wherein I was supported by a number of individuals who were pitching in, such as Prof. Vince Briffa, who guided me in my artistic enterprise, Sarah Farrugia, who handled the administrative and managerial part of the work, and important people in my life who were always there, so that this work could see the light of day. However, this trip to Poland would not have been possible with the invaluable support and funding by the Arts Council Malta.

What kind of reaction did you get when you exhibited the work in Gdansk? And how does it feel to finally be bringing The Beach back to its native shores?

The Beach series started off from archaic and primitive roots, which exude a deterministic, visual spectacle. These works transmit my fascination towards the tribal, which I naturally include in my work, both on an artistic and an intellectual level. Hence, my work is grounded in the psychological, the literary, and the spiritual. Midway through the series, there was a shift to a darker space. These dark demons probably arose as a reaction both to the space in which the paintings were to be exhibited, and my roots, on a personal and a cultural level.

The Mediterranean element is felt throughout, as is the frantic and turbulent pace of the work, with an undertone of sensuality and fragility – all universal human concerns. Mediterranean themes include the allegory of the nymphs, the local landscape, and the sea, which I have a tendency of returning to, which are all part of the Maltese ecology. It will be interesting to see this collection reunited. I will be curious to see the reaction to the paintings in a Maltese context, especially with respect to the visual impact of the phallic works, which in Poland was very well-received.

‘Woman and Man’ from the Primordial series
‘Woman and Man’ from the Primordial series

Your work is both figurative and symbolic, with this collection in particular being rich in ritualistic potency. How do you reconcile the two, and do you think there is something particularly ‘Maltese’ about it?

I would not hazard to say it has a “Maltese” theme. I have always felt myself to be a universal being. However, from the local context, I have definitely absorbed the huge impact of the sea and the fact that Malta is an island, hence the sense of isolation. Yet, I consider this to be a universal theme, found in all cultures. I am greatly attracted to the European and the tribal, which gives my work a more universal feel, as the artist is always eager to research and learn from other cultures. The metaphorical and physical love I have always felt for the sea is evident in my work. I have always tried to adopt existential, deterministic, and liberating symbols, which at the same time emit cynicism and isolation, in the context of the sea, to create a human multi-layered narrative. This I have done as a reaction to societal impositions, as a mocking comment towards the universe, as a turning towards primordial wishes, and as a yearning to instinctive longings.

Has the covid-19 pandemic affected your work in any way at all? What kind of short- and long-term impact do you think it will have on your work in particular, and on visual arts in Malta in general?

This particular period has been an opportunity for reflection, for refinement of the creative and technical aspects of my art. I was always a prolific artist, fuelled with a burning urgency to finish my work. The space that this social shutdown has given me is valuable, as I have had the opportunity to reflect on my paintings, in their totality. During the last months, I have launched a series entitled “Lands”, which glorifies the fecundity and the physical fluid reality of the feminine body. I have also started a creative project, which is still in its very initial phases, which will lead to an exhibition in Piacenza in Italy.

This project started in the space of darkness, in a liminal space where transformation occurs, and where the work moves from the familiar to the unknown.

‘The Arrival’ from the Beach series
‘The Arrival’ from the Beach series

What do you hope that the visual arts scene can learn once and if the pandemic well and truly subsides?

Every crisis is a challenge and an opportunity for growth. We should take the time to analyse the situation and to strengthen ourselves and our work. On a personal level, I also reflected on the current situation. I took the time to do up my studio, seeing this as a new chapter. It is a space to work alone, in solitude, and eventually one would be eager to engage in collaboration and dialogue. Every crisis is a platform for positive things for an artist eager and curious to search and study.

What’s next for you?

In the short term, I will continue working on this new series which will be exhibited in Italy. I am already very interested in exploring new mediums such as sculpture, which has always fascinated me. I also intend to continue my studies, both of the aesthetic form and within the intellectual domain. Finally, I wish to continue searching for new opportunities, locally and abroad, so as to pitch my work towards a wider audience.

The Beach will be exhibited at The Splendid, Strait Street, Valletta from July 18 to 25