A Maltese ceramist living in Denmark
Having left Malta almost 20 years ago to settle in Denmark, Maltese ceramist Tony Briffa (b. 1959) hasn’t renounced his roots as they sometimes come up as themes that he interprets through the ceramic medium.
Modern Maltese ceramics as an artform owes a lot to Gabriel Caruana who wrested the medium out of its traditional roots of craft and investigated thoroughly its potential as an expressive artistic language on its own merits through an ongoing research that exploited its possibilities. Caruana’s students were numerous and Briffa became one of the most enterprising among them.
Caruana always encouraged Briffa as a student to pursue his path and to explore the Megalithic culture of our islands. This had intrigued Briffa since childhood and he recalls: “I was inspired by the Megalithic artefacts, the goddess in particular. I have been interpreting the goddess sculptures, symbols and spirals included, since my days as a student of Gabriel Caruana who encouraged me to persevere. My Mother Earth represents the Mother Nature, our earth that gave us life and, in return, Mankind insists on its destruction.”
Caruana even offered Briffa the opportunity to fire the mother goddess sculptures at the former’s Balzan studio as the authorities at the Tarġa Gap School which he was attending weren’t too partial to the naked terracotta deities.
Briffa has explored Malta’s Temple Period’s archaeological motifs in 1990s exhibitions in Malta and has continued this research into Malta’s cultural roots up to the present day. He muses: “After 40 odd years, I still get inspired by this beautiful work of art done by our ancient ancestors.”
Playfulness and the passage of time are integral aspects of Briffa’s oeuvre. The artist juxtaposes, redefines and comes up with original narratives, creatures and formations. One can see this as an attempt at reclassification and recontextualisation.
“Frankly, I do intuitively reinterpret images and shapes from my memory. However, while working, the thought process is not a deeply introspective one as this would interfere with the creative process, hampering it and the result would be overdone, something which I wish to avoid,” the ceramist says.
Clays, materials and firings are variables over which a ceramist cannot exert complete control. The process evolves organically, originating from an abstract shape which then is transformed into the finished product, which always entails a careful evaluation of the possible ways forward in the execution of the piece.
A straightforward interpretation by the viewer is something that Briffa tries to avoid as he’s not interested in the simplification. The ceramist playfully eases out his hybrid creatures from a clump of clay, caressing unto them a life of their own which, at times, leaves their creator nonplussed.
“I always try to make my work as ambiguous as possible. I believe that, considering that we are continuously bombarded by images, art has to have an immediate attraction to get the viewer’s attention. Naturally, it must also have content, which you can only sink in by taking time in examining and studying the piece,” Briffa exclaims.
There is an urge in me to be minimalistic in my work
One can’t help but notice the strong element of design in Briffa’s oeuvre, leading one to wonder if indeed the artist’s move to Denmark has contributed to this remarkable quality in his work. Denmark, one of the cradles of Scandinavian design, is the country of iconic designers like Hans Wegner, the creator of very idiosyncratically-designed furniture, and Eero Aarnio, whose toys and furniture for children embrace strong, minimalist but intriguing and playful design elements.
“There is an urge in me to be minimalistic in my work. Maybe, living in Denmark might have generally influenced me, however, I am not acquainted with Danish designers. Sometimes, I feel that their work and solutions are so cold and immune to emotions. I follow the ceramic international scene, admiring the different styles of many artists. What is being done and experimented in clay today is amazing. I aim for that aesthetic level,” he enthuses.
Taking part in specialised exhibitions and ceramic biennials serves as a litmus test for Briffa. As the Italian saying goes: Tutto il mondo è paese and he finds that the appreciation for his work in Denmark is restricted to a very limited audience, just as in Malta. However, his different foreign style appeals to collectors.
A love, an obsession for living creatures and the sea (he takes walks to the sea all year round) has inspired him along the years. Besides Aarnio, Briffa’s sculptures of animals also evoke Italian sculptor’s Rembrandt Bugatti’s similarly-themed work. Bugatti’s love for animals and his observing them at length to religiously study their morphologies and behaviour manifested itself in the sleek bronzes that captured their ‘malleable’ idiosyncrasies.
He also attributes this love to the first book that he read from cover to cover when he was 10 years old.
“Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals affected me so much that I have to admit it also weighed in its influence on my artistic work. In another life, I would like to be a marine biologist, even though it would be a depressing one considering what lies in stalk for our seas,” Briffa mournfully adds.
One can conjecture an artistic dialogue between Briffa’s Whimsical I, Whimsical III and Insect and Maltese sculptor Thomas Scerri’s own series of metal and wood sculptures. Scerri delivers an environmental message through a recombination of diverse elements into a somewhat menacing new thing of beauty.
But Briffa insists that this artistic conversation is entirely coincidental: “I do not know Thomas really, I am an old friend of his dad, Paul, a very valid artist and teacher. Frankly, I am aware of Thomas’s work which I like a lot; maybe this is the reason why we are both working in the same vein. I do not intend to deliver a message via my work but it would be great if people find hidden messages in it. I do not want to preach, I’m only an artist here and not a teacher. However, I am very sensitive to the plight of the environment.”
One can surmise that being away from Malta provides Briffa with a more detached viewpoint of the environmental mess that it has been reduced to in the years since his departure to Denmark. One naturally tends to get nostalgic when one leaves one’s place of birth; one craves that past life and those bygone years. However, one questions if such an emotion is legitimate as much of the country’s charm has been destroyed. What was loved has ceased to exist as we have become hellbent on destroying our own identity in a frenzy to get rich in the shortest time possible.
Last May, Briffa participated in a collective, Anthropos, together with Gozitan artists Mario Abela and Victor Agius at ArtHall, in Victoria. The exhibition investigated anthropocentric themes amid a reality in which the traditional existential questions have been replaced by more urgent contemporary ones such as what lies ahead in the aftermath of such pandemic turmoil.
“I follow what is happening in Malta and I am very sad at what is been done to the island. When I visit, I get heartbroken as while staying in San Ġwann, my birthplace, I despair at how it has been completely ruined. I remember l-Imsieraħ as it was known before, a beautiful place with some 40 large families. I do not regret living my childhood there or leaving it now, for that matter. Greed is the main factor causing the mess in our country. But one has to admit that Mankind’s tendency at self-destruction is a global one,” Briffa ruefully concludes.