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.
WE are living in a world that constitutes an infinite surge of objects and like the obesity epidemic that afflicts most Western cultures; the avalanche has never been bigger. The ‘object’ in today’s age is one that takes on many forms yet function seems to be very short lived and no sooner that an object is born does it become obsolete in replacement of a bigger, better or bolder brother or sister. Our relationship with these objects, with our possessions, is one fundamentally tied with identity and how we see the world. So what are we to make of a surge of objects which have lost their functions and identities and taken out of their habitual contexts? Within such a context does artist Tony Briffa base his practice and through a re-collection of his work, he challenges us to reflect on our material culture and ask questions.
Curated by Vince Briffa and currently on display at Spazju Kreattiv, Re-Collection exhibits a range of ceramic works from sculptural objects, vessels and wall-hanging pieces that have been assembled together in a thought-provoking manner. At its core, this recollection pursues a new discourse of objects which have been dislodged from their familiar contexts and placed within another in order to rethink meaning and identity. Speaking with the artist, he tells me how he has essentially tried to re-assemble his experiences into one and how he has used this exercise to carry on questioning the function-form paradigm within objects. Reflecting on the choice of title, the action of “re-collecting” brings to mind an act of organisation or re-structuring of a series of work, but Briffa tells me how this re-organisation conversely aims to disrupt his audience and challenge them in the hope that will go down the W Re-think. An exhibition of ceramics by Tony Briffa 2 artists’ similar path. He talks enthusiastically about his work as he walks with me through the galleries, picking up pieces here and there and turning them over in his hands as if also turning thoughts over in his mind – he is anxious to get back to work and continue exploring this theme. It is clear therefore that this exhibition is about the present and future as much as it is about a re-collection of the past.
Briffa’s artistic process is one of borrowing and re-contextualisation, particularly the borrowing of symbolic significance from his local roots which he translates into new forms. This process has been present in art since the early twentieth century when Picasso and Braque reassigned objects from a non-art context into their work and Duchamp realised his ready-mades, most famously his Fountain. Yet one can trace this practice throughout the century up until contemporary years. A sculptor by nature, Briffa always departs from form and seeks to create movement, whilst colour comes in later, particularly through the demand of the ceramic medium. He is in total command of his technique yet there is a struggle that takes place between what he wishes to express and what his medium will offer him. This struggle, accompanied by a constant decision-making process, is precisely what transforms craft-work into art-work.
Throughout the three galleries, I am relieved to find the necessary space between one work and the next; the physical space to walk up closely to one piece yet also take in the whole congregation, which in turn allows for a mental space to digest the challenge of each work. Moreover there is a rhythm and balance to the display of the re-collection, thus even the curation invites you to question. Upon entering the exhibition, one is greeted by the table pieces which at first glance seem pose the simplest of questions. These objects of furniture have been raped of their conventional function and simplified in form where the artist then forced new meaning; an image of the human eye within a triangle, symbols of religion and superstition. He imposes the same images onto sculpted iron-shapes. But how truly ‘new’ are these meanings? In age of infinite objects I feel that the problem tends more towards a loss of meanings in exchange for a desire towards decoration and aesthetics. Briffa is conscious of this preference and later provides us with polka-dotted iron-shapes, blinding the eyes so instead of imploring meaning he is simply being playful. However, returning to his eyed tables and irons, the artist has created a portal into an infinity of meanings which we are losing the ability to connect with; an infinity that stretches across the millennia from the altars of Ħaġar Qim to Horus’ eye on the Maltese luzzu to more modern designs. In sacrificing functionality, as these tables rest on prism-shaped legs which give them 3 movement rather than stability, Briffa reminds us to open our minds to the flexibility of meaning and not restrict ourselves to singular conventions.
Likewise, the two-dimensional wall panels further strengthen this concern with function and decoration. These nine-squared arrangements juxtapose the Mediterranean culture of story-tiles with an unfolding comic-strip narrative. Unlike the three-dimensional works, these tiles remain somewhat true to their form and function leaving the challenge to rest more on the surface that bears them. Briffa is here once more concerned with creating images and not simply colours and makes sure his photographic cut-outs are visually read. These tiles or wall panels, forcing me to conceive them in their two-dimensional element, made me reflect on Maltese tile designs, how they have become a trend for their decorative function and perhaps lost a historic and symbolic meaning.
In the last gallery of the exhibit one finds a trio of large plates, echoing a touch of the artists’ mentor Gabriel Caruana. These plates are placed on low plinths, very close to ground level and here we see a stimulating suggestion made by the curator for the challenge in these works is in their placement, or rather displacement, as we are not used to functioning a plate in such a context. A series of figurative works may also be found in this gallery where Briffa presents Man in his most simplified and universal form, making reference to the morality play ‘Everyman’ and suggesting that the viewer should easily identify with as well as the spiral symbolising infinity. Finally, the three iron-shaped pieces of ceramics which Briffa refers to as clunks of homeland are the simplest in form of works in this re-collection, yet in their hybrid and almost unfinished state they resonate an intimacy purely through their simplistic lines.
This re-collection evidently reveals the artists’ concern with the form-function paradigm and how he far removes his objects from the comfort of their presently accepted context in order to question the very act and purpose of their creation. Alongside the curator, the two have created a multi-dimensional exhibition where both the ceramic work of Tony and the curation of Vince have become media through which the audience are challenged to re-think.
Re-Collection is on display till the 8th of May at the upper galleries of Spazju Kreattiv.
Sarah Chircop May 2016