A flat of one’s own: two artists paint Gozo in isolation

The unpredictable events of 2020 led artists Sebastian Tanti Burlὸ and Lydia Cecil to a flat in Xagħra. Here they set up a studio overlooking Marsalforn valley, producing works directly inspired by the island of Gozo. Ann Dingli meets them in London to discuss their time on the island.

“We got all our vegetables and fruit from an organic farmer who grew everything very close by. That suddenly became a really important part of our day – that massive, beautiful delivery of gorgeous fruit and vegetables”. Sustenance through lockdown came in different formats for different people. Artists Lydia Cecil and Sebastian Tanti Burlὸ found theirs in work – painting their life as they created distance between themselves and the world they knew pre-lockdown. When the pandemic hit, Burlὸ and Cecil moved to Gozo, far away from the speed and diversity of their typical roaming lives (they met in Florence, Cecil lived briefly in Samoa, Burlὸ in Barcelona and back to Siġġiewi, both now find a common home in London). 

“I was definitely meant to be back in London at the time,” Cecil recounts, recalling the evasive maneuvers she and Burlὸ navigated as a bi-national couple in the pandemic. “We just weren’t really sure of anything – whether [Seb] was going to move to London, or what. So we moved to Gozo. That was the end of September [2020], so Covid was already in full swing”.

“We moved into a flat in Xagħra,” Burlὸ adds, “and then we were alone. Gozo was very quiet during those months, even more so than it usually is. It was a different pandemic experience. We got everything we needed – the weather was spectacular, we went on long bike rides, we ate outside”.

The scene they set invites art historical allusions, recalling archetypal episodes of two artists holing themselves up in remote, picturesque homes to paint and study the choreography and texture of everyday life. Many of those through history were set in contexts of plight; wars, industrial wreckage, political oppression – the pandemic backstory to Cecil and Burlὸ’s hermitic escape could well be evaluated by successors with similar gravitas.

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Text Box: Man of Xagħra, Lydia Cecil, oil on canvas, 2020What Cecil and Burlὸ created while in Gozo are visual records of a silent island land. Their paintings do not touch the pandemic. They record faces, the clothes on their neighbours’ bodies, trees, windmills, birds, donkeys, prickly pears, quiet roads, and blue skies. They exult the attributes of a slower paced life. They present work that – in very different ways – brings honour to subjects that represent something bigger than them. In the way that Jean-François Millet’s Gleaners go about their daily labour, ignorant of their status as ambassadors of the poor. Or how his field workers, slumbering in repose in Noonday Rest, lie in shallow sleep, their working-class dignity held in their sunburnt skin and soil-stained work clothes.   

In a strangely similar way, Cecil and Burlὸ’s work does the same thing. It doesn’t speak of the anxieties of the pandemic. It is not concerned with the physicality of the virus’s impact, save for a face mask pulled below the folded pink chin of a Gozitan woman. Their work instead focuses wholly on Gozo. “As painters, you’re just influenced by what is around you,” Cecil explains. “The characters in the streets, the landscape…”. “You feel like you’re in an imagined scenario,” Burlὸ continues. “You encounter a donkey or a goat – it catches you off guard”.

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Left:Tell me, Lydia Cecil, oil on canvas, 2020; right: R.T.O. Liba, Sebastian Tanti Burlὸ, oil on canvas, 2020

Both artists are accustomed to drawing and painting from life. Cecil studied at the London Atelier of Representational Art (LARA) for three years, a school known for its meticulous, traditional training, where students spend their first year only drawing in pencil, graduating eventually to just two tones, and finally to paint. She considers working from life to be central to her practice, which predominantly explores expression in portraiture, plein air painting and still life compositions. Burlὸ’s training is also steeped in observation. He is a political cartoonist and artist, and holds a degree in Architecture and Urban Studies from the University of Westminster in London. For years he has drawn, painted and created work in ink around current affairs, crying foul on both the macro and micro scales of political and social immoralities.

In Gozo, they both strayed slightly from their typical methodologies. Cecil took up her camera, and painted her subjects later from snapshots she took in the streets. Burlὸ swapped his pen for brush and oils. Both had some adjustments to make. Cecil to the bright Mediterrenean light, manifesting in deeply contrasted shadows on faces, clothes, arms, and legs. Burlὸ to a slower kind of commentary to his usual output (he creates weekly political cartoons for the Sunday Times of Malta).

Text Box: Il-Laring ta' Leon, Sebastian Tanti Burlὸ, oil on canvas, 2020Together, they sacrificed their artistic comfort zones to create both real and imagined scenes of the life that surrounded them. As they reminisce, they frequently return to the subject of food, and the role it played in their Gozitan life. Cecil fondly recounts how they “got to know the person who was growing our vegetables, he would let us know what was available. They were beautiful vegetables – you just wanted to paint them. The oranges were in the season and glorious. They were just coming in. And I couldn’t eat them until [Seb] had painted them! But the truth is, we got to concentrate more on these kinds of things, and maybe it wasn’t even just about food. It was about being conscious about things in your entire existence, your entire life.”

“It kind of reflects the way that we’ve had to press pause on our social and cultural lives,” Burlὸ adds. “We have to take things slower even as we carry on, even as we reopen. We have to take things slower. Because otherwise all bets are off”. 

The joy and lightness in their scenes of everyday emblems is underscored by social commentary. With both artists, the analysis occurs in different modes and at different speeds. With Cecil, the stillness of her subjects, each caught in transitory moments, compels the viewer to contemplate on the legacy of Gozo’s traditional life – whether it will persist with time, or disappear with the people that represent it. With Burlo, the critique is also subtle, and far less overt than his typical work. The barrel of a gun takes up only a tiny portion of a canvas dedicated to a noble blue bird. Cars and cranes appear at a great distance in wider landscape scenes. But they are all still there.

“There are about five construction sites next to each other, just on the street we were living,” recounts Burlὸ, the conversation inevitably concluding with a question on Gozo’s fate. “There was a feeling that the valley that we were living in was slowly being encroached on from both sides. And this is one of the only very beautiful green spaces left. Hunters would wake us up at five in the morning with gunshots. You could hear the pallets raining down, trucks reversing, causing damage everywhere”.

Ultimately, the sentiments that Cecil and Burlo take away from their time in Gozo are connected with peace, awe and respect for the elemental. Their work from this time reflects that connectedness. In different ways, their paintings possess the same live-giving experience as that first bite into a fresh local orange, harnessed and sold just miles away. Its sweetness has provenance, its form meaning and lineage. It returns you to harmony with the world you hope will never change.   

64a, Flat 1, an exhibition by Lydia Cecil and Sebastian Tanti Burlò, will be exhibited at ARThall, Gozo between September and October 2021. Exact dates to be announced later in the summer.

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