Interview with Seb Tanti Burlò, Artist and Cartoonist
It is not the first time that the constant barrage of environmental injustice reported in the news gets too overwhelming for me. There are certainly periods where I have to mute news channels and Facebook groups or profiles dedicated to highlighting these wrongdoings. Seb Tanti Burlò, a local cartoonist, admits that ‘I’ve gone through phases where I have to have a break’, but he never ceases to return to the issues which plague our natural environment.
I spoke to Seb in his Siggiewi studio. A room that holds a lot of significance for the young cartoonist. It is here where his interest in drawing, and seeking the truth, finds its origins. As a young child he recalls working side-by-side with his father, the late Maurice Tanti Burlò better known by his pen name Nalizpelra. He tells me ‘I had my desk next to his.. that left an indelible mark.’ Maurice produced satirical cartoons for over 35 years, first spurred on by the injustices faced by Telemalta employees during Mintoff’s era. In fact, his father’s work still hangs on the studio walls.
Seb explained that his childhood years were marked by his father’s influence. His father’s love for nature was represented not simply in his art but also in the garden which he faithfully tended to. He was also influenced by slain journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia whose son is close friends with Seb. ‘There were these two characters who were very political, very socially active within journalism, both pursuing the idea of etching out the truth but, in the background, they had these beautiful gardens. These spaces full of nature where, as kids, we played around.’ He goes on to say, ‘they both found respite in nature. In the tranquillity that it can give, in a society where there are a lot of ills. The meditative side of nature always balanced out the difficulties in confronting issues that society deals with.’
Seb’s mother, Dr. Elena Tanti Burlò, an academic at the University of Malta, instilled in him the importance of critical thought to constantly question what is being presented. Lastly, he has fond memories of his environmental science teacher, Ms. Maggie who he says taught her students the concept of working with the environment without depleting its resources. The key figures who surrounded him while he was growing up undoubtedly left a lasting impact on his work and he confirms that, ‘my art is a collage of different people.’
His cartoons are characterised by a direct and dark sense of humour. He paints a realistic and harrowing picture of a situation which is often difficult to face. His works surrounds themes which engage with current affairs, commenting on issues related to freedom of speech, abuse of power and environmental degradation in Malta. Seb’s comedic voice is no better captured than in a recent cartoon by the artist which represents Malta’s beloved Xummiemu.
A former mascot for the environment, anyone who grew up during the 90s would recall the campaign featuring the hedgehog reminding us to respect our environment. Of course, these rules only apply to some which leads to Seb’s macabre picture of the character taking his own life. The caption, which reads ‘In the end the hardest thing for Xummiemu was to find a tree…’, is a comment on the recent tree massacres and afforestation projects which serve as the backdrop for a momentary photo-op then simply left for dead.
Seb explains that his approach is in contrast to his father’s who believed that ‘no matter how dark things get, there’s always a silver lining.’ This silver lining, the sense of hope, was represented by the symbol of the sun in Maurice’s work. Seb, however, believes that the fight for environmental justice is ‘a hard argument to capture anymore.’ Portraying the harsh realities curtails the repetitive pleas to respect our earth which were drilled into his generation since infancy. A simple ‘Żomm Nadif’ from a chipper hedgehog is no longer enough. He does acknowledge that ‘one [approach] isn’t better than the other’, and there is space for both.
He underscores that ‘it’s important to have voices who are outside the social construct, who can see and criticise.’ However, cartooning for Seb is more than just raising awareness. He admits that ‘I read an article and it elicits so many different emotions that the only way to understand them is to put them down on paper.’ He adds, ‘it’s cathartic.’
He does not shy away from direct criticism. His series of sketches, representing political billboards, in the run up to the elections for the European Parliament uncovers the distrust he has in elected officials. The brilliantly timed proposals for
new open spaces, rants about the state of our environment and bans on balloon releases are simply the politician’s desperate attempt at green washing. Seb believes, ‘it’s just blustering… I don’t trust them.’
He does not blame people for putting their faith in elected officials. ‘People want to believe…’ this belief however, ‘has been corrupted and prostituted by political parties. It is demoralising that there are so many people who do not question, and who follow blindly, but I try not to direct my anger towards them. I direct my anger towards the people who abuse of these innocent people.’ Nevertheless, he hopes that his cartoons ‘push people out of their comfort zone.’
He expresses that, ‘I have little interest in speaking to [elected officials]’ because ‘I have no faith in them, I don’t believe anything they say.’ Instead he says, ‘we [the citizens] have to have conversations about these issues not just listen to politicians decide for us what we can and cannot talk about.’
His message to people who care reveals his realist nature. He says, ‘it’s important to feel defeated… it puts you in a state where you realise “Yes, I do really want to speak out about it”’ Seb ends our conversation by saying ‘I’m sure that everybody deep down cares. I just think a lot of people are afraid to confront it. It’s not easy caring, you get hurt.’
The article was written by Maria Eileen Fsadni based on an interview that she conducted with Seb Tanti Burlò. Photography by the talented Mikela Zerafa.