In times of uprising, look for the artists. They’ll be in the thick of it, rallying support. As Malta’s hunters and builders are made exempt from COVID-19 restrictions, public perception and opinion is becoming ever more polarised on the government’s position on a range of long-standing environmental issues. Enter stage left – the Malta Community of Illustrators (MCOI), a group of passionate young artists with a new campaign to protect Malta’s flora and fauna, accompanied by a dynamic set of awareness posters. Times of Malta is pleased to announce today’s launch of the Artna (Our Land) campaign and invites the group’s spokesperson, Ed Dingli, to tell us all about it.

For our trees, campaign poster by Ed DingliFor our trees, campaign poster by Ed Dingli

Like most people right now, I am at home. As I write, I am trying in vain to mentally drown out the incessant and invasive drilling threatening to derail this article. The sound is coming from a construction site just centimetres away from my apartment. It seems incredi­ble, but a mere 75cm is the minimum distance builders in this country must observe as they gouge vertiginous pits alongside our homes.

Although most days I want to scream, I suppose I should be thankful it’s just noise. However, the death of Miriam Pace, whose home collapsed following near­by digging, revealed that the government no longer requires construction companies to carry out a geological survey prior to starting work. So perhaps I should be worried.

Furthermore, as a lifelong vege­tarian, animal rights have always been dear to my heart. Some of my old UK school friends are passionate birdwatchers and work for the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds). The treatment of birds in Malta is very much on the international radar and I actually first became aware of the situation here through them.

Undoing, campaign poster by Daniela AttardUndoing, campaign poster by Daniela Attard

So when I heard about the plan by a bunch of illustrators to create posters for a campaign which encompassed all of these issues, you bet I was on board.

Congratulations Ed to you and your fellow campaigners for galvanising the talent and energy behind this campaign. Perhaps you can begin by telling us about its name.

The campaign is called Artna, the Maltese word for ‘our land’, that also conveniently includes the word ‘art’. We thought it was an appropriate title for a rallying call against the destruction of our island. I also feel like it says “hey, it’s our land too, not yours to do with as you please”.

Who needs oxygen? Campaign poster by Andrew WorleyWho needs oxygen? Campaign poster by Andrew Worley

How would you sum up this campaign?

As a newly-formed community of creative illustrators, we felt compelled to join forces and create a response to the current destruction of both our natural and built environments. Like many others, we’re extremely frustrated by the unsustainable over-construction and general disregard for the environment by successive governments, but are encouraged by the increase in awareness and amount of young people we’ve seen get involved in protests and focus groups. 

We’ve created a set of A4 posters that will be available for anyone to download for free, and are encouraging the public to print them out and paste them up in their windows as a form of protest. If we can’t show up in person, let’s try our best to make our voices heard anyway. We are also urging the public to support local NGOs and focus-groups who work tirelessly to lobby the authorities on a range of important issues. 

Mater Dolorosa, campaign poster by Derek FenechMater Dolorosa, campaign poster by Derek Fenech

The brief we gave to the artists was quite open to their own interpretation, and we suggested that it could be both positive, i.e. a vision, solution or celebration of a space, or negative, i.e. protesting or showing the effect on the environment or community. Therefore the posters cover a variety of topics, from over-development and the cutting down of trees to traffic, plastic waste and sea pollution.

At the end of the day, we all want to live in a cleaner, greener, safer space, and that is essentially what this is about. 

How and when did you begin planning the campaign? 

Shortly after the group was set up, a few things happened in Malta that served as a catalyst for this campaign.

Għamlu sular ieħor, campaign poster by Marietta MifsudGħamlu sular ieħor, campaign poster by Marietta Mifsud

Firstly, the horrific death of Miriam Pace (and many other workers in the construction industry), and secondly the announcement of Infrastructure Malta deciding to go ahead with the Central Link Project, which involves the chopping down of hundreds of mature trees, ignoring all public opinion, advice from NGOs and any environmental consultation. So I issued a call-out on the Malta Community of Illustrators (MCOI) page, hoping to rally together support from other artists and help spread awareness to a wider audience.

The response was quite overwhelming, and we decided to create a set of posters that the public could download and print out to use as protest placards, or paste up in their offices, classrooms or studios etc. 

I need space, campaign poster by Zack RitchieI need space, campaign poster by Zack Ritchie

Then Covid-19 happened, so everything got put on hold for a while. However, when I heard that construction works were continuing and the hunting season was being reopened despite the enforced lockdown, I felt like the authorities were taking advantage of the situation and that it was even more important to make our voices heard. 

Who are the people behind this campaign, what are your roles and what motivated you?

In terms of motivation for the campaign, environmental degradation is everywhere you look in Malta. Roads are widened, cutting into green spaces, wildlife left unprotected for fear of upsetting hunters (and losing votes), monstrous blocks built in place of buildings of heritage, construction waste continues to pile up high with little to none of it being recycled. No importance is given to cycling and other sustainable modes of transport. Air pollution is one of the worst in Europe, a lack of green spaces contributes to mental health issues, fish farms pollute the sea, plastic litters our shores… the list is endless. 

More and more people are becoming increasingly vocal in their opposition to the almost daily environmental injustices this country deals with

And in the end, the hardest thing for Xummiemu was to find a tree... campaign poster by Sebastian Tanti BurlòAnd in the end, the hardest thing for Xummiemu was to find a tree... campaign poster by Sebastian Tanti Burlò

Yet where Malta is still unspoiled, it is so beautiful, and I personally am very motivated by my affection for this little island, my homeland. My whole life is marked by memories of Malta’s nature: not just the sea, but hikes, picnics and gatherings in country lanes, valleys, caves and fields bordered by ħitan tas-sejjieħ (rubble walls) What will Malta be if all this gets destroyed?

As a Maltese national living abroad, it can sometimes be really difficult to watch from afar and not be able to participate in any protests on the ground.

It’s also made even more difficult when you see the rest of the world putting so much emphasis on sustainability and taking drastic measures to tackle climate change and air pollution, and then see your home nation making continuous decisions in the other direction.

A place once green, campaign poster by Moira ZahraA place once green, campaign poster by Moira Zahra

The destruction is irrever­sible, and I hate to think about the irreparable damage we would have caused by the time we realise it’s too late. It can all get quite overwhelming, so when seeing news that upsets me, creating art is not just cathartic but also my means of participating in a movement and helping to spread awareness. Therefore, a lot of my work serves as a commentary on social and political affairs.

I recently created a poster and shared it in the For Our Trees Facebook group. It got a lot of attention and encouraged me to re-initiate the campaign idea, and rope in the support of fellow local creatives.

So I discussed the issue with the MCOI admin team, who willingly took the project on board and really helped take it to a new level. The team consists of Moira Zahra (the founder), Derek Fenech, Steven Scicluna, Marietta Mifsud, Zack Ritchie, Magda Azab and myself.

We have no more time, campaign poster by Magda AzabWe have no more time, campaign poster by Magda Azab

We split roles, some taking care of the administration and logistics, and others handling the branding, website and PR side of things. Some of us are based locally and others live and work abroad, but we’ve managed to create a dynamic and energetic team and are really looking forward to seeing our first collaborative project come to light. We posted an open call on the community Facebook group, and have had over 20 artists submit their work.

Can you tell us a little about the Malta Community of Illustrators (MCOI)? 

The group was recently set up by Moira Zahra, an Edinburgh-based illustrator who’s quite established on the Maltese scene, having illustrated a few children’s books and lectured at the Art and Design Institute. She reached out to a few of us with an open call to illustrators who are either Malta-based or Maltese illustrators who live and work abroad. Most of the administrators are full-time commercial illustrators, working in a variety of fields, but the group is open to anyone keen on illustration, from students and beginners to part-timers and professionals. 

By establishing an online community, we’ve created a space that encourages members to share their work and get professional feedback from their peers, to initiate and participate in projects, discuss relevant topics, share inspiration, learn about interesting events, and post industry-related jobs.

MCOI is still new so we’re constantly looking at how it can grow, and are also slowly building our bite-sized portfolio on Instagram (@maltaillustrators). We’ve been really impressed by the quality of work from group members, and are hoping it will provide a platform for lesser known illustrators to be noticed by art directors, publishers and the wider creative community. 

Why have you chosen to launch the campaign now? 

The current COVID-19 situation really highlights the importance of nature and green spaces for people’s psychological (and physical) wellbeing. In difficult times, people are finding solace in the outdoors. Besides the obvious need for clean air, the human connection with nature is rooted in our evolution (some call it biophilia – our innate attraction to nature), so imagine if the only places we could escape to were hotels and restaurants.

Il-ftit li fadlilna, campaign poster by Steven SciclunaIl-ftit li fadlilna, campaign poster by Steven Scicluna

Instead of recognising these facts and using this time to rethink its priorities, the government has taken two key de­cisions against nature – firstly by re-opening the hunting season and secondly by allowing construction work to continue despite everyone being advised to stay home. These decisions show a complete disregard for both Malta’s environment as well as people’s physical and mental health (construction is detrimental to both, especially when people are locked indoors). So now we feel this campaign is especially relevant.

Despite the obvious negative effects of coronavirus on society and the wider repercussions we will almost certainly feel once it’s over, there are definitely some positives we can take from it. Before this, we knew that the world was charging ahead at an unrealistic pace, favouring economic growth over anything and everything, even at the cost of massive damage to the planet.

It was about time we took a step back to consider the ramifications. We’re now presented with an opportunity for reflection, and the possibility of coming out the other end as a smarter, greener, more compassionate nation. Let’s not return to the old normal; let’s not treat our world as an infinite resource for us to keep pillaging at our own free will. Rather, let’s see it for what it is: a living thing whose health is intimately tied to our own health, happiness and life. 

What is your sense of public opinion on these issues at the moment? 

Sometimes it’s difficult to gauge the wider opinion outside of my close community, and I don’t know if I’m being over-optimistic, but I do feel like more and more people are becoming increasingly vocal in their opposition to the almost daily envi­ronmental injustices this country deals with.

I see a lot of anger and frustration among my peers – and this is motivated by a deep love and care for our country and shared space, not as some might assume, by mere opposition to the government. The hold that tribalism has on our politics seems to be weakening with the younger generations, which in itself is a promising sign. The concern seems to be spreading across a more diverse section of society, from young to old and local to foreign.

The recent decisions taken by the government show how much weight and influence the construction and hunting lobbies carry, so it’s even more important to keep applying pressure and advocate for more considerate decisions to be taken.

How does this campaign fit into the context of the wider response to these issues?

We believe that what’s left of the Maltese natural environment needs to be heavily protected. Our island is small and overpopulated, and it’s no secret that people are unhappy about the lack of green space. As illustrators I think we sometimes feel a bit helpless when it comes to bringing about real change, but a strong message has the power to influence people, as we often see in political campaigns. Visual communication carries a lot of power, as images and illustration can be universally and swiftly understood. So our aim is mainly to inspire change and create more awareness.

Are you connected with any NGOs or other environmental organisations here such as Birdlife or Friends of the Earth, for example?

As a campaign, Artna goes hand-in-hand with the efforts of all environmental NGOs in Malta, as we are ultimately working towards the same goal. We really value the work of these groups and their efforts to protect and restore Malta’s natural environment. Through the campaign we want to encourage the public to do the same. 

The MCOI itself is an independent collective of artists with no official partnership with any NGO or other organisation. Besides the administrative team organising this campaign, there are around 120 members in the group with a diverse range of social and political views.

What or who do you consider to be the primary obstacles to protecting the environment and what could be done to tackle them? 

I think there are a lot of interconnected issues preventing this cause from moving forward. Much of it stems from our tribal political support and resulting inability to hold the government to account. The truth is that environmental destruction and unbridled development benefits a select, powerful few, while robbing everyday people of their space, health and the environment we all share.

Maltese people need to recognise that NGOs and environmental campaigns are doing us all a huge service in trying to protect the land that sustains us. We need more people to get behind environmental campaigns to push the government to take real action. 

As it currently stands, the authorities get away with making half-hearted promises and compromises that are simply not enough. For example, the government’s pledge to plant hundreds of new trees to replace the ones they are chopping down is misguided and uninformed, to say the least.

To put it simply, you cannot replace a mature tree with a sapling – it takes many decades (or even hundreds of years) to recreate the same ecosystem of the old tree, which serves as a vital habitat for not just the obvious birds and usual flora and fauna, but also a whole world of insects, fungi and bacteria, besides providing a vital green lung in an increasingly polluted space. If this weren’t enough, history shows us that despite all the fuss and PR coverage around planting new trees in Malta, the young saplings are often left to die out of negligence. So when the authorities use tree planting as a response to tree slaughter, it carries absolutely no weight. 

What do you hope the Artna campaign will achieve? 

We want this campaign to increase public awareness and inspire real change. It also provides a platform for a new Maltese illustration community to launch itself to the wider public. But aside from this particular campaign, we really encourage the public to have a look at what environmental groups and NGOs are doing in Malta, and participate in any way they feel inspired. The more people get behind this movement, the more likely it is that we will start seeing change.

What are your plans for the campaign launch? 

We’ll be introducing an online exhibition with a video posted on our Facebook event page Artna –Online Poster Exhibition. This will then launch our website where the public can view and download the posters. They will also be given action points and urged to donate to relevant organisations. We’ll be encouraging them to tag us and show how they’ve made use of the posters, which we can then share on our Instagram Stories. 

What can we do to show our support for the Artna campaign?

Look out for the public Facebook event Artna – Online Poster Exhibition. When we launch the campaign on Sunday, April 19, (today) we’ll be posting a link to the free posters and online exhibition. Also, people can follow our Instagram page @maltaillustrators to see our portfolio grow, featuring an amazing variety of illustration as we go along. 

Since the current situation forces us to stay indoors, we are providing the posters in high-resolution for free and encouraging the public to print them out at home and get creative with them. It would be great if they stuck them up in their windows, common areas, notice boards and hall­ways, and so forth.

It would also be amazing to see a wider community come together in support by posting pictures of themselves with the posters on social media, with the hashtags #artna #forourland.

Basically, you’re free to use the poster as your profile pic or share it on your own channels (please credit the artist if you do!) or to use it as a protest placard. If anyone wants to e-mail or post them to the relevant authorities, I wouldn’t be against that either!

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