FILIPPA Buttitta was meant to be exhibiting at ArtSpace 12 months ago. Instead she was at her father’s hospital bedside. He was slowly dying which was made almost inevitable by the hospital shortages and cutbacks. But Filippa’s mother wasn’t going to let her husband go without a fight. She mustered all available hospital staff and gave them a piece of her mind. In a Sicilian-accented tirade, she railed that they had not been looking after her husband and should be ashamed of themselves. “And you – what are you doing wearing make-up? You should be professional.”
It must have worked because Filippa’s father came home, where he was cajoled to “Eat, eat!” Filippa credits his survival to her stern, strong and fiery mother.
Filippa grew up in a household doggedly holding dear to the values and traditions of southern Italy of the 1950s which is when her parents emigrated from Sicily. They grew up in the same street. Her father would tease his much younger neighbour. It wasn’t until he returned from Army conscription that he fell in love with this now beautiful young woman. He emigrated to Australia and five years later she joined him (she had to lie about her age and to this day is a year younger than everyone thinks).
They arrived in an Australia which had only just introduced its first lever-style espresso machine in Lygon Street and it was another 20 years before a cappuccino was made in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy. The wave of immigrants searching for a better life in Australia was only just starting its journey to have an impact on the cultural norms of the day. With few alternatives Filippa’s parents continued their tradition of making their own sausage casings, passata, salamis and pasta.
When Filippa started to go to school in the 1970s she walked into a decade of great economic, political, social and technological change. With his slogan “It’s Time”, Gough Whitlam took the Labor Party to victory after 23 years of a Liberal-Country Party coalition. The White Australia Policy was finally dismantled and Australia saw its first influx of Vietnamese refugees in 1978. SBS was established and Australia was on its way to becoming a truly multicultural society.
Italy too was changing and modernising, however the Buttitta home remained firmly fixed in the past. Girls were to be protected, watched over, chaperoned. And so excursions like school camps were prohibited and curfews strictly enforced. Australian boys and girls were considered to have no morals and so friendships were not encouraged. And so isolation forced Filippa to become pre-occupied with art. Her parents remember her starting to draw at age four. Filippa still has her brother’s science book where she created a painting next to each photograph when she was only eight.
She would sew, knit and make her own canvasses to paint. At high school she took on three units of art including textile and design and industrial technology because she was always making things. When it came time to choose a career, her father asked her what she was going to do. “I am going to study art.” “Good, good,” he said as he nodded his recognition that there could be no other course.
She enrolled with the Sydney College of Arts and went on to gain a Master of Arts and Master of Fine Arts. She became fascinated with portraiture firstly painting Italian-Australians who surrounded her life during the 70s, 80s and 90s to currently portraying pre-eminent Australians who have had a major impact on Australia’s iconic, social, cultural and political character.
Filippa is a regular Archibald Prize entrant; her portrait of the renowned artist Judy Cassab was selected as a finalist in the 2015 prize. There have been many more portraits including portraits of the then Premier of NSW Morris Iemma (entitled ‘Looking Forward’); Anglican Archbishop Dr Peter Jensen (‘Reflections of the Father’); Vittoria coffee’s founder Les Schirato; Dawn Fraser (‘Turbulent Waters’); Australian Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon (‘Eyeing a Greener Future’); sports commentator Debbie Spillane (‘The Sporting Spillane’); ABC’s journalist Emma Alberici (Emma Alberici Corresponding from London with Circling Homing Pigeons’); innovative knee surgeon Dr Leo Pinczewski (‘Operating on My Knee’); Marco Belgiorno-Zegna (‘Marco & the Ideal City’) and Fighting Father Dave Smith. She has been selected as a finalist not only in the Archibald but also in the Doug Moran Art Prize, the Mosman Art Prize, the Hunters Hill Art Prize, the Black Swan Prize for Portraiture, the Portia Geach Memorial Prize and the Archibald Salon des Refusés.
Her daughter, Paloma, is also a subject of her portraits. At Sydney University Filippa was encouraged by her lecturer to look at the theme of Lost Children. She started to research and came across a heart-wrenching tale of a mother in the early 1900s regularly having to walk 17 kilometres with her two small children to her mother’s home to get a meal. The bodies of all three were discovered after they died of exposure during a storm.
This story triggered a desire to find out more about the struggle, survival, danger and tragedy in the Australian bush and in particular how it must be to be a lost child. As a mother and a female contemporary artist she has now captured in pen and ink her own child lost. As I look at the images I do not see fear, I see acceptance.
Perhaps that is what happened to Filippa. She accepted her strict upbringing and out of that sprang creativity.
Her latest project is ‘The Wonthaggi Monster’. As in everything she does she has delved into the history of the thylacine and discovered the shameful truth of our (possible?) extermination of this beautiful creature. “It is not the thylacine that is the monster. It is us.”
The Creature stirs: Filippa Buttitta has re-imagined Bass Coast by incorporating the Wonthaggi Monster.