Ritty Tacsum photography – somewhat surreal, somewhat strange

Slightly disturbing, visually entrancing and definitely different, Ritty Tacsum’s photography touches a raw nerve with the viewer. I met up with the artiste to discuss her current exhibition, Ritty Tacsum and Her Humanoids.

Describing this lady’s photography is not an easy thing. You can say it’s about real life… but to paraphrase Dr. Spock, it’s not life as we know it. Every single photograph in the artiste’s current exhibition portrays a life that is a touch darker, a touch more macabre, but also a touch more alive than we’re used to.

The collection goes by the name Ritty Tacsum and Her Humanoids – and a more appropriate title I have yet to see. Because, while the photos all depict people, something about them is not quite “right”. Some are twisted, some distorted, some are so full of pathos that it’s like getting a shotful of emotions thrown right in your face. There’s something about them that’s more surreal than real. In short, they’re more humanoid than human.

This touch of surrealism is common to all Ritty’s entries. Whether it’s a triptych of a woman, trapped in a body bag, trying to fight her way out… or an androgynous model with Filfla as the unlikely background or even just a front shot of a guy, all suited up but with his neck turned the other way – the photos offer a glimpse into a different world. A world where things are not what you’d expect and where even with a seemingly straightforward image you will often discover that the surprise is in the details.

The first question I ask Ritty is probably the obvious one, but I can’t help myself. Where do the ideas come from? Considering this strong element of surrealism, maybe her answer is not that surprising.

“Many of the photographs you’re seeing are the result of my dreams. I have very vivid dreams; sometimes I wake up and sketch everything from memory. But many times I also find that I’ve already sketched it in my sleep and I wake up to a piece of paper under my pillow, complete with sketching on it.”

I guess that the word “wow” doesn’t start to cover my reactions to this statement. Seeing the incredulity on my face, Ritty laughs and explains that this is somewhat of a regular occurrence for her.

“I’m not saying that it always works out like this, but a lot of times I’ll find the sketch all ready and I won’t even remember waking up. So presumably this all happens while I’m asleep. The photo with the spaghetti flying in the air is one such example. If the sketch doesn’t happen in my sleep, I have to do it immediately as soon as I wake up. Otherwise I lose the image in my mind. ”

This statement also explains why her works feels so intimate and personal. In a way, what the viewer is seeing are parts of the artiste’s subconscious exposed. Does it bother her to put it on public view?

“When I saw the works hanging there, available to strangers, I did feel somehow invaded. Many of the entries are extremely personal, some are even related to past events or time periods in my life. It’s a bit of a strange feeling, laying yourself there for all to see.”

Given the “strange” nature of these dreams, it’s impossible for me not to wonder out loud about their source. Ritty shrugs and replies that she has no idea where they come from.

“It’s not like I watch horror movies or anything. On the contrary! However I should say that I do enjoy what might be considered weird movies, such as Alejandro Jodorowski’s  The Holy Mountain. Such movies are also a source of inspiration and can, themselves, lead to dreams.”

Of course, not all dreams can be translated to digital format. Ritty tells me that she has a whole scrapbook full of these sketches, some of which she knows will never see the light of day for logistical reasons. Others, she still dreams of recreating. She tells me all about a recent dream she had and even sends me the initial sketch to explain this point. Although she’s already started devising ways and means to turn this intriguing concept into reality, she knows that this will take a while.

“I won’t finalise a piece if I’m not happy that it’s turning out exactly the way I imagined it. I’ve done dozens and dozens of rough draft shots that will never see the light of day. I’d rather give up on an idea than be happy with a half-baked one. Though I should add that it takes a lot to make me give up.”

One of the biggest challenges, of course, involves finding appropriate and willing models.  Not everyone is willing to be the subject of this style of art. And even those who are willing aren’t necessarily the most appropriate models. When the shots involve nudity, the problems double.

“I’m always surprised at this because my shots tend to not make the model’s face visible. I also like to use masks a lot. Still, not everyone feels comfortable. This was a problem especially when I first started – people are now more familiar with my style and my works so I do get models contacting me themselves.”

It hardly needs to be stated that Ritty’s is not a style she’d be happy to use in an overly-commercial situation. Weddings, maybe – but only with specific couples who appreciate her particular genre.

“I didn’t last too long in the commercial sector, mainly because I’m not willing to sacrifice the artistic element. With photography, I want to be myself; not someone else, a person working to a brief. If doing photography commercially means losing my identity, then I’d rather keep it for myself and earn a living doing something else. My photography is not something I’m ready to compromise on,” she tells me.

With a cheeky laugh, she tells me how ridiculous some of today’s wedding and pre-wedding photography packages are turning out to be.

“It’s so soft and stylised and perfect…and fake! And it’s definitely not me.”

We have a good laugh together at how some latter day couples are all turning into Romeos and Juliets (sans the poison) for the camera. However, she then adds that there are couples whose approach to photography is more akin to what she does.

“I’ve had some couple contact me. They’re very well aware of what I do and they like it. So they know perfectly well they won’t get the romantic poses at Golden Bay if they choose to carry out a shoot with me. We’ll see where it takes us; I’m willing to experiment even with a genre like weddings, if the couple is on the same wavelength.”

Given the topic of some of the current pieces on show, another challenge is finding the right props. “The Man” – depicting an androgynous man sitting on a chair, with pieces of broken tiles around him and Filfla in the background – proved to be particularly time consuming.

“I needed to find the right chair and the right sort of tiles, position everything in the right way, the model even built his own head-dress – incidentally, using a garbage bag though you’d never know it. The image is all about reversal of gender roles, depicting both the feminine and the masculine in us…so I had a very particular picture in my mind to recreate. It all took hours. Props can be a pain, especially when you are thinking of something that doesn’t actually exist.”

Another source of inspiration, Ritty tells me, are the great surrealist painters such as Salvador Dali and Rene Magritt. She has a particularly soft spot for Dali.

“I like to put random elements in some of my photographic works as a nod towards Dali. If you look very closely at some of the works, you’ll find some surprises. There’s a five-legged dog there somewhere, for instance. Not everyone catches these moments of randomness. But sometimes I’ll receive an email from someone who’ll go…I saw what you did there!”

Then there is music, which Ritty also uses as a springboard for her ideas. A phrase from the lyrics of a song she loves will sometimes catch her attention and eventually become a photo. She is particularly fond of bands like Radiohead and Placebo. The Bitter End – which Placebo fans will immediately recognise as one of this band’s most poignant offerings – is one such example. The unexpected image of the Madonna positioned right behind the model is strangely in keeping with both the mood of the art and of the song itself.

It goes without saying that the gritty nature of her art must shock some people. But comments like “kemm int stramba” (what a strange girl you are), rightly don’t bother this artiste.

“I take it as a compliment.”

And with that sentiment, I leave Ritty to her humanoids… already in eager anticipation of the next exhibition from this artiste.

This interview appeared on The TV Guide (The Times of Malta).



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