Emiliano Ponzi: COVID Uncovered
By Brett McKenzie on Mar 23, 2020
Renowned illustrator brings together artists to draw from Italian quarantine
It should come as no surprise that the biggest news story in the world over the past few weeks has been the coronavirus pandemic. The European epicenter of the outbreak is northern Italy, that's where we find acclaimed Milan-based illustrator and Young Guns 6 winner Emiliano Ponzi.
Stuck in a country-wide lockdown with no end in sight, Emiliano has been rallying other Italian artists with a project called COVID Uncovered. Meeting together via Skype, these artists have been figure drawing nude models who pose in what has become an ever-present part of life in Italy: face masks. COVID Uncovered serves as a snapshot of a global crisis, a creative outlet in an increasingly sealed-off environment, and even a charity to serve those battling the virus.
We had an opportunity to interview Emiliano about the project, as well as about life in one of the most affected areas of the globe.
First and foremost, how are you doing personally? This is an unprecedented situation for most of us, and here you are, right in the middle of it.
We are facing a reality that looks more like a B-movie. We can just hope it has a “happy ending," one where we can contain the already high number of losses, and one makes sure that we are never again so unprepared and naive in our reactions. That will be a victory.
I am afraid for my parents and some relatives — alone, far away and not young anymore. I’m not scared for myself, however; I stay rational, and in this very bad moment, I have my best friend cheering me up: my job. I’m working a lot for my usual commissions, but I'm also taking on some different jobs that help me digest what’s happening. Right now we need to tell our daily stories. There is a desperate need for narration to process this unique moment in human history.
"Right now we need to tell our daily stories. There is a desperate need for narration to process this unique moment in human history."
How did the idea of COVID Uncovered come about?
Thanks to my friends Mike Perry and Josh Cochran, I rediscovered the pleasure of figure drawing while in New York. When I returned to Milan, we started some sessions in the studio, and they went super well. Unfortunately, we needed to stop as new rules to contain the virus came into effect forbidding people from gathering. During one of our last lunches before they were all shut down, I came up with the idea of having nude sessions, but with the models wearing masks. Me and Irene Bruni — creative agency partner and co-founder of Spazio Fuori Luogo, the coworking space where my studio is — looked at each other, both thinking "this could be a project".
One of the first things we did was get in touch with Open, an independent online magazine founded in 2018 by a prominent journalist Enrico Mentana. The whole team there is made up of really responsive young journalists. Within 24 hours they were on board with the project.
I got in contact with illustrators, tattooists and other artists that I admire to bring them on board. When we first started the project, we wanted them to come to the studio, where we would draw live all together. When the outbreak became more severe and additional restrictions were placed on the Lombardy region, we decided that I would be the only artist physically there in the studio with models, and all of the others could take part through Skype. That's when I reached out to artists in other cities.
I notice that the models are wearing different types of masks...
Yes, I went with three different masks to depict a different approach to the fear of COVID-19. First, there's a simple scarf wrapped around the mouth and nose, as many people were doing on buses during the early days of the contagion. Next, we had a proper medical mask, the type suggested by the Italian health ministry. Finally, we went with an old Russian gas mask to represent fear turning into paranoia.
Drawing via Skype conveyed the new government rules, and the hashtag that started during those days #iorestoacasa (I stay at home). So our most important message was: that we don’t just have to stand by the window, waiting for all this mess to be over. We can do something.
"...our most important message was: that we don’t just have to stand by the window, waiting for all this mess to be over. We can do something."
This is more than an artistic expression; I understand that you are also auctioning off the pieces.
The final goal of the whole project is to auction all of the artwork produced to raise money for the Italian Red Cross. The situation here is critical. We've had 63,000 infected, more than 6,000 deaths, and hospitals are out of ventilators and protection masks. New temporary hospitals are being created on cruise ships and fair pavilions. People with symptoms are forbidden to go to the ER or the hospital on their own. Ambulances have to come and pick the people up from home. The Red Cross helps very much, but as with any other institution, it needs money now more than ever.
The hashtags we created for the project are #artists_vs_covid19 and #artists_vs_covid19_italy because we also want to start something bigger than our own project. We want this to be a call to action for artists around the world. Art always finds ways to express itself, especially during the darkest times of humanity. Any single artist or group could do something for their own community, and that will be amazing to see hashtags like #artists_vs_covid19_usa, #artists_vs_covid19_china, #artists_vs_covid19_germany, #artists_vs_covid19_france and so on.
You've also been maintaining a diary of sorts published in The Washington Post.
Yes, I've had a column on The Washington Post since last Sunday, writing the text as well as making the illustrations. This has been almost like my own little therapy sessions! I also hope that it will help Americans to hear a voice coming from one or two weeks into the future.
It goes without saying that the world is going to be a different place when we get to the other side of this. As an artist, what lessons have you learned from this project, from this entire situation?
Well, the auction was going to end on April 3, on what was supposed to be the last day of our quarantine in Italy. That's obviously not going to happen, so that's the first lesson I learned.
It doesn’t matter how much we want this situation to be over, we have to start dealing with the fact it won’t end soon. Maybe the quarantine will be over in a couple of months, but not the trust; the trust to hug other people, to travel to a foreign country, to share a glass. The moment when we will find that confidence again is quite far. We have to shift from denial to acceptance and build a new routine, here and now. But I can tell you already that there is going to be a moment when we all get out again, and we come back to our studios, removing dust from our desks and monitors and pencils. Every layer of that dust represents a day of sacrifice we made staying safe at home just to get here. That is going to be a beautiful day.
My wish is that after this ends, there will be a broader awareness of what humanity is. We are sharing a historic traumatic memory, and I know it may sound too impractical, but this is a chance to rebuild things better from the ashes, be it economic relationships between nations, a capitalistic model that is clearly not working anymore, a new health care system, the relationships with the ecosystems. I don’t want to sound like the Greta Thunberg of art because I’m not, but we should make an effort to change.
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