Covid-19 Exclusives: A Malaysian Artist Under Lockdown in Italy

loading My boundary walks. I have walked around the boundary so many times during lockdown because we could not leave the area of our homes.

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May 4, 2020

I’M WRITING THIS as a small shift begins to unlock the wheels of the Italian economy – the country has been in total lockdown since March 9. My front door is open, the sun is shining, the birdsong is loud and amazingly, an enormous swarm of bees has just flown by. A dark cloud that hummed so loudly that I thought a big, slow-moving tractor was driving past.

When I left Penang mid-February to fly to Italy, exhausted after readying the artworks for various exhibitions planned for the now-cancelled Open Studios Penang, I was already acutely aware of the country’s surging Covid-19-related cases.

But I had an art show planned in the UK at the beginning of May, and had to set up my studio. So on February 14, I kissed my husband David goodbye and boarded the plane to Italy. It was busy on both flights from Penang to Doha, and from Doha to Milan. I had with me a face mask and hand sanitiser, but I worried that only two or three passengers had their masks on. Did everyone else not know that a virus was taking hold?

My concerns were concretised when we landed the next day. Arriving at the Milan Malpensa Airport, our temperatures were taken by hazmat-suited personnel. I collected the rental car and drove to my house in Piedmont, stopping on the way at a supermarket to buy enough food supplies for the few days I was to be in Italy.

My studio.

After settling in, I dropped by my brother’s for a visit. Quick hugs were exchanged, with heads turned away from each other. With the blow up of Covid-19 in the province of Lodi and me having just gotten off a packed flight, I was uncomfortable with having bodily contact with my loved ones. I deliberately sat away from them.

I did go to the Sunday antique market, however, one of the highlights at any time, but the atmosphere was quieter than usual. Otherwise, I stayed in and avoided venturing into my village. I started work on my new paintings.

On February 19, I left Italy for a wedding in Cape Town. The trip doubled as a long-planned family get-together. My sons came in from the US and Indonesia, my daughter from London and my husband from Penang. News of Covid-19 took a backseat. We had a happy and carefree 10 days in South Africa together. No one was talking about it at all there, but I soon learned that the Province of Lodi was to be put under lockdown on February 21.

When I arrived back on March 2, the country didn’t feel the same. The air was filled with palpable tension. My flights had worried me again. Too much sneezing, coughing. The Europeans looked at people with masks on with an attitude verging on amusement. The airport was gravely quiet. People were standing slightly apart from one another as we waited in the immigration line. Physical distancing had already become a norm, albeit an uncomfortable one. Everyone was wary.

Every morning I’d look at the beauty I’m surrounded by and think of how we are all living in a nightmare.

It was on a Saturday night, March 7, when news leaked that Piedmont is among the northern provinces of 16 million people, together with Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, Marche and Veneto to be put under lockdown the very next day; and on Monday, March 9, the whole country of 60 million people went into total lockdown.

There was definitely general support for the move, though the lockdown was also considered the largest suppression of constitutional rights in Italy’s history as a republic. But once people got their heads around it, the compliance was pretty much complete. Everyone stayed quiet and at home. International news outlets described the measures as “draconian”, little did they know that other countries would follow in Italy’s footsteps in the coming weeks.

All through the lockdown, I felt safe with access to information and knowing that I have family and friends nearby has been a great and needed support. My daily routine was uninterrupted since I relish isolation. I set up a routine: wake up, work, lunch, garden, work some more, take a walk with friends, work and bed. The days went by at speed.


My village.

Food and medical supplies were the only reasons to go out. We have to carry with us a declaration stating our details, our health conditions and that as far as we know, we do not have Covid-19. I saw no panic-buying. Temperatures were taken before entry to the supermarkets, and the cashiers had masks and gloves on. Tapes were marked on the floor for physical distance to be kept. The police, Carabinieri (the national gendarmerie) and the Guardia di Finanza (Italy’s militarised police force) were called in to set up roadblocks.

In the first couple of weeks, we were still able to drive a distance and go for walks. My friends and I took the opportunity to go for long strolls – while maintaining a physical distance – through the local woods and vineyards in search of new trails and beautiful views. Police cars patrolled the quiet roads, passing us on several occasions, but never stopping us.

My house has views of the Alps over which countless airplanes could always be seen before their descent into Malpensa Airport. But the skies soon became empty of their contrails and deafening hums. Hunting season was also cancelled and the deer, boars and hares were left in peace. Spring came and the land burst into life. Birdsongs grew louder and more varied; and across the valleys, I could hear people talking, dogs barking and church bells ringing clearly.

But I do miss the actual physical closeness of being together with people. I miss seeing smiling faces.

Nevertheless, the number of infections and the daily death toll continued to soar. I was deeply disturbed and filled with unease. I listened to BBC World Service while I worked, but it was repetitive and depressing. I looked up the Italian figures each evening on , putting the articles through Google Translate so that I could try to understand the situation. Later, when the UK went into lockdown, the Contemporary Art Fair that I was to participate in was put on hold until next year. Globally, there is now a huge amount of artwork by so many artists in limbo.

I became concerned about my family scattered all over the world. My focus wavered. To ground myself, I started the practice of doing one small piece of work each morning when I wake up. A pattern a day. I write my morning pages daily, but I needed something a bit more uplifting than just whinging and writing sad things. I decided on colour and pattern, and it gave me the satisfaction of completing a small piece each day. I planted a long vegetable bed and learned to use the husband-sized gardening machinery. I explored the tangle of wild wood on my small bit of land.

My pear tree in bloom.

Every morning I’d look at the beauty I’m surrounded by and think of how we are all living in a nightmare. There is so much sadness gripping the nation, but I felt cocooned, detached from the real sorrow so many people are going through.

It finally hit home when a friend of mine lost both his parents, just days apart, to Covid-19. I actually felt sick when I heard the news. I had met them on the happy occasion of my friend’s wedding, in their hometown here in Italy. Marco, an Italian, married a Penang girl, Kit. I couldn’t put it together, the picture of his parents both so happy on their son’s wedding day, with the thought of their suffering at the hands of this virus. It was a very sobering moment; I suddenly felt more vulnerable. I became even more prone to self-isolation and limited my intake of Covid-19 news.

Prompted by my daughter, I started listening to audio books. I painted and cried listening to “The Beekeeper of Aleppo” by Christy Lefteri and “The Binding” by Bridget Collins. I’m now listening to “Becoming” by Michelle Obama.

I meet up with my friends for aperitivo or dinner over Zoom or WhatsApp audio. As always, I am in regular contact with my own family. I’d video call my mum and brothers in Malaysia at least once a week. I’m not a huge fan of Zoom get-togethers. They give me a headache so I admit, I avoid them. But I do miss the actual physical closeness of being together with people. I miss seeing smiling faces. Masks are compulsory here now, but I do like to see peoples’ eyes wrinkling though, at least you know they can still smile. That’s good news.

I usually do my shopping once a week. The village shop is less than a kilometre up the road, and is opened in the mornings. The owner offers a small but fresh selection of cheeses, vegetables, freshly baked breads and a decent selection of standard supplies. The local bar owner Monica delivers me her fruit cakes – strawberry, apple or blueberry – that I enjoyed in normal times with a morning latte macchiato. On the next ridge, another lady Barbara makes bottled fruit in syrup, pickled vegetables in Piedmontese style, anchovy-stuffed miniature peppers and fresh bottled juices. I’d put in an order every few weeks.

Wild orchids everywhere – orchis purpurea.

And every fortnight, I’d go to “Maramoa”, a local community initiative in Canelli, the nearest town about 3 kilometres away, for extra vegetables and really good wine. It was set up for African immigrants to produce fresh seasonal vegetables, and sweet and savoury plain biscuits. I’m enjoying this closer look and appreciation of what is nearby and local. I’ve also foraged in the wood for wild leeks, spring onions; learning more about edible weeds that grow around my bit of land and collecting wild rocket and dandelion leaves. These have been deliciously cooked in different ways.

Recently, I visited the big supermarket for the first time in four weeks to get some basics and was overwhelmed by the giant shelves and packaging. There was barely any plastic packaging from the small producers. I started out walking up to the village rubbish and recycling centre so that I could just walk, but now I’m producing barely any rubbish to take at all. All organic stuff goes into my compost heap; paper is used to start wood fires in my living room fireplace on chilly days. I keep the bigger glass jars for my own jam-making and fruit-bottling. I thought I was good at choosing less packaging before, but now I realise how delusional I had allowed myself to become by making “small changes”. I don’t need the huge choice of packaged items to make delicious healthy meals. Less choice, less waste is my new motto.

Each day, I note with relief and a subdued happiness that the number of deaths are coming down quite significantly in Italy, and that the numbers are staying low in Malaysia as well. I feel the same weariness I see on Malaysia’s impressive Director-General of Health Datuk Dr. Noor Hisham during his live announcements, and I start to wonder when I will be able to return to Malaysia. It’s still a little unclear, but time will tell though as the unlocking begins one step at a time.

To know more about the artist and her works, visit her Facebook @RebeccaDuckettWilkinsonArt or her Instagram account @atravellingartistsdiary.

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