Sunday, February 20, 2022

"Interview: Watercolourist John Pereira on Bringing the Hues of Goa to Life on Canvas" in Scroll (20 February 2022)

Watercolorist John Pereira of Fatorda, Goa will hold an exhibition at Mumbai’s Jehangir Art Gallery between 21-27 February. Pereira graduated from Goa College of Art in 2003 and has since been a part of a few previous duo or group shows. However, the February show will be Pereira’s inaugural solo exhibition.

The exhibition’s title is Once Upon a Time in Goa and showcases the region’s natural beauty, village life, local traditions, and forms of architecture at a time when the state finds itself grappling with the uncertainties of change.

In this interview, Pereira mulls over present conditions for Goan artists, his artistic trajectory, and Goan culture as a constant muse.

RBF: Once Upon a Time in Goa will open at Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai on 21 February. This is your first solo exhibition and one where the works are described as being “fleeting moments of changing Goa captured in watercolours.” What made you choose this theme as the central one for this collection and how do you see your art functioning as a chronicle of a Goa you believe to be altering irrevocably?

JP: The theme represents the nostalgic Goa of yesteryear. Mine is an attempt to bring the past into the present through my paintings. My work serves as a visual documentation of Goa’s natural beauty, its culture and traditions, all of which struggle to cope with modern life. Through my art, I want to create an awareness about the beauty around us, something which most people take for granted.

I believe that culture is the soul of the place, its identity. Changing times require us to adapt to a lifestyle that moves us forward with new technologies and developments, but not at the expense of culture and the environment.

With tourism becoming an economic necessity in Goa, we seem to have failed to represent the essence of what Goa has to be for us and, more so, for visitors. Goa has mostly been portrayed as a holiday destination with a focus on fun and beaches. Goa is more than just that as my art tries to capture; it is also its people and their way of life. Along with tourism, the rise in modern developments has sent property prices skyrocketing. In turn, this is causing Goans to give up the lifestyles they once knew, affecting the local culture and tradition which makes Goa the place it is (or was).

Though my paintings, I hope to create an awareness for the people who have lived in “once upon a time” Goa, a place they knew long before the internet age. Equally, I want to provide future generations with something to reflect on, even if Goa no longer remains the same.

RBF: It strikes me that many of your paintings demonstrate an intimate knowledge of your subjects, be they Goan architecture, agricultural traditions, or everyday and traditional life in Goa’s villages. These themes certainly depart from the usual depiction of Goa as a land meant to function solely as a tourism destination or the setting for a sojourner’s second home. Would it be right to say that you seek out these settings or is it that they call to and inspire you?

JP: Most of my themes come from random memories of my childhood. Things like wandering around villages, celebrations with traditional dances, or from daily life events like farming, fishing, and so on.

Sometimes, I visualize the subjects in my mind and manage to find them in real life settings. I try to create a story in my paintings with the architectural settings I use, be they urban or rural. An area’s natural beauty complements the main subject I want to portray. 

I have been fascinated by the Italian Baroque style, and Bernini’s works especially. The combination of architecture, sculpture, and paintings from that time has always been my inspiration.


RBF: It is really interesting to learn that the Baroque inspires you because I see something of it in your work. Perhaps it is in the way you combine elements from the past with the Goa of today; even as it evokes something older, your art is simultaneously contemporary in how it focuses on a region on the precipice of great change. In a sense, the influence of the Baroque in your paintings should not really be a surprise because Goa itself produced an indigenous Baroque style.

In his book, Whitewash, Red Stone: A History of Church Architecture (2011), Paulo Varela Gomes considers how early modern Goan churches display a blend of locally created Baroque elements that brought together multiple European motifs with Islamicate and other South Asian influences. This of course was because Goa was a Portuguese colony but also, due to its coastal location, was a conduit for the travels and settlement of people and goods from several cultures. The most obvious example of Goan Baroque is Old Goa’s sixteenth-century Bom Jesus Basilica, a painting of which appears in your exhibition (and, as Vishvesh Kandolkar notes, that church is symbolic of Goan identity in multiple ways). Indeed, while the belief is rife that Goan colonial architecture is Portuguese, it is in fact particularly Goan because of the way those built forms were developed by Goans and only exist in Goa.

And yet, I also appreciate that you spotlight humbler Goan institutions like the village tavern or Mapusa’s Friday Market. These places may appear mundane but in placing them on par with historic architecture on your canvas, you seek out their beauty and what they mean to the ordinary Goan person whose lives they are an integral part of, maybe just as much as a sacred sanctuary. Your eye for the commonplace in Goa celebrates its charm but constantly reminds viewers that what they are bearing witness to is a cultural aesthetic of Goan making.

In their realism, your works are reflective of Goan aesthetics, bringing together architectural and natural elements as an observation of their symbiosis. I think there is a profound comment in this, reminding Goans that they can create (and preserve) beauty while co-existing with the natural world, even as so much around them changes. Thereupon, I want to ask about the medium you use – watercolours. What led you to choose this form to express your own creativity? Do you also create in other media?

JP: Thank you, Benedito. What you say about the Goan Baroque form is compelling.

Yes, as a professional artist, I am comfortable working in other media too, especially when it comes to commissioned works like painting portraits. However, I prefer watercolour although it is a difficult medium. With watercolours, I take the liberty of painting spontaneously, enjoying the brilliance and transparency of the colours. I care less about perfection and also love the chiaroscuro effect I achieve in my works through the use of watercolours.

RBF: From my understanding, there is little state support for local art in Goa, there not even being a museum where one can see the works of well-known Goan artists. Despite this, are you able to find community with other artists in your home state?

 JP: Yes, it is true that we do not have any museum specifically dedicated to well-known Goan artists. However, with the help of social media, I am able to engage with some of the best watercolour artists from around the world. It has helped me to further develop my creativity as an artist and person.

With local artists, I am amazed by Verodina De Souza’s clay works. Her dedication and passion towards her work is inspiring.

RBF: In closing, what can we expect to see from you next? Are there new things you would like to try

Well, I will be displaying almost an overall view of Goa, its beauty, culture, and architectural settings in general in my current exhibition. So, my next challenge would be to imbibe and portray a feel for Goa’s rural traditional festivals and rituals. I want to represent what is raw and unique about the place and try to depict it in my work.

Goa is diverse in many ways and, with changing times, I would also like to create works that will have a bit more of the present. I want my art to be a link between the past, present, and future and to reveal how I experience life.

From Scroll.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

"Vamona Navelcar (1929-2021): A Canvas across Three Continents" in Scroll (19 October 2021)

Co-written with Vishvesh Prabhakar Kandolkar

Goan artist Vamona Ananta Sinai Navelcar was born in the small coastal village of Pormburpa on 5 May, 1929. Despite his nascence in this tiny place, his career spanned seven decades and three continents. This legacy notwithstanding, Navelcar is little known in his homeland. For many Goan artists who were contemporaries of Navelcar, such as the Modernists Ângela Trindade (1909-1980), V. S. Gaitonde (1924-2001), and F. N. Souza (1924-2002), their contributions to art were only brought to public knowledge posthumously. Even the recent demise of Laxman Pai (1926-2021) makes it apparent that Goan artists live in Goa in obscurity, their contributions underacknowledged as living testaments to Goa’s heritage. What sets Navelcar apart from his esteemed contemporaries is that his canvas served as a chronicle of key moments in Goan, Portuguese, and Mozambiquan histories. Known as an artist of three continents, Navelcar’s works – even in the last years of his life attest to how the time he spent in these disparate yet colonially connected lands informed his aesthetic. Navelcar saw himself as a product of these three lands, but his art itself is birthed of displacement. And yet this is all the more reason to recognize Navelcar’s artistry as being uniquely Goan, for the circumstances that caused his dislocations are equally of the history that have made Goa the place it is today.

The story of how Navelcar came to receive his formal art education in Lisbon is the stuff of legend. While a young man in 1950s’ Portuguese Goa, Navelcar was granted a scholarship by António de Oliveira Salazar himself, the then-Prime Minister of Portugal. Reluctant to leave his homeland, Navelcar nonetheless made the journey to Lisbon where he exceled at his studies. But these were the years of decolonization, and as Goa was transferred between Portugal and India, Navelcar found himself unwittingly embroiled in the political instability of the time.

In a 2017 interview with the late novelist Margaret Mascarenhas, Navelcar recalled for her how the Indian takeover of Goa in 1961, which brought to a close 451 years of Portuguese occupation, resulted in his being “blacklisted.” Art historian Savia Viegas, who also interviewed Navelcar about the episode in 2017, further details that

a fellow Goan named António Fonseca …  demand[ed] that [he] sign … [a] document decr[ying] Jawaharlal Nehru as an aggressor and Goans as victims of his tyranny. Navelcar shrugged off involvement, saying he was apolitical ... “Hanv pintorist” (I am a painter).

While Navelcar claimed political apathy (in Portuguese-inflected Konkani), preferring instead to align himself with the realm of his talent, the patronage under which the artist came to his education and, thereupon, the repeated troubles in the different continents he called home, suggest that the artist’s life (and artistry) were never divorced from the political.

The politically motivated blacklisting proved such a detriment to Navelcar in Portugal that he was forced to seek employment on another continent. Feeling he had no other choice, the artist journeyed to Mozambique (still a Portuguese colony at the time) to teach. But that country, too, soon found itself on the verge of decolonization in the 1970s. Despite various incidents of discrimination, Portuguese Mozambique became an adopted country, a place the artist fondly called home. Covertly, Navelcar lent his artistic talents to pro-African anti-colonial efforts. In response to requests for art to accompany protest posters against colonial rule, Navelcar acquiesced and took pains to avoid detection by the Portuguese authorities, as Anne Ketteringham documents in the biography Vamona Navelcar: An Artist of Three Continents (2013).

Ironically, it was only after Mozambique’s independence in 1974 that Navelcar was to find himself in political trouble. An ordinary man impacted by the weight of historical transformation, Navelcar was again entangled in political machinations; only this time, he could not leave. Rather, he was incarcerated along with his students in a remote camp in the wilderness of Imala for three months on a trumped-up charge.

There could have been a myriad number of reasons for which Navelcar found himself afoul of the postcolonial administration. In his conversation with Mascarenhas, Navelcar referenced the incident which he believed might have landed him, and his students, in a concentration camp in 1975:

[T]he students of the 12th year Lyceum had a party and invited their teachers. I had a drink and danced with two white students. … A few days later, I began packing my things to leave Mozambique for good. But suddenly one of my colleagues met me and said that everyone who had attended the student party was required at the police station ...  [There,] students were crying and [their] parents were desperate. It appeared that because alcohol had been consumed at the party, everyone in attendance would be arrested.  

The lack of clarity as to why Navelcar and his students were rounded up and sent off to a hard labour camp is not an aberration in how Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO) dealt with the transition to postcolonialism. Scholar of Mozambiquan political history, Victor Igreja, deciphers that although the new government sought to “[eradicate] alleged enemies from society and [impose] a national revolutionary consciousness…[,] sometimes violence was enacted without purpose, and this created a serious moral conundrum” between power and justice.

Upon his release, the heartbroken artist decided to leave Mozambique. His destination was once again Portugal. The artist made it to his journey’s end, but his suitcase did not. In it were over a thousand pieces of art that were never to be recovered. His caché lost, Navelcar found it difficult to sustain a living as an artist in Portugal, having arrived at a time when the country was still recovering from The Carnation Revolution of 1974. It was then that the artist decided it best to return to his native Goa. However, the Goa he came back to in the 1980s, after having spent his most productive years in other locations, was unfamiliar with this artist’s oeuvre.

One must recognize the deep irony of the notion of “return” in Navelcar’s art, given the recurrent exilic experiences he has endured at multiple times and locations. Navelcar’s practice engaged ideas of return, movement, loss of home, and displacement as they are informed by personal circumstances and historical forces. Navelcar lived and worked in three continental locations, which makes it important to think about the artist and his life’s work as part of a global historical terrain. His is a story that others of his generation share in their journeys across the Lusophone world while still being connected to Goa; simultaneously, Goa itself received the cultural influences of these locations, making it the distinctive place it is.

Efforts to give the nonagenarian artist his due in his native land, in the hope of securing his legacy while
he was still alive, have been for naught. I
n having become a part of India since 1961, Goa could not situate this artist of three continents within a nationalist art history. Especially being a postcolonial nationalism borne out of British colonialism, it had no room for an artist whose trajectory included the Lusophonic world – its metropole and colonies in the Indian Ocean.

At the same time as Navelcar’s story is Asian, European, and African, it is distinctly Goan. Navelcar’s art not only makes visible a Goa connected to other points on the globe, but a Goa that has many worlds within it. With Navelcar’s death on 18 October, 2021, an entire legacy seems to be on the verge of disappearing and, yet, his canvasses are a record of that heritage, an act of resistance. Through them, Navelcar will continue to teach viewers of the global complexities of his native land. But only if his art is given the true recognition it deserves.


With excerpts from Goa/Portugal/Mozambique: The Many Lives of Vamona Navelcar (Fundação Oriente, 2017), edited by R. Benedito Ferrão. Thanks are due to the Navelcar family for permission to reproduce the art seen here.

From Scroll.