Saturday, March 17, 2012

"The Other Madonna" - O HERALDO: The Transient (Goa - 17 March 2012)

This Lenten season, an exhibit titled “The Passion and Glory” showcases Angelo da Fonseca’s art at the Xavier Centre of Historical Research. It ensues from “The Christmas Story” exhibition of the Goan artist’s work, which I had the pleasure of viewing at the same venue a few months prior. Apart from da Fonseca’s unique South Asian styling of Christian themes, what struck me is the centrality of the Madonna in much of his work.

The Pietà at St. Peter's Basilica
Of course, da Fonseca is not alone in portraying Mary as a central figure in artistic composition. At the risk of correlating the Goan artist’s images to Western iconography, my purpose in comparing da Fonseca’s renditions to Michelangelo’s Pietà will be revealed to be more about female representation than about similarities in Christian art. In 1972, Laszlo Toth infamously struck Michelangelo’s creation at St. Peter’s Basilica with a hammer, declaring that he was Jesus Christ. Despite Toth’s messianic pronouncement, it was not the figure of Jesus in the sculpture that he chose to efface, but that of Mary. The repaired statue now finds protection behind glass, still drawing attention to Michelangelo’s artistic focus on the Madonna. The dead Christ lies on her lap, almost out of view. His body is seen upon following the trajectory of the Mother’s downcast eyes. Mary, here, is not so much an icon of divinity, but a mother in mourning. Though Toth’s actions could be psychoanalyzed as an oedipal expression of repressed feelings towards a mother figure, did he exact his vengeance on the Madonna because of the gendered representation of her humanity?

Angelo da Fonseca (1902-1967)
Compare this to the reception of da Fonseca’s work, produced mostly during the twilight years of colonization in British and Portuguese India. In her evocatively titled essay, “Painting the Madonna Brown,” Savia Viegas, curator of the XCHR exhibits, says of elite Catholic Goan society that they perceived da Fonseca’s Indian-coloured woman as a threat, because “the classical Mary was a source of identity that connected [them] with ‘white society’...” Like Michelangelo, da Fonseca had created a Madonna who was human. But, this time, Mary’s lack of divinity was in the colour of her skin, which also invited attack.
In noting the racialized caste-bias of the Goan artist’s audience, Viegas reveals the subversive element in da Fonseca’s work. In a similar vein, theologian Felix Wilfred indentifies how “the dalits’ encounter with manifold social oppression led to a re-reading of the gospel,” causing the development of South Asian liberation theology – “an analysis of society [that takes] into account the caste structure, directing its critique against Brahminical hegemony.” 
Visitation (1954)

So also, the brown Madonna offers a potential counterpoint to patriarchy in general. For example, when da Fonseca depicts Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, no visible male figures frame their contact. Here, being a woman is not equated with motherhood. The Madonna, then, is posited in da Fonseca’s oeuvre as a woman whose gender and race brings awareness to marginality. Her humanity is in being the revolutionary other.

A version of this piece appears in print and can be found online.


  1. Brilliant reading of race, gender, theology, postcolonial possibilities, etc through the visual. Would love to hear more about Catholicism and the feminine figure in comparative postcolonial contexts, as well how you might consider the face and skin as visual archives that work against patriarchal renderings of history.


    1. Thanks for these thoughts, JFC - much appreciated. As you suggest, it would be very interesting to consider, for example, the comparative representations of the Virgin in South Asian and other postcolonial contexts including, but not limited to, Our Lady of Guadalupe. Robert Newman has an essay on Our Lady of Vailankanni, who is an important figure to Goans, and not just Catholics at that. Interestingly, though she is an Indian representation of the Mother, her origins are non-Goan.

      I do believe that the visuality of skin and face - and art is an important archive of representation in this respect - gives pause to the hegemony of colonial and patriarchal culture. This is not only because of skin/face/art's physicality, but even the affectiveness of expression that is framed within them. While Angelo da Fonseca captures some of this in his work, he clearly also evokes quite the affective response in his audience. They are/were made uncomfortable in their assumptions of and investments in class, gender, and race privilege when brought face to face with all that skin and paint could (not) hide!