Sunday, July 7, 2013

"A Suitcase Full of Continents: Vamona Navelcar as Performance Artist" - MUSE INDIA (July - August 2013)

There is a palpable sense of something ominous to come as the artist packs up everything of significance “with the help of Sheriff,” his man-servant (Ketteringham 2013: 164). In this striking moment in the biography Vamona Navelcar: An Artist of Three Continents, Anne Ketteringham chronicles that her subject “collected all his belongings including nine hundred and fifty drawings and sketches, sixty oil paintings, prizes that he had won as well as diplomas and placed them in a suitcase ready to leave Mozambique” (ibid). The stage is set for another exit – a recurrent theme in Vamona Ananta Sinai Navelcar’s life. “He no longer wished to stay in Mozambique after the torment [and] indignity of imprisonment...” (ibid). The route from Maputo was circuitous, and included Beira, Dar-es-Salaam, and Nairobi (Ketteringham 2013: 165) – a veritable cartography of empire past. Finally, after Frankfurt and Barcelona, Navelcar “arrived in Lisbon in early February 1976” (ibid). The convoluted itinerary had been the result of political instability in the aftermath of Mozambique’s independence, which had made “more direct routes” unavailable (ibid). Disembarking in the cold, Navelcar was to find that even Portugal, like its former African dominion, was in distress; “political and social upheaval had great consequences for the general public, ... the country ... as well as Vamona himself,” Ketteringham observes (ibid). And then, against this backdrop of postcolonial anguish, it happens. A prop goes missing and the artist is left near-naked on stage. The suitcase, the one full of his life’s work, is lost.

The loss of the suitcase, I would like to suggest, is Navelcar’s most poignant work of art. Ketteringham’s comprehensive biography uncovers not only an artist’s life, but one replete with performative imagery that does not occur on Navelcar’s canvas alone. An artist of diverse skills, one whose oeuvre encompasses painting, line drawing, sketching, and more, Navelcar’s work has been internationally exhibited and collected but, peculiarly, little known in India itself. Heretofore, he has never been thought of as a performance artist, either. Navelcar’s is not a routine that harbours guile: “Vamona was distraught ... This tragedy hit [him] hard...,” Ketteringham records (171-172). The suitcase was never recovered despite repeated trips to the airport to enquire about it, and “after one week [Navelcar] gave up” (Ketteringham 2013: 171). At the risk of belittling this event, one completely lacking in contrivance, what I mean to argue by recasting the loss of the suitcase as an artistic act, is that Navelcar’s very life, in its historical and geographical entanglements, cannot be separated from the artistic labour it has inspired. All of it constitutes Navelcar’s artistry. Therefore, this “act” of losing the entirety of one’s artistic corpus during the ostensibly mundane affair of travelling, in being both performative and a lived experience, at once re-enacts and bears witness to the seemingly grandiose postcolonial themes of displacement, loss, and exile in their inescapably quotidian nature. What the “performance” of loss reveals to be most ironic in this juxtaposition of the tragic and the farcical, the extraordinary and the mundane, is the inability to tell the difference.

The suitcase, meant to function like a frame that would hold “all his work..., but more importantly all his
prizes and certificates as well” (Ketteringham 2013: 171-172), becomes the canvas, instead. Its contents were an archive of Navelcar’s personal and artistic history, the legacy of someone who had lived in the continents of Asia, Europe, and Africa. Lost somewhere between, the artist’s luggage becomes inseparable from the landscapes and milieux that conjured them – one unintelligible from the other. By being absorbed back into the geography that spawned them, Navelcar’s art in these manifold and fused canvasses of performance, suitcase, pictures, continents, and even transit, participates in what João Sarmento defines in Fortifications, Post-colonialism and Power  as “wider transnational spatial processes” (2011: 2). Navelcar’s artistry and life are then to be viewed as being shaped by influences unattributable to single locations, while he also performatively acts as a conduit between those settings. In its loss, the suitcase signifies a spatiotemporally transgressive canvas: larger than one life and/or one location.

Deriving his notion of the mutability in spatiality from cultural geography, Sarmento sees “the material, symbolic and functional coexist[ing], creating mixed, hybrid and fluid atmospheres” (2011: 1). As useful as Sarmento’s articulation of the need “to understand how heritage” should not be “seen ... as a single story, but as plural versions” (ibid) is, I do not want to propose that Navelcar’s performance simply participates in a utopic multiculturalism that harmoniously blends together the different cultural influences he has been exposed to and has participated in. Rather, Navelcar’s life in Goa, Portugal, and Mozambique, in all its exigencies, is evidenced in his art as an interstitial practice - the kind of association Homi Bhabha denotes in The Location of Culture as “the relation of cultures ... [or] part of a complex process of ‘minoritarian’ modernity, not simply a polarity of majority and minority, the center and the periphery” (2004: xx).

As an example of such complexity, take Ketteringham’s wonderment at a piece 

done  in 1980 whilst Vamona was still in Portugal, not long before he decided to return to Goa. The painting titled ‘African Figure’ is a portrait of a person with African features, a brown neck, but with a white face. Why is this I ask myself! My interpretation is that the troubles Africa had were brought back to Portugal, in [Navelcar’s] own mind at least. Vamona was teaching and had a very good standard of living compared to local people in Mozambique. He had a good social status as a professor ..., a servant, ... a lovely house ... and all the social trimmings that went with his position. Suddenly, he is back in Portugal with nothing, ... with no job or social standing ... Communism was never far away, threatening to bring society down to the lowest common denominator... (2013: 179)

What Ketteringham makes apparent here are overlapping strands that are simultaneously cultural, personal, and political. The concerns acknowledged are middling, even – “not simply ... the center and the periphery.” They are replete with the commonplaceness of middle class life, but still evocative of a panoply of elements beyond the daily grind, that encompass political economies and postcolonial volatility. 

"African Figure" (1980) by Vamona Navelcar. Image courtesy of Anne Ketteringham.

Nonetheless, Ketteringham’s observation of why Navelcar would paint his “African Figure” with black features, a brown neck, and a white face, cannot only assume the personal in Navelcar’s experience in Africa. What he, the brown artist, had ferried over in his transit to Portugal was more than just a personal matter. The “racial” palette Navelcar employs in “African Figure” speaks to the plurality of Portuguese post/coloniality, not solely in eliciting multiculturalism, but also in attesting to Sarmento’s conception of transnational processes that cannot be relegated to any one geographic domain. It was Portugal’s involvement in East Africa that had instigated the anti-colonial struggle there, one that Navelcar contributed to through his art which was sometimes used in political posters (Ketteringham 2013: 106).

This was, indeed, the reason why Navelcar felt so betrayed when he was imprisoned, along with his students, by the newly independent state whose fight for freedom he had supported. The capriciousness of the fledgling postcolonial government, eager to make its power felt, is pertinently captured in the Mozambican film Virgem Margarida (Azevedo 2012). Set in 1975, it fictionalizes actual proceedings that saw the rounding up of prostitutes for “re-education” in camps in remotes parts of the country, not unlike the one that Navelcar was sent to in Imala. The imprisoning of students, artists, prostitutes, and others deemed morally questionable and, somehow, enemies of the state, confirms Achille Mbembe’s insight in his book On the Postcolony that “all through the history of modern societies, ... the monopoly of legitimate violence was one key to state-building” (2001: 89).

Of course, what Mbembe points to here is the ludicrousness of the so-called legitimacy of violence. In naming violence as a hallmark of the modern practice of state-building, Mbembe also equates former colonies and colonizers, both of which grapple with the condition of post-imperial governmentality. Like the Mozambican freedom struggle and its postcolonially repressive governance, the political disenfranchisement in metropolitan Portugal itself had transpired in the umbra of the colonial era Estado Novo. That regime came to an end with the Carnation Revolution of 1974. The lost suitcase is again an apt metaphor here. In its misplacement, Navelcar performs an itinerary between political causes and influences that have many origins and transits, but no discernible destination.

Navelcar’s chagrin at arriving in a post-Estado Novo Lisbon, a city he had known as a student in the 1950s and 60s, is educed by Ketteringham as the artist’s apprehension that “Communism was never far away...” What this marks, despite the fate he had befallen, is Navelcar’s privilege. Born in Goa to a Hindu Brahmin family that “considered arts and artists to be beneath their status” (Ketteringham 2013: 18), Navelcar’s opportunity to pursue his talents came directly from the Estado Novo itself. The then Governor General of Goa, Paulo Bénard Guedes, commissioned a portrait of the prime minister of Portugal from Navelcar and, without the knowledge of the artist, sent it to Dr. António de Oliveira Salazar (Ketteringham 2013: 29). Thereupon, Guedes triumphantly informed Navelcar that “[a] scholarship sanctioned by ... Dr. Salazar has been granted to you” (ibid). Because the conferral of the scholarship occurred in the period following the end of the British Empire in India, it would not be amiss to think of the Portuguese dictator’s largesse as being propagandist in character. Later on, other political events that took place in Portugal, with the impending liberation of Goa in the backdrop, and the need for employment, caused Navelcar to seek work in Luso-Africa. Until his internment at the Imala rehabilitation camp, Navelcar had a comfortable domestic situation, as Ketteringham comments, even though he was stationed in far-off Nampula as an instructor at a school that proved to be a racially charged workplace because of its white Portuguese director (Ketteringham 2013: 86-87).

Navelcar’s migrations, not dissimilar to that of his suitcase on his return journey, demarcate a Luso-specific trend. While some research has been done on the roots of Goan migration within the period of “Portuguese
colonialism, [when] the agrarian economy was severely disrupted,” causing “job security [to be] threatened” (Mascarenhas-Keyes 2011: 142), it has primarily centered on the emigration of Catholic Goans. In Colonialism, Migration and the International Catholic Goan Community, Mascarenhas-Keyes discerns that though “some new lucrative occupations arose” as Goa’s economy changed from being one based primarily on agriculture, access to other kinds of employment were restricted by one’s caste background (ibid). She concludes that the declining number of opportunities meant that several had “to look beyond Goa for employment...,” which “was facilitated in the 19th century, and thereafter, by the emergence of a large number of jobs, fostered particularly by the development of British colonialism...” in the subcontinent and the larger imperial network (ibid). Clearly, the ill-fated Lusotopic journey of Navelcar’s suitcase recommends other avenues of migration research that break away from the Anglo-centrism of postcolonial studies, while still bearing caste and religious affiliations in mind.

By allowing the loss of his suitcase to take centre stage, what I have sought to do is render Navelcar as a different kind of artist than he is generally thought of. Ketteringham’s book raises the curtain on a life in many acts and on diverse stages, but with transitions of the personal, political, and the post/colonial to connect them. Navelcar executes that most memorable performance of the loss of his suitcase to cross in and out of the imbricated stories of nations, peoples, and himself, juggling absurdity and purposefulness as the twinned but often indiscernible facets of postcolonial societies in flux.

Addressing the role of the story-teller in “colonised societies” (1996: 126), Helen Gilbert and Joanne Tompkins write in Post-colonial Drama that these players are “[a]ware of the audience and of [their] own position as entertainer[s], [and so] the story-teller revises history in/through every performance by making the past ‘speak’ to the present” (1996: 127). If the loss of the suitcase was Navelcar’s allegorical commentary on the lack of self-possession in the postcolonial nations of Mozambique and Portugal, then his viewpoint is revised for the contemporary moment when he communicates from the vantage of his past perspective to the Goa he presently resides in. In a recent painting titled “Cry my Beloved Goa,” Navelcar depicts his homeland as “the sacred Cow ... being eaten alive and tormented by 40 crows” who represent Members of the Legislative Assembly – Goa’s government (Ketteringham 2013: 228). No stranger to the theatrics of states, and so frequently finding himself at what appeared to be the final curtain, Navelcar’s continued artistry even now that he is in his eighties, proves that encores are always in the making and that some baggage will always be in the process of being unpacked.

"Cry my Beloved Goa" (2011) by Vamona Navelcar. Image courtesy of Anne Ketteringham.

Azevedo, Licinio. 2012, Virgem Margarida, Lisbon, Marfilmes.
Gilbert, Helen, and Joanne Tompkins. 1996, Post-colonial Drama: Theory, Practice, Politics, London, Routledge.
Bhabha, Homi K. 2004. The Location of Culture, London, Routledge Classics.
Ketteringham, Anne. 2013, Vamona Navelcar: An Artist of Three Continents, Pune, Reality PLC and Village Sanctuary Arts.
Mascarenhas-Keyes, Stella. 2011, Colonialism, Migration and the International Catholic Goan Community, Saligao, Goa 1556.
Mbembe, Achille. 2001, On the Postcolony, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Sarmento, João. 2011, Fortifications, Post-colonialism and Power: Ruins and Imperial Legacies, Surrey, Ashgate, 2011.

This article appears online in the July - August 2013 issue of Muse India dedicated to Goan literature. For more on the artist, visit the Facebook page dedicated to Vamona Ananta Sinai Navelcar.

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