When I heard of Ivy Muriel da Fonseca’s demise on 1 September, 2015, it struck me how little I knew of her. The Goan edition of The Times of India delivered notice of her passing with the introductory words that she was the “widow of the late Indian Christian Cultural Renaissance artiste Angelo da Fonseca…” (6 September 2015). The article then goes on to report how the artist “was virtually hounded out of Goa following severe criticism for painting Christian themes with Indian settings,” and most notably “the Virgin Mary with a kunbi sari.” It is only then that we are told of Ivy da Fonseca’s education and professional life as a teacher, before the piece ends just as it had begun by returning to her artist-husband in whom “there has been a renewed interest … with exhibitions both in India and abroad.” While it would be easy to underscore how the article does little to shed light on da Fonseca’s life outside of casting her as the mate of her more famous husband, it is more useful to consider how the obituary is actually quite indicative of the Goan relationship to art.
Writing about the recent record-breaking sales of paintings by Francisco Newton Souza and Vasudeo Gaitonde, an article by Arti Das in The Navhind Times (26 September 2015) notes how it is only external recognition that brings local awareness to art by Goans. And, yet, while tellingly titled “Valued the World Over, Forgotten at Home – Goa’s most Prized Bardezkars”, Das’ piece about the two deceased painters, who are worthy of all the attention they get, leaves out that other still living artist of Bardez, Lisbon, and Maputo, Vamona Ananta Sinai Navelcar. A few months ago, I had the opportunity to meet with Navelcar at his home in Pomburpa. An octogenarian, the painter’s recall of the past is remarkable. I asked him about the details of his life as recorded in Anne Ketteringham’s biography Vamona Navelcar: An Artist of Three Continents (2013), and was told of his times in the geographies alluded to in the book’s title: Asia, Europe, and Africa. “I should have never come back to Goa”, Navelcar confided. “It was my biggest mistake…”
These stinging words stayed with me, and I shared them a few days later with the Aldona artist Conrad Pinto. “He would feel that way”, Pinto mused, alluding to the lack of infrastructure in Goa for art appreciation. This sentiment is echoed by the late journalist Joel D’Souza who, in an important Goa Today article titled “Goans’ Art Grandeur” (December 2012), traces contemporary Goan art history and the unique trajectories of Goan style, only to come to the conclusion that, in Goa, art is “the pleasure of the art lover’s alone” (p. 24). With this, D’Souza points to the lack of institutional support for Goan artists; even so, he also highlights the need for the enjoyment of art to be a community practice that is not solely in the purview of those classes that frequent galleries or have the monetary ability to own art that is displayed in the exclusive confines of their homes.
And this is precisely where Ivy da Fonseca’s contribution is forgotten.
From my conversations with art historian, painter, and writer Savia Viegas, I learned of da Fonseca’s championing of her husband’s legacy. The one thing that the aforementioned TOI article does get right is that da Fonseca was formidable, “an iron lady” the piece calls her. Art critics note that it was after his wife that Angelo da Fonseca modelled his brown Madonna, to borrow Viegas’ term (Himal Southasian, August 2010), but had it not been for her sheer audacity in reclaiming her husband’s works, many of the canvases that are now available for public viewership in Goa might not have readily been part of the public domain. As much as she was “in” da Fonseca’s canvas – his inspiration – she was also the woman who continued to keep his work in the public eye long after he had passed away.
The brilliance of da Fonseca’s work lies not just in his depiction of biblical themes in South Asian hues, but in bringing together the sacred with the ordinary in likening the Madonna to his earthly wife. It was because of his plebeian browning of the Madonna’s skin that da Fonseca courted ire. da Fonseca chose to represent his own community in his art, and so it is only fitting that his works be enjoyed in Goa for it is part of our heritage. Ivy da Fonseca’s role in making this happen should aid the recognition that she was not merely muse nor just the artist’s wife, but a purveyor of culture and an individual in her own right.
From The Goan.