Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Itinerant: The coconut shell and the patron

The last couple of columns of the Itinerant have explored the meaning of the Indo-Portuguese and the significance of what is held under this term. These columns challenged the conception that Indo-Portuguese art should be seen as something from the past with nothing to offer us in the present or the future. On the contrary, a public collection of the art of the Indo-Portuguese stands to deepen the aesthetic vocabulary of both artists as well as lay individuals living in the state. It is this argument that this column will concern itself with.

If one walks into the shops and spaces that offer tourists souvenirs from Goa one realises that by and large these products fall into the category of what one would call folk art. Products made from shells, terracotta, coir, simple crochet, they are marked by a certain simplicity, not particularly nuanced in their artistic rendition, nor do they draw from a particularly deep cultural pool. One may be tempted to suggest that this is all one can produce with these materials, such as the coconut, but this is where I would like to differ and offer contrary examples.

In the course of my time in Lisbon, I had the opportunity to come across a couple of works of art made from the coconut shell. Both of these works are particularly vivid in my mind. One of these objects was a ciborium; that is the container that holds the consecrated communion wafers, while the other was a chalice. Both these objects often have a similar structure, consisting of a central bowl that is fitted to a footed stem. A ciborium normally contains a cover that fits tightly over the rim of the bowl. In both these cases the central bowl was made of the finely finished shell of the coconut. Both these bowls were fitted on the silver stands, and the ciborium had a smart silver cover. Additionally, the ciborium had four silver medallions spaced evenly along the outer diameter of the bowl.

When I first saw these works, I was completely awed by the manner in which the ‘humble’ coconut shell had been converted into a work of the high baroque and elevated into an object for the use of the Catholic cult. Given that I was able to encounter one of these pieces rather often, it soon became so commonplace for me to assume that combining a precious metal with coconut shell was a fairly obvious design possibility. Were one of the many museums in the state to decide to prosecute a project that would amass Indo-Portuguese art in all its variety, there would be without doubt a host of other such objects that would offer local artists, artisans patrons of art, a plethora of ideas in which to work with materials that are still commonly available. 

It is not merely artists and artisans who can benefit from such a deepening of their references, but indeed patrons of art as well. The success of most of the great movements of art benefitted substantially from the demands of a cultured network of patrons. Indeed, in the case of the Indo-Portuguese these patrons ranged not only from European nobility and men of wealth, but notables from all across the Indian ocean world. It was this patronage that made for the particularly interesting production of Indo-Portuguese art. In addition to the educational aspect that such a collection would have, it would also allow us to also host curators that would be able to encourage conversations between contemporary works with works from our past.

It seems obvious enough that a reclamation of the Indo-Portuguese should begin post-haste.

(A version of this post was first published in The Goan dated  6 Sept 2014)

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