Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Reading Angelo: Art and the Goan

I have to confess that until recently I was not a great fan of Angelo da Fonseca, an artist who has been substantially feted in recent times. Indeed, mention his name and the project that spurred his work and I would experience more than mild irritation. A good amount of this response changed not too long ago after visiting the ongoing exhibition of his works held at the Xavier Centre of Historical Research (XCHR). This exhibition combines a large number of his works that were earlier exhibited in smaller groupings whose content was determined according to the Christian liturgical calendar. Thus where the contents of earlier exhibitions followed a Christmas or Lenten theme, this time round one saw the exhibition of a wider gamut of Fonseca’s works.
My earlier responses to Fonseca did not follow from a consideration of his work, but were largely a response to the project of inculturation he was committed to. Since even before the 1960s and the dramatic changes of the Vatican Council II, there had been a movement to depict Christ, his mother and the Saints in forms that were not restricted to Aryan stereotypes. There was a clamour in some sectors to depict the universal Christ in universal tones. People wanted to see Christ not merely as a blond blue eyed man, but in darker skin tones, outside of northern European locales. 

In itself this was not a bad idea. After all, Christ emerged from out of Palestine, the likelihood of his being blond and blue eyed are slim. The problem with the project of inculturation, however, was that in South Asia, this project became a project of brahmanising Christ. Christ and his story were depicted within forms that one can relate directly to brahmanical Hinduism. It is as if Christ lived within an entirely Hindu upper-caste milieu. Such a project has a number of problems, first it devalues the natal culture of many Christians. Born from the encounter of Europe with subcontinental South Asia, these Christians have internalised many European forms that have become local. Further, representing Christ in brahmanical forms perpetuates a casteism that is arguably not a part of the Christian message.

Viewing the art works on display at the XCHR my usual irritation was displaced by an amazement for the details I saw in Fonseca’s art. Take, for example, the little squiggle at the end of a line that he uses to represent the Holy Spirit in his representation of the Annunciation. Or the very realistic little lilies in another image.
It was obvious as one progressed along the exhibition that Fonseca was creating a style that drew as much from the European tradition, as well as from Mughal miniatures. Not all of his figures were brahmanical, rather the bearded and turbaned Saint Joseph often came across as Muslim, Mary, in a pheran and head scarf Kashmiri. This complexity is of course not surprising given his training under Abanindranath Tagore.

Even if one disliked the brahmanical references, one had to appreciate the clever way in which Fonseca interpreted these forms. For example, traditional European depictions of Saint Anne often have her seated while instructing her daughter Mary. Fonseca takes this form but instead uses the Shiva-Shakti model, where a miniature Shakti sits on the left thigh of Shiva. Brilliant!

One of the problems with Indian nationalism is that it casts the woman as the bearer of the national image. Thus, she is expected to be demure, always in a sari, and her pallu draped decorously over her head. Some of this odious nationalism emerges in Fonseca’s art. The grief of Mary as she wails either at the foot of the cross, or with her dead son in her arms is a spectacular feature in Western art. None of this sort of anguish is visible in many of Fonseca’s depictions of Mary at the scene of and after the crucifixion. And it is not as if real south Asian women do not make dramatic, heart-rending spectacles of their grief. The nationalist image of the woman, even when suffering, is of a demure little thing. This is where one regrets Fonseca’s nationalist inspiration.

Despite the luxurious display of so many of his art works, the exhibition is a little disappointing because it fails to offer blurbs that could allow the viewer to gain a deeper appreciation of the art works, the little details that the uninitiated might miss. Never mind non-Christians, a good number of Catholics are unfamiliar with traditional iconography, and with Fonseca one has the bewildering mixture of multiple styles. One would have imagined blurbs to be essential.

Similarly, there is a little bank of photographic images of Fonseca, sometimes with family. These are left marooned in a sea of his art works, leaving us no way in which to engage with them. These images could have been the subject of an independent exhibition, or juxtaposed to demonstrate, as an artist friend pointed out to me, how the face of Fonseca’s Madonna’s often resembles that of his wife.

Regardless of these small shortcomings, The ‘Angelo da Fonseca RETROSPECTIVE’ is an exhibition worth visiting. What is heartening is that the XCHR also provides prints of some of Fonseca’s works available for purchase. One wishes this little initiative well because it bears the seed of great promise, allowing Fonseca’s images to be spread wider afield, entering homes as objects of veneration, supplementing the existing bank of Aryan Christs that rule the roost today.

The ‘Angelo da Fonseca RETROSPECTIVE’ will be available for public viewing at the Xavier Centre of Historical Research, Alto-Porvorim from 13 November 2014 to 12 January 2015. The Exhibition will be open from Monday to Friday from 10 am to 5 pm.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo on 14 Nov 2014)

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