Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A Cure for Foolishness

When I first encountered this work by Navelcar I knew, because of earlier conversations with the artist, that these two lines of calligraphy were not some orientalist scribbling. The artist had shared with me that, as a boy, he had learned to read and write Urdu from a Catholic teacher in the neighbouring village of Aldona. Given my own inability to read Urdu, I turned the image over to friends on social media who revealed that the script was, in fact, Arabic. At this point differences emerged in interpretation. One friend argued that it looked like the work of someone practicing to write in Arabic, with the first line marked by errors and the second correcting those errors. This explanation made sense, since the artist has eschewed a title for this piece. A second appraisal of the text suggested that both lines were actually the same, just written in slightly different styles. “The difference lies in a slight variation in the cursive ‘h’, the ‘lā’ and the hamza...,” my friend offered. Both assessments were clear in their estimation, however, that the text before us captures the Arabic proverb “Alhamaq da' la dawa' lahu.” This translates to: “Foolishness/stupidity is a disease that has no cure/treatment.” The language and the choice of proverb with which to practice his calligraphic skills reveal interesting dimensions of the artist’s personality. 

Asked to write a curatorial essay for an exhibition in Hyderabad of the works of Goan artists in 2015, I encountered the sheer diversity of global experiences that animate their works. Taking cue from the erstwhile authoritarian Estado Novo’s proclamation: “Portugal não é um país pequeno” (Portugal is not a small country), and choosing to subvert it, my essay notes that “Goa is not a small country.” Having lived through the Estado Novo and traversed the pluri-continental Portuguese world, it is my suspicion that Navelcar, whose art bears the influence of these experiences, would agree with my reframing of the Salazarist claim.

Subsequent to Goa’s legal disconnection from the Portuguese world due to the annexation of the territory by the Indian Union in 1961, Goan identity has been reformulated by Indian nationalists to reflect a narrower character. Following the national lead, itself obsessed with brahmanical origins, Goan elites have crafted a local identity that is focussed on an imagined Sanskritic past, when in fact Goan culture is knit from heterogeneous strands. Navelcar’s efforts in this untitled piece counter this Indian nationalist tendency, demonstrating instead the centuries-old, and continuing, connections between Goans and the larger Indian Ocean world within which they are situated.

The ties between Goans and Arabs predate the migration of the former to the Gulf states as a result of the economic boom of the 1950s. The eastern coastline of the Arabian Sea was frequented by Arab traders even prior to the latter’s conversion to Islam. For example, the myths associated with the figure of Cheraman Perumal, the Chera ruler of the territories  that now constitute contemporary Kerala, evidence this ancient proximity. In one myth, the ruler, a contemporary of the Prophet Mohammed, witnessed the splitting of the moon. On learning from visiting Arab traders of a similar event involving the Prophet, Perumal is reported to have renounced his kingdom, travelled to Mecca, and converted to Islam. In the context of such exchange, one could enquire whether Navelcar’s present work operates as a suggestion of the “stupidity” or “foolishness” of contemporary identity-framers who tether Goan identity to a Sanskritic one alone, while obscuring the various pluri-continental strands that have and continue to constitute Goan identities.

Further, Arabic is not a language internal to Goan heritage alone. It is also inherent to the other spaces through which this exhibition tracks the journey of Navelcar: Portugal and Mozambique. Arabic was an Iberian language prior to the establishment of the Frankish kingdom of Portugal. As such, a reconnection with the language is critical to the future of Portugal if it is to move away from those historiographies of the country that are racialized and parochial. Being part of the Swahili coast, Arabic similarly maintains a visceral presence in parts of Mozambique. It turns out, therefore, that Arabic is not as alien to Navelcar’s world as it might first appear. Thereupon, his artistic practice could be viewed as a challenge to the postcolonial nationalisms that besiege the various locations in his world: Goa, Portugal, and Mozambique.

If such is the artist’s intent, then Navelcar’s choice of idiom, and his practice at perfecting his Arabic calligraphic skill, suggest that there is in fact a cure for foolishness. The remedy lies in the opening of one’s self to the larger world. Foolishness, after all, is not so much a naturally existing state, but a stubborn refusal to see the world as it is.

(A version of this text was first published in the catalogue organised by R. Benedito Ferrao that accompanies the exhibition 'Goa / Portugal / Mozambique - The Many Lives of Vamona Navelcar' organised by the Al-Zulaij Collective, at the Fundação Oriente India from 12 Dec 2017 - 12 Jan 2018.)