Goan artist Vamona Ananta Sinai Navelcar was born in the small coastal village of Pormburpa in North Goa on May 5, 1929. Despite his nascence in this tiny place, his career spanned seven decades and three continents. This legacy notwithstanding, Navelcar is little known in his homeland.
For many Goan artists who were contemporaries of Navelcar, such as the Modernists Ângela Trindade (1909-1980), VS Gaitonde (1924-2001), and FN Souza (1924-2002), their contributions to art were only brought to public knowledge posthumously. Even the recent demise of Laxman Pai (1926-2021) makes it apparent that Goan artists live in Goa in obscurity, their contributions underacknowledged as living testaments to Goa’s heritage.
What sets Navelcar apart from his esteemed contemporaries is that his canvas served as a chronicle of key moments in Goan, Portuguese, and Mozambiquan histories. Known as an artist of three continents, Navelcar’s works – even in the last years of his life – attest to how the time he spent in these disparate yet colonially connected lands informed his aesthetic. Navelcar saw himself as a product of these three lands, but his art itself is birthed of displacement. And yet this is all the more reason to recognise Navelcar’s artistry as being uniquely Goan, for the circumstances that caused his dislocations are equally of the history that have made Goa the place it is today.
The story of how Navelcar came to receive his formal art education in Lisbon is the stuff of legend. While a young man in 1950s’ Portuguese Goa, Navelcar was granted a scholarship by António de Oliveira Salazar himself, who was then prime minister of Portugal. Reluctant to leave his homeland, Navelcar nonetheless made the journey to Lisbon where he exceled at his studies. But these were the years of decolonisation, and as Goa was transferred between Portugal and India, Navelcar found himself unwittingly embroiled in the political instability of the time.
In a 2017 interview with the late novelist Margaret Mascarenhas, Navelcar recalled for her how the Indian takeover of Goa in 1961, which brought to a close 451 years of Portuguese occupation, resulted in his being “blacklisted”. Art historian Savia Viegas, who also interviewed Navelcar about the episode in 2017, further details that
“a fellow Goan named António Fonseca … demand[ed] that [he] sign … [a] document decr[ying] Jawaharlal Nehru as an aggressor and Goans as victims of his tyranny. Navelcar shrugged off involvement, saying he was apolitical ... ‘Hanv pintorist’ (I am a painter).”
While Navelcar claimed political apathy (in Portuguese-inflected Konkani), preferring instead to align himself with the realm of his talent, the patronage under which the artist came to his education and, thereupon, the repeated troubles in the different continents he called home, suggest that the artist’s life (and artistry) were never divorced from the political.
The politically motivated blacklisting proved such a detriment to Navelcar in Portugal that he was forced to seek employment on another continent. Feeling he had no other choice, the artist journeyed to Mozambique (still a Portuguese colony at the time) to teach. But that country, too, soon found itself on the verge of decolonisation in the 1970s. Despite various incidents of discrimination, Portuguese Mozambique became an adopted country, a place the artist fondly called home.
Covertly, Navelcar lent his artistic talents to pro-African anti-colonial efforts. In response to requests for art to accompany protest posters against colonial rule, Navelcar acquiesced and took pains to avoid detection by the Portuguese authorities, as Anne Ketteringham documents in the biography Vamona Navelcar: An Artist of Three Continents (2013).
Ironically, it was only after Mozambique’s independence in 1974 that Navelcar was to find himself in political trouble. An ordinary man impacted by the weight of historical transformation, Navelcar was again entangled in political machinations; only this time, he could not leave. Rather, he was incarcerated along with his students in a remote camp in the wilderness of Imala for three months on a trumped-up charge.
There could have been a myriad number of reasons for which Navelcar found himself afoul of the postcolonial administration. In his conversation with Mascarenhas, Navelcar referenced the incident which he believed might have landed him, and his students, in a concentration camp in 1975:
“[T]he students of the 12th year Lyceum had a party and invited their teachers. I had a drink and danced with two white students. … A few days later, I began packing my things to leave Mozambique for good. But suddenly one of my colleagues met me and said that everyone who had attended the student party was required at the police station ... [There,] students were crying and [their] parents were desperate. It appeared that because alcohol had been consumed at the party, everyone in attendance would be arrested.”
The lack of clarity as to why Navelcar and his students were rounded up and sent off to a hard labour camp is not an aberration in how Frente de Libertação de Moçambique or FRELIMO dealt with the transition to postcolonialism. Scholar of Mozambiquan political history, Victor Igreja, deciphers that although the new government sought to “[eradicate] alleged enemies from society and [impose] a national revolutionary consciousness…[,] sometimes violence was enacted without purpose, and this created a serious moral conundrum” between power and justice.
Upon his release, the heartbroken artist decided to leave Mozambique. His destination was once again Portugal. The artist made it to his journey’s end, but his suitcase did not. In it were over a thousand pieces of art that were never to be recovered. His caché lost, Navelcar found it difficult to sustain a living as an artist in Portugal, having arrived at a time when the country was still recovering from The Carnation Revolution of 1974.
It was then that the artist decided it best to return to his native Goa. However, the Goa he came back to in the 1980s, after having spent his most productive years in other locations, was unfamiliar with this artist’s oeuvre.
One must recognise the deep irony of the notion of “return” in Navelcar’s art, given the recurrent exilic experiences he has endured at multiple times and locations. Navelcar’s practice engaged ideas of return, movement, loss of home, and displacement as they are informed by personal circumstances and historical forces.
Navelcar lived and worked in three continental locations, which makes it important to think about the artist and his life’s work as part of a global historical terrain. His is a story that others of his generation share in their journeys across the Lusophone world while still being connected to Goa; simultaneously, Goa itself received the cultural influences of these locations, making it the distinctive place it is.
Efforts to give the nonagenarian artist his due in his native land, in the hope of securing his legacy while he was still alive, had been for naught. In having become a part of India since 1961, Goa could not situate this artist of three continents within a nationalist art history. Especially being a postcolonial nationalism borne out of British colonialism, it had no room for an artist whose trajectory included the Lusophonic world – its metropole and colonies in the Indian Ocean.
At the same time as Navelcar’s story is Asian, European, and African, it is distinctly Goan. Navelcar’s art not only makes visible a Goa connected to other points on the globe, but a Goa that has many worlds within it. With Navelcar’s death on October 18, an entire legacy seems to be on the verge of disappearing and, yet, his canvasses are a record of that heritage, an act of resistance.
Through them, Navelcar will continue to teach viewers of the global complexities of his native land. But only if his art is given the true recognition it deserves.
With excerpts from Goa/Portugal/Mozambique: The Many Lives of Vamona Navelcar (Fundação Oriente, 2017), edited by R. Benedito Ferrão. Thanks are due to the Navelcar family for permission to reproduce the art seen here.
R Benedito Ferrão is an Assistant Professor of English and Asian & Pacific Islander American Studies at William and Mary, Virginia, USA.
Vishvesh Prabhakar Kandolkar is an Associate Professor of Architecture at Goa College of Architecture.