Watercolourist John Pereira’s exhibition titled Once Upon a Time in Goa, which will be held at Mumbai’s Jehangir Art Gallery between February 21 and February 27, showcases the region’s natural beauty, village life, local traditions and forms of architecture at a time when the state finds itself grappling with the uncertainties of change.
Pereira graduated from Goa College of Art in 2003 and his work has featured in some duo or group shows. The Mumbai show will be the Fatorda resident’s first solo exhibition.
In this interview, Pereira reflects on the present conditions for Goan artists, his artistic trajectory and Goan culture as a constant muse.
Once Upon a Time in Goa is your first solo exhibition and one where the works are described as being “fleeting moments of changing Goa captured in watercolours”. What made you choose this theme for this collection?
The theme represents the nostalgic Goa of yesteryear. Mine is an attempt to bring the past into the present through my paintings. My work serves as a visual documentation of Goa’s natural beauty, its culture and traditions, all of which struggle to cope with modern life. Through my art, I want to create an awareness about the beauty around us, something which most people take for granted.
I believe that culture is the soul of the place, its identity. Changing times require us to adapt to a lifestyle that moves us forward with new technologies and developments, but not at the expense of culture and the environment.
With tourism becoming an economic necessity in Goa, we seem to have failed to represent the essence of what Goa has to be for us and, more so, for visitors. Goa has mostly been portrayed as a holiday destination with a focus on fun and beaches. Goa is more than just that, as my art tries to capture. It is also its people and their way of life.
Along with tourism, the rise in modern developments has sent property prices skyrocketing. In turn, this is causing Goans to give up the lifestyles they once knew, affecting the local culture and tradition, which makes Goa the place it is, or was.
Through my paintings, I hope to create an awareness for the people who have lived in “once upon a time” Goa, a place they knew long before the internet age. Equally, I want to provide future generations with something to reflect on, even if Goa no longer remains the same.
Many of your paintings demonstrate an intimate knowledge of your subjects, be it Goan architecture, agricultural traditions, or everyday and traditional life in Goa’s villages. These themes certainly depart from the usual depiction of Goa as a land meant to function solely as a tourism destination or the setting for a sojourner’s second home. Would it be right to say that you seek out these settings or is it that they call to and inspire you?
Most of my themes come from random memories of my childhood. Things like wandering around villages, celebrations with traditional dances, or from daily life events like farming, fishing, and so on.
Sometimes, I visualise the subjects in my mind and manage to find them in real life settings. I try to create a story in my paintings with the architectural settings I use, be they urban or rural. An area’s natural beauty complements the main subject I want to portray.
I have been fascinated by the Italian Baroque style, and [16th-century Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo] Bernini’s works especially. The combination of architecture, sculpture, and paintings from that time has always been my inspiration.
It is really interesting to learn that the Baroque inspires you because I see something of it in your work. Perhaps, it is in the way you combine elements from the past with the Goa of today; even as it evokes something older, your art is simultaneously contemporary in how it focuses on a region on the precipice of great change.
In a sense, the influence of the Baroque in your paintings should not really be a surprise because Goa itself produced an indigenous Baroque style.
In his book, Whitewash, Red Stone: A History of Church Architecture, Paulo Varela Gomes considers how early modern Goan churches display a blend of locally-created Baroque elements that brought together multiple European motifs with Islamicate and other South Asian influences. This, of course, was because Goa was a Portuguese colony but also, due to its coastal location, a conduit for the travels and settlement of people and goods from several cultures.
While the belief is rife that Goan colonial architecture is Portuguese, it is in fact particularly Goan because of the way those built forms were developed by Goans and only exist in Goa.
Yet, I also appreciate that you spotlight humbler Goan institutions like the village tavern or Mapusa’s Friday Market. These places may appear mundane but in placing them on par with historic architecture on your canvas, you seek out their beauty and what they mean to the ordinary Goan person whose lives they are an integral part of, maybe just as much as a sacred sanctuary like a church.
In their realism, your works are reflective of Goan aesthetics, bringing together architectural and natural elements as an observation of their symbiosis. I think there is a profound comment in this, reminding Goans that they can create – and preserve – beauty while co-existing with the natural world, even as so much around them changes. I want to ask about the medium you use – watercolours. What led you to choose this form to express your own creativity? Do you also create in other media?
What you say about the Goan Baroque form is compelling.
Yes, as a professional artist, I am comfortable working in other media too, especially when it comes to commissioned works like painting portraits. However, I prefer watercolour although it is a difficult medium. With watercolours, I take the liberty of painting spontaneously, enjoying the brilliance and transparency of the colours. I care less about perfection and also love the chiaroscuro effect I achieve in my works through the use of watercolours.
From my understanding, there is little state support for local art in Goa, there not even being a museum where one can see the works of well-known Goan artists. Despite this, are you able to find community with other artists in your home state?
Yes, it is true that we do not have any museum specifically dedicated to well-known Goan artists. However, with the help of social media, I am able to engage with some of the best watercolour artists from around the world. It has helped me to further develop my creativity as an artist and person. With local artists, I am amazed by Verodina De Souza’s clay works. Her dedication and passion towards her work is inspiring.
What can we expect to see from you next? Are there new things you would like to try artistically?
Well, I will be displaying almost an overall view of Goa, its beauty, culture, and architectural settings in general in my current exhibition. So, my next challenge would be to imbibe and portray a feel for Goa’s rural traditional festivals and rituals. I want to represent what is raw and unique about the place and try to depict it in my work.
Goa is diverse in many ways and, with changing times, I would also like to create works that will have a bit more of the present. I want my art to be a link between the past, present, and future and to reveal how I experience life.
R Benedito Ferrão is an Asian Centennial Faculty Fellow and Assistant Professor of English and Asian & Pacific Islander American Studies at William & Mary, Virginia, United States.