How does the ocean shape our memory and heritage and how does that change depending on what side of the ocean we are standing? This is the question Goa- and Lisbon-based visual artist Karishma D’Souza pursues in Ocean in Another, a five-piece exhibition that runs in Amsterdam from July 4 to 6. The collection is part of the Oceans as Archives Conference at the University of Amsterdam.
D’Souza’s seemingly cheerful paintings bridge the Indian and Atlantic Oceans in minute detail to consider the darker histories of inter-oceanic relations, especially as they relate to the Lusophonic world – Portugal, its colonies in Asia and Africa – and their shared and often contested heritage.
The collection is curated by R Benedito Ferrão, an Asian Centennial Faculty Fellow and Assistant Professor of English and Asian & Pacific Islander American Studies at William & Mary and Fellow of the American Institute of Indian Studies, 2022.
“Even as a globe or a map of the world may visually demonstrate to us that the waters of our planet are conjoined, our understanding of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans tends towards a separation of these fluid regions, as if they had disconnected histories,” said Ferrão. “D’Souza’s art offers an opportunity to think otherwise, in its considerations of the linkages between oceanic worlds.”
Here is the text of an interview with D’Souza before the opening of the exhibition.
In your work, there is a whimsical yet sombre play with landscape and the human body, particularly using trees. Of course, trees play off the word “root” which is even part of the title of one of the paintings. Why have trees become your visual metaphor?
In murals in Buddhist monasteries, the image of the Buddha is repeatedly painted like an invocation of the spirit through repeated prayer, and I used this repetitive device in painting trees. This calls forth the trees’ continued indiscriminate felling, first harrowingly witnessed in the years I lived in Vadodara and continuing today in the designated protected forests of Goa: Mollem National Park and the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary.
Trees are diverse, of a place, grow suited to and evolve in communication with the environment around them, have dispersed or been moved along trade routes to new homes. Like many human beings, they are devalued.
So then trees become a metaphor for people.
Trees are easily relatable as a metaphor. The representation of a human being in a painting, if not an intended portrait of a particular person, could lead to a narrow reading if the viewer is distracted by differences in outer appearance.
Perhaps looking back, I was finding it difficult in the years right after college in Baroda to reach viewership that understood that I was trying to universalise. While not a direct substitution, representations of trees have worked as an image of a strong, powerful, relatable presence in later paintings.
The banyan tree is a tree that evokes a great deal of emotion and figures in your art.
Trees began as a visual metaphor in Vadodara, a city named after the banyan tree.
I was told that the area of Fatehgunj [where the Faculty of Fine Arts is] used to be full of banyan trees. Few remain today. The tea stalls that students would frequent were of dismountable stoves, and stones or bricks arranged as seating under the trees. Under their shade, the trees were characters themselves, well-observed and a welcoming presence. They made the gatherings possible.
The connected root systems of banyan trees felt an apt metaphor to use for nourishing connection in a place that felt so schizophrenic, torn apart horribly in political calendar intervals by caste and religious sectarian violence. It felt it was [a] loving symbol of a city I had lived in for eight years. The felling, choking of the devalued trees of the city to concretised mall fronts and road widening ran concurrently to the devaluing of people in the recession, depression that affected us in the late 2000s [to] early 2010s.
I have an interest in community, not as a concept of identity through simple naming, renaming that comes with exclusions but the idea of a loving community of action and integration, life in a place, and moving outwards from there in wider circles of care.
The works in this exhibition were all done in 2018. Is there something in 2018 that particularly provoked exploring the connectivity of Africa, Asia and Europe, looking beyond the European colonial gaze of contemporary art?
I shifted to Lisbon from Goa in 2018. In Lisbon, it was fascinating to learn that both the regions that made up much of Portugal and Goa had a common Islamic history. The gaze in my work over many years has always been of the borrowed eyes of poets.
The works from 2018 were conversations I juxtaposed from writings between 16th century poet-saint Kabir and Fernando Pessoa. I was trying to look at the present world through Kabir’s thoughts and teachings in his dohas and see what his response to Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa would be.
How did this differ from your education in Goa?
Students at the academic art colleges in India were unwittingly trained to meet the European colonial gaze of contemporary art. Unquestioned 19th century colonial gazes were part of our education. Not being in the Global North, this gaze took on a museumified, mummified context. The Indian context itself is too culturally complex for one gaze, despite the outdated syllabus in public art educational institutions that has opted for one gaze.
In those pre, early internet days, we studied within the 19th century European colonial gaze or visited museums in India where the “European art” section were collections from the 19th or early 20th century only. We were left looking at the European colonial gaze of yesteryear, like an anthropological study of the gaze that one still sees bandied about today. It was clearly someone else’s gaze and eventually acknowledged as such. As students at the Goa College of Art, we couldn’t make it our own, even though we at first tried.
Besides this, in your work, you consider the casteist colonial gaze to cause disconnect and to be difficult to confront, at least prior to being exposed to the writings of Architect of the Indian Constitution BR]Ambedkar and anti-caste social reformer Jyotirao Phule.
One wonders which gaze was more pertinent to deconstruct and, in our context, it is the casteist one. For many who studied at art colleges in India, the platter of the first-year of education has un-problematised, de-contextualised dishing up of [French painter Théodore] Gericault and the Natyashastra [an ancient text on art forms]. After an immersive education in gazes that were not one’s own, which led to depression at not being quite able to consume them, I went on an individual search past them.
The paintings in Ocean in Another invoke disturbing, neglected heritage. How do you see visualising this collective memory of trade, occupation and enslavement in conversation with present day Goa, Portugal, and its former African colonies?
As the cartoonist Angela Ferrão said a year ago at a discussion around an exhibition of photographs of the large old houses of Goa, “What or who is the neglected heritage of Goa?” This led to conversations about the money required in the upkeep of the manor houses. As Angela said, monetary help to protect old, humbler cottages in villages across Goa would be welcome, but it doesn’t exist. Forests, hills, water, and indigenous people’s relation to their land is the most neglected heritage.
The history of elite privilege that cuts across religious lines, symbolised in the manor houses between vast land holdings scattered throughout Goa, is a history of wealth gathered over feudal relations, generations of exploiting labour, and eventually land, through mining.
The exploitation of labour in Goa predated the arrival of the Portuguese. Exploitation also extended beyond Goa via the Portuguese empire, through South Asian textile traders playing a role in funding the slave-trade in these connected oceans. I am interested in shame and pride within Goa and its misplacement in these histories and heritages.
This is also about the mobility of Goans over centuries.
The movement of Goans, as colonial subjects and in their immigration to other colonised designations – Mozambique, Angola – built on the concurrent racism and casteist polity back home. The mixed blood in Goa isn’t spoken of much, especially if one can’t name a direct ancestor from Portugal. Caste politics related to the Brahmanical concept of “impurity” is an odd ongoing system as well.
The concept of blood purity is a particularly fascinating link between the two systems of casteism and racism.
Elite pride clashes with the silence around the means of the wealth amassed – whether through feudal conditions of labour in Goa, land grabbing across centuries, or in conjunction with the trade in people abroad. None of this sits easily with the current singular narrative of Portuguese rule in Goa being monolithically devastating for non-Catholic elites.
The collective memory of trade, occupation, and enslavement is actually a fragmented memory. Parts of these fragments are picked up and used to suit the stars in ascendance today. Some of these fragments are not history but myth, now collective myth.
The repeated slides of trees painted in Ocean Words ask for a re-looking. The repetition of plant forms and water painted in different visual languages speak of flowing into spaces that speak a different language. I ask when do the stories turn out connected and how do they connect. Over which common systems?
As a Goan artist living partly in Lisbon, what does it mean to show this art in Amsterdam, one of the biggest maritime colonial powers in the Indian Ocean?
It makes sense to show this work in Amsterdam. The works were created in Lisbon, another seat of maritime power directly connected to Goa. These works, however, really move into history beyond European colonialism.
In Journeys [a 2018 painting by D’Souza] , floating papyrus/bark fragments are references to Egypt [referencing the book Black Athena, by Martin Bernal] and pre-European colonial African ocean voyages. Origin: Mythologypropaganda [also a 2018 painting by D’Souza] speaks to current politics around the caste-mythology of the Brahmanical creation myth of Goa. This painting has a pillar of fire as a symbol of Christianity, and the violence of the caste thread interspersed with symbols of war, both swept out to sea in a kind of reverse tsunami/ reverse Parshuram recession of the sea to foreground once again the pre-European colonial and pre-Brahmanical, indigenous religions to the land, symbolised by the ant-hill.
Your recent exhibitions include Invocation, Xippas Galerie, Paris (2020), History Routes, Lisboa Open Studios, Atelier Concorde, Lisboa (2018), and Endless State, Skowhegan Alliance (2020). How is this exhibition different from previous ones?
This is the first solo exhibition that I haven’t envisioned/curated myself, and it is happening completely thanks to the curation of Prof R Benedito Ferrão. The three recent exhibitions were very different from each other.
Invocation, at the large exhibition spaces at Galerie Xippas, Paris, brought together a selection from work done over a year in Lisbon. History Routes was an exhibition of works done in 2018 in Damaia, a suburb of Lisbon that I resided in, and at Atelier Concorde, a collective artist’s run studio, which was the loving kernel of the friends I made in Lisbon. The exhibition was held during the Lisbon Open Studios, in the Atelier Concorde exhibition space project room.
The 23 paintings in that show charted thoughts and references as I came across them moving around Lisbon and in conversations with new friends. Endless State is an online group exhibition of alumni of the Skowhegan residency, juried by the artists Jagdeep Raina, Xinyi Cheng, and Yui Kugimiya, of work done by artists in the early months of the pandemic and in response to it.
This exhibition, Ocean in Another, will be set up in a room that is used as a music rehearsal space and study room in the theatre and musicology department, at the University of Amsterdam.
We’ve been told by one of the organisers, Mikki Stelder, that the space holds classical Southeast Asian instrument [s], and has a wonderful combination of great natural light while being almost submarine, built into the water of the Amstel river – the water outside at around hip level when standing in the space.
I am interested to see how the space will work with the paintings, a few of which are quite silent formally, like the space. The project began after a paper written by Dr Ferrão and me was accepted for presentation at the Oceans as Archives conference.
The paper is related to two paintings that mirror each other, Ocean Words and Rooting-1, painted in Lisbon. Lisbon looks out towards Africa in Rooting-1 and looks over the Atlantic through blood trees of ancestry in Ocean Words. I would like to thank Dr Ferrao, Mikki Stelder and An-Mai Nguyen Blachon, and the entire team at Galerie Xippas for making this exhibition possible.
Find more information on the Ocean in Another exhibition at the Oceans as Archives here: Conference registration page : https://www.oceansasarchives.org
Alia Yunis is a professor at New York University.