Solomon Souza has taken the Goa art scene – and Twitterverse – by storm. Over the past month, he has been going around the state’s villages and towns, painting larger-than-life murals of Goa’s unsung heroes.
The 26-year-old artist’s subjects have included Sita Valles, a Marxist revolutionary of Goan origin who fiercely fought Portuguese colonialism in Angola; poet Eunice de Souza, whose verse struck at the heart of patriarchy in the Goan Catholic community; and Vishnu Wagh, writer-dramatist-poet, whose work Sudhir Sukta stoked controversy in 2017 for taking on the deeply-embedded casteism in the state.
The UK-bred, Israel-based artist is the grandson of Francis Newton Souza, a pioneering painter who was among the founders of the post-Independence Progressive Artists Movement. Solomon Souza’s murals are among the projects in the Mundo Goa section of the annual Serendipity Arts Festival. The section is curated by writer and photographer Vivek Menezes.
With the festival set to conclude on December 22, Solomon Souza’s journey will culminate in a fitting, cathartic moment as he paints his final mural of the project: that of his grandfather in his native village of Saligao.
“I grew up surrounded by his [FN Souza’s] work, surrounded by him, which was unavoidable in a way,” said the young artist. “He definitely had a profound influence on me, even though I wasn’t so aware of it.”
The prospect of painting a picture of his grandfather has unbottled “a whole range of emotions”, said Souza. “It’s been incredible and this will be the climactic finale to my amazing time here. I look forward to paying homage to my grandfather and the legacy that he has left behind. I hope I do him proud.”
Solomon Souza arrived in Goa on November 5 and started work the following week. In a little over one month, he has painted 15 murals, starting in the north and making his way down south.
Even though this is his first trip to India, his Instagram feed suggests that he’s settled in easily: it is filled with images of vibrantly painted alleyways, open skies and warm encounters with Goa’s residents. “[Growing up], I didn’t really have an image [of Goa],” he said. “I always knew my grandfather was Indian, but I didn’t understand the scope and scale of India. It’s quite a big cultural difference.” And yet, on his arrival, he noted that the place felt “all too familiar.”
As he settled effortlessly into the laconic rhythm of India’s sunshine state – “Even the dogs here take an afternoon siesta,” he joked – he worked at a dizzying pace, often completing a single painting in two or three hours.
His first mural, fittingly, was also created in FN Souza’s ancestral village, Saligao. Clarice Vaz, a writer, artist and social worker, helped Solomon Souza settle in. She said that the young artist was “disheartened” when he saw the dilapidated state of the house in which his grandfather grew up. “He had tears in his eyes on seeing that whoever bought it wasn’t taking good care [of it],” said Vaz.
FN Souza’s trajectory was a painful one – shunned by his own village for being too much of a maverick to fit in, taking refuge in the liberal art scene in London but never getting his due in his own lifetime. In contrast, Vaz described the warm response that Solomon Souza has received from the villagers. “They were so happy to see him and he was so happy to be with them,” she said. “It was like a link that was missing in his life.”
New layer of identity
Curator Vivek Menezes said that the project was inspired by his deep love for his hometown, Panjim, and numerous travels around the world where he saw run-down neighbourhoods brought alive by street art.
“I often think of the city of Panjim itself as an art installation, of spectacular heritage buildings interspersed with a lot of contemporary stuff and a beautiful waterfront,” he said. “I am always interested in finding well-suited interventions here. Over the course of the past four to five years, I have had the opportunity to travel to cities like Buenos Aires and Lisbon, where I could see how street art was used to add an additional layer of identity to the city.”
Daphne de Souza, the curatorial assistant on Mundo Goa, explained how the project unfolded. “We first select a wall, which has to be prominent and visible to the public. Then, we approach the owner or the government office [depending on the space] for permissions.” The process, however, was not set in stone and became a collaboration between the artist, curator and the wall owners. They were constantly reacting to the space, bouncing off new ideas and making it along as they go.
“In one case, we approached the owner [for permission], who suggested we pay to tribute to this famous musician,” said de Souza. “It then turned out that the owner was a descendant of that person.” She was referring to the mural of Antonio Figueiredo – the first Indian to train as a conductor in western classic music – sitting majestically on the side wall of his house on the winding road in the Panjim neighbourhood of Altinho, where his family still lives.
But not everyone was so forthcoming. Getting people to understand what Souza was doing was an uphill task, especially given the sense of sanctity around heritage homes.
This changed when Heta Pandit, the chairperson of Goa Heritage Action Group and a Saligao resident, agreed to have a wall painted for the project. The icon selected was not a global superstar, but a hyperlocal character: Sacrula, an oddball deeply rooted in the local psyche. Villagers still have a vivid memory of the eccentric man, who believed himself to be the reincarnation of St Anthony, shaped his hair with coconut husks in the shape of a halo, and walked around town blessing people.
This proved to be a turning point. “Once they saw what he was doing, they started embracing the concept,” said Vaz. “Then he started getting calls from people.”
Poonam Mascarenhas, co-founder of the Goa Heritage Action Group, offered some insight into how the first mural upended villagers’ expectations. “Conservation is not just about the building or the place – it’s also about the people,” she said. “It’s actually mainly about the people.”
She added” “This [project] is a shaking up of consciousness. This is not just street art. This is adding a layer of culture, adding a context…[and] it is much better than seeing billboards of Kingfisher or Vodafone or whatever.”
A fractured history
Goa’s residents responded to the project with awe, curiosity and encouragement. A lot of buzz was generated on social media after Menezes started posting regular updates on each mural, accompanied by tidbits about each subject. Confirmed Souza, “It’s been a very positive feedback.”
For instance, when the painter did a painting of Chic Chocolate, the renowned trumpeter credited with introducing swing to 1950s Hindi film music, in the musician’s village of Aldona, his son Phillip came by to take a look. “He saw his father coming to life up again on the wall,” said Souza. “I think it was a moving experience for him.”
After he painted Mary D’souza Sequeira, the first Indian to represent the country at the Olympics in two different sports – hockey and track and field – on a wall in Panjim, her daughter wrote to Souza. It was a “lovely letter, thanking me and saying that we’re doing the work that the government should have been doing to honour these unsung heroes,” he said.
A living icon, football superstar Brahmanand Shankwalkar, recalls a chance meeting with Souza. “He was painting a mural of me [near my home in Taleigao] at the time, but when I went up to him, he did not recognise me at first,” he said with a laugh.
Underlying the response to the mural project is a growing anxiety among a certain section of Goans about an apathy to the state’s history, both in its institutions and its people. “In the past few years, we’ve been getting a lot of public institutions named after people who have no connection to Goa,” said Menezes. “For instance, we have a beautiful stadium named after [Jana Sangh founder] Shyama Prasad Mukherjee. Now, I have nothing against Mukherjee but we have an extraordinary athletic record [in the state].”
With Souza’s paintings, another vision of history is on the streets, inviting everyone to engage and learn. Does this signal a shift in cultural consciousness?
Not everyone thinks so. “It is an interesting way of looking at our history…of putting information out there,” said journalist Joanna Lobo, whose relative Eunice D’Souza was among Souza’s subjects. “The only drawback I see is that you will see [the mural], and beyond that, you don’t know the person.”
Others are more hopeful. “About 25 years ago, when I first came [to Goa], there was apathy,” said Heta Pandit of the Goa Heritage Action Group. “Now, I see change. I am seeing people being more aware of their own personal and family histories…There is some sensitivity and empathy that is developing.”
Menezes was emphatic that the murals serve an important purpose. “Some things are definitely going to change,” he said. “Most importantly, we [now] realise that we can have public art that is meaningful to the people of Goa. Here you have a 26-year-old who is making amazing paintings with a very small budget...I think people will remember that.”
You can follow Somon Souza’s work here.