Picturing Us: A Visual Ethnography

Savia Viegas’s paintings are significant for two reasons. One, they look like paintings that anyone can paint and therefore have an accessibility that the viewer longs for in today’s world of art which is so driven by trends in art practice. Two, Savia’s paintings will be first exhibited on clothes horses, collected from the houses in charming Carmona, Goa. Both these features make her show, Picturing Us, to be held at Savia’s ancestral, Goan home; unique and endearing.  Like her novel, Tales from the attic, which she self-published, and sold on the beaches of Goa, Savia’s first art show too brings on the same plane,  in one gesture, the simplicity and a complexity  of a creative individual’s gestures  living in post-colonial, globalizing, in parts post-modern India. The simplicity comes from the desire and an enviable confidence to express oneself, irrespective of how one may be judged. And the complexity comes from the fact that this simplicity is a challenge, a self conscious one, to the global market forces that not only define what is art and culture but also decide who gets to do art. Savia’s work unabashedly pushes the boundaries of professional and commercial art worlds, to snatch a place for herself-and what she wants to say. In the process, she extends the global artscape to ensure that voices in and from the peripheries do not lie  in a perennial waiting- of the right gallery, the right collector, the right buyer, the right consumer, the right audience. Gestures such as Savia’s create an independent space for themselves, and hopefully for others around them.

A sociological account of art indicates that with the development of western modernity, the art world, like all others, went through a process of professionalization. The idea that art can and must be ‘taught’ in art school took credence in the Enlightenment period, marginalizing all other non-formal ways of doing or learning art. Only the objects that came out of art school and into the museums and art galleries were named as art. While the professionalisation and in many ways the secularisation of art was an impressive and transforming process that performed the role of bringing art out of royal and religious patronage and making it available to every modern citizen, it also set up new hierarchies of what is defined as art and who is the artist. But what began as and continues to remain so even today in many ways, as an open and free space, has created its own hegemony and boundaries that do not allow transgression .Of course, with colonisation, to put it very simply, societies like ours inherited-and continue to replay- these structures, moving into a kind of derivativeness and / or a kind of hybridity in the social institutions that we invented. Schools that trained   artists, and that too of the ‘modern’ kind, developed across the country. Art galleries, museums, collectors and critics all emerged as players in the art world. Art and the artist were constructed and mediated through these structures.

But the question that remains is : can the human desire to produce art as a means of self-expression ever be restricted to only those who learn art in art school? If not, what does one  do with this ‘excess’ art which emerges out of  the individual’s irrepressible desire to make art, irrespective of whether you have trained as an artist or not, irrespective of what your profession is, irrespective of whether you will ever be perceived as an artist by the world around you?   Are Naïve art or Amateur art or ‘art as a hobby’ adequate and fair ways of describing and classifying such work and expression? For example, what is classified as Naïve Art in art history terms refers to art produced by artists who do not formally train in art school and thereby assumed to be devoid of  an informed  visual aesthetics  and a sense of art history.

Let’s look at Savia’s body of work in Picturing Us.  The paintings are obviously and surely influenced by her academic training in Ancient Indian Culture. The layered canvas , the so called doing away with ‘perspective and yet creating depth in the painting, the simultaneous use of the symbolic and the figurative; clearly reflect a hybridity produced by her engagement with Buddhist and Mughal  visual forms on the one hand, and her exposure to modern western art forms on the other.  Further, her Fulbright assignment in museum viewership definitely informs her choices and has been an obvious inspiration to plunge into creating and occupying the space of the visual, giving primacy to the image as text rather than word as text, which a lot of academics fail to do. So, for the sake of convenience, even if one were to classify Savia’s work, as Naïve Art, one would have to problematise the patronization associated with such a classification because Savia’s work has the conceptual depth that is often lacking in the works of formally trained, professional artists. In fact the appearance of well articulated narrative structures in her paintings reveal a deep understanding of the concepts in the visual and the ideologies beneath its making. Savia’s work, though raw in stroke and pigment application, demonstrates a rich substantive engagement with form and content. Moreover,  what adds to the appeal of Picturing Us  is that the paintings are not left to ‘speak for themselves’ , a common refrain amongst professional artists when they cannot explain themselves  Savia speaks with her work and reveals its depths while speaking. The visual image is not therefore either essentialised nor is it reduced to becoming a substitute for the spoken/written word. It is successfully contextualized within the visual and cultural context of the world inhabited by the artist. Overall, as a viewer, what one misses of the craft in Picturing Us , one gains in form and content.

Picturing Us is a visual ethnography that emerges out of  Savia’s  need to tell the story of Goa, her Goa,  it’s history and  identity – from its mythical origins through its days of colonization and subsequent liberation and its evolution as a hub of global tourism. Aimed at renewing her conversation with her childhood, her past and her ethnic identity, Savia returned to her native Goa in 2005 after having spent over two decades in Bombay. Deeply embedded in her own location as a Chaddo   woman her pictures take you through the complex history of the Chadde, the Kshatriyas who converted to Christianity during Portuguese rule. The Chadde who supported the Portuguese colonisers and who were given land in return for their support, became the landed rural gentry of Goa, growing their own fruits, vegetables and grains- deeply rooted to the land, and their fields.  The painting called Between the devil and the deep sea captures the helpless plight of the dying elite, ambushed by their old world grandeur powerless in the face of new power structures. The decadence of the elite, a community entrapped between the past and the present, between the traditional and the modern, between the religious and the secular is a theme that runs through several of Savia’s paintings. While a painting like Devas, Vanaras and Asuras evokes the inner mindscapes of the Goan caste elites, replete with Hindu mythologies, a painting like When past is not present I   evokes the still and intricate spaces of   their former lifestyle. Traversing through the slow pace of the lives of the Goan elite the paintings slowly lead you into their homes, their backyards, their minds, their selves. The paintings make you wait, watch and feel- the gentle beauty and the overpowering decadence of a dominant caste and an affluent class.

Savia’s paintings often demonstrate a sharp feminist style consciousness In Mae with her monsoon preserves, oneencounters the chequered story of the Goan woman as the  carrier of tradition, culinary on the one hand and moral on the other. The expression on Mae’s face reflects not only her burden but also her dilemmas. In Tres Marias-a Memorygram, Savia documents the changing history, liberating and dehumanizing simultaneously,  of three generations of women in her family for whom the public-private dichotomy played itself in terms of   the sea and the land, the former being the more public space and the latter being the more personal space. Women of Savia’s  grandmother, Maria Ana’s, generation lived a symbiotic connection with the land and the fields.  The second generation of women, like Savia’s mother, Berta, witnessed the shrinking of this connection. Lost in the world of crochet and the sewing machine, the still figure of Savia’s mother occupies the ‘central’ space (although there is no real centre in the painting because each space can be perceptually manipulated to become the centre) of the canvas. The third generation, Savia’s own, positioned outside the home tells the story of post-liberation Goa where the process of migration to cities like Mumbai began. Savia, as the protagonist herself in the painting, represents a generation of Goan women who participated in movements for social justice, in and out of Goa.  In the painting called Chronologies, Savia uses the legend of a Buddhist nun called Panna to critique the objectification of the female body, as experienced by women when they step out of the private world into the public world. Panna who gorged out her eyes in rage and presented them to her admirer in a way becomes the feminist icon in Chronologies, an icon that captures the pull of a radical consciousness and the confines of a deep conservatism.  While the theme of the symbiotic relation between the woman and land repeats in other paintings like Doll’s House and the Family Tree, Savia charts the further fragmented histories of the fourth generation Goan woman in Quilted Time, once againcaught between the pressures and pulls of  both-an almost mythical past and a fast changing global world. In telling the stories of the women as she sees them, Savia evokes the history of Goa itself. Significantly, one of the most poignant depictions of contemporary ‘tourist’ Goa is Was Krsna There? In this painting Savia etches the story of the Goan beach where young migrants dressed as Krsna are juxtaposed with white tourist women clad in bikinis, suggestive of the sexual politics  that interestingly transgress race and class boundaries for a moment of hedonistic pleasure in the times of sex tourism. The painting twists and transforms the idyllic Goan beach into the garish, commercial site of exploitation that many are beginning to see it as. The presence of a skull like ashen face dominating the center of the painting, tells the story of a harsh future and the consequent pathos.

Resisting nostalgia vehemently, Picturing Us, is a complex negotiation of the self with the baggage of history and identity. A ‘return to one’s roots’ is a common enough process for the urban migrant  and  the post colonial subject, but is often laced with a plaguing nostalgia. Themes of a lost world, of a better past do not haunt either Savia or her work. Her gesture is a sharp, almost acerbic, often ruthless ‘use’ of the roots to make or break the iconic identity of a beautiful past and of an exotic Goa. Savia takes extra efforts in conversations to enlighten people about her two hundred year-old house saying that “Well, it is not really a Portuguese house-it is a Chaddo house which ‘imitated’ the Portuguese.” The struggle against the exoticisation of Goa is evident in Picturing Us. Savia  remembers with disdain how even when there was less food at home, her grandmother would correct them on etiquette at the table! And yet Savia recognizes that it was this house of the Chadde in Carmona which taught her early lessons on ways of seeing, from below, because it is in these houses that the domestic help, the animals and the masters lived in close association and shared an inevitable dependence. A lesson she found hard to forget.

For Savia, the act of writing her novel, Tales from the attic, and painting Picturing Us emerge at the same ontological moment - of dealing with a hysterectomy, known to be  a very traumatic time for women. It is a time when we confront the changes in our body and mind, a time which challenges and disrupts our ‘taken for granted’ universes. At this moment in life, coninciding with her disenchantment with the promise of Bombay, Savia Viegas found herself weaving together- quilting-   truncated memories, multiple selves and reinvented worlds . She found herself turning into the stories that her roots tell her. And she finds herself writing  them, painting them - gestures purely driven by the need for self expression, the need to be seen and heard, come what may.

Gita Chadha

November 2009