“It has been the most intense and difficult journey I have navigated so far. But, it is necessary to stick my neck out for the sake of clear-headed future research,” says art historian Savia Viegas about her research on Goan artist, Angelo da Fonseca (Dec 6, 1902 - Dec 28, 1967), and has curated an exhibition of his paintings on the birth centenary of Goa’s overlooked artist, which previews on December 6, 2022.
It was at in 2002, at his centennial year exhibition at the Pilar Theological College, Pilar, that Savia came across his name and artwork, and gasped at the beauty and power of the work of a man she had met in childhood. Back then, she had watched him paint just once, when he visited his niece, Alice Costa Pereira, who lived next door to Savia, in Carmona, South Goa.
“Such was the memory of childhood, frozen in time! The memory got hinged somewhere in the grey cells, because I was to leave in a few months for my senior Fulbright Fellowship and would be away for a year,” says Savia.
Researching Fonseca really started 14 years ago, after Savia wrote a paper for an international conference at MS University, Baroda.
“There were hushed whispers as I pulsed images of his pictures and read my paper on ‘The Semiotics of Archival Trajectories’. No one knew about a Goan artist, called Angelo da Fonseca! I listened meekly to art luminaries, Geeta Kapur, Ratan Parimoo, Vivan Sundaram, Jyotindra Jain, among others,” says Savia.
Someone thrust an application form for a grant that she could avail, and she was granted ₹1 lakh by the India Foundation for the Arts, Bangalore, in 2010 to do the research.
While grappling with finding links to his oeuvre, which would reflect on socio-cultural factors, Fr Savio Abreu and Fr Rinald D’Souza, the Director and Deputy Director at the Xavier Centre for Historical Research, Porvorim, approached Savia to curate exhibitions on his work.
They planned three exhibitions for the first year, 2012 — A ‘Christmas Story for December’; ‘The Passion and Glory’ for the Lenten period; and a third, titled ‘Maiden, Muse and Madonna’.
The opening of the first exhibition, raised hackles of local intellectuals and art experts.
“While the research feed was emitting information, I was still grappling with ‘Why did he paint as he did?’, ‘Why did he abandon secular work or underplay it?’” says she.
“Our methods of documentation are poor. There are no paper trails, and the oral history tradition does not live beyond a few generations,” Savia affirms, as she gleaned snippets of his life and works from his wife, children, relatives and documentation of a few records she found.
THE ART SCENE
Inclined to art as a child, Angelo enrolled at Grant Medical College, Bombay (now Mumbai), after graduation, but left because it was not his calling. He then enrolled at JJ School of Art (Bombay). He quit because the British principal insisted on works leaning towards Western forms of art, and then went to Shantiniketan, West Bengal.
A clutch of postcards and letters from Abanindranath (co-founder and teacher at Shantiniketan) to Fonseca after 1931, encourages the artist to “paint the church” as some of Fonseca’s work displayed in a Calcutta (now Kolkata) exhibition “was very good. Keep painting,” he urged.
Painting the Madonna and Child, and Christian deities in iconic imagery with brown skins and Indian garb, Fonseca did not seem to have the insularity that Goans harbour, as anything that falls beyond the idea of their Christian identity, is konkonponn.
“I believe that because there were several issues of symbolic power in the way the Indian clergy, and laity accepted indigenisation of the important figures, the entire exercise to create inculturation in icons of the Christian pantheon was to some extent ‘elite-driven’ and did not reach the mass of worshipers, because an orthodox and conservative clergy stood between such art and its public,” adds Savia.
Fonseca, and other artists working with Christian images, are excluded in the grand narrative of the nation’s art — even though, in many ways, as a Western Indian artist, his contribution is significant. His works featured in a major exhibition in Rome in 1950.
European commissions kept coming, and he received a knighthood from the Pope and medals from Pope Pius XII. By the 1960s, he was a well-known artist. He visited Goa twice in 1967 and painted furiously. Soon after Christmas, he passed away.
Finally, during the Covid-19 pandemic, Savia was able to complete her research on Angelo’s journey from 1930-1948 as the first phase; 1950-1957 as the second phase; and 1958-1967 as the mature phase, detailed in her book, to be published in May 2023, on his 120th birth centenary and 55th death anniversary.
This is the first exhibition in Goa, for which selected children have been invited to paint on the theme of ‘Mother’. Be sure to check it out.
Angelo da Fonseca’s ‘Indian Madonna’ will be on exhibit from Dec 6, 2022 to Mar 31, 2023, at the Xavier Centre of Historical Research, Alto Porvorim, Goa. For details, contact: 0832 2417772