It is said that art always responds to the time it represents. It becomes a strong medium to speak about pressing current issues, and helps us ponder and to deal with these.
The work of Goan artist, Karishma D’Souza, which has been curated by R Benedito Ferrão and is currently on display at Rue des Sablons 6 and Rue du Vieux-Billard 7 at Geneva, Switzerland, titled ‘Can’t See the Forest’, conveys this feeling as her art focus on a rapidly transforming Goa.
The artist looks at the challenges of tourism and urbanization that threaten the very topography of Goa, famed for its biodiversity, coastal beauty, and once fields of plenty. Her work also speaks about the activists who inspired her in this journey.
In conversation with Gomantak Times, Karishma speaks about her theme, impact of ecological destruction on indigenous people, and how personal and collective memory is shaping her works.
Your previous exhibition, titled ‘Ocean in Another’, explored history through oceans and seas. This exhibition, ‘Can’t See the Forest’, looks at the future of Goa through the lens of ecology. How would you explain the concept of your exhibition?
The exhibition moves between reportage based on the news, and images that are healing for me, of portraits of loved ones and imagery based on texts or spaces lived in that bring peace.
One of the works, ‘Ground Conversations: Resilience’, is an ode to people from Goa, known personally, and seen at a protest on issues that affect the state, people who continue to ask for a development that is democratic and inclusive in the most expansive way.
The works depict an ethos related to care for the land, shared by many in Goa who lived as sustainably as they could. I look at memories from communities who current systems do not value or stand for.
Through looking at memory, one can understand the present away from political catchphrases, and through our own senses being alive. Some of the paintings are based on texts, for example, the couplets of the poet Kabir, ‘When the river runs through your own backyard how can you die of thirst’, and the third chapter titled ‘Remembering Paik’s Temple’ in Hartman de Souza’s book Eat Dust: Mining and Greed in Goa.
I look at myths, like the Parshuram myth, as a way to be cognizant of which stories create and sustain policies and systems today. I also remember, through the visuals in the paintings, thoughts and literature that are saving. For me these are biblical parables as warnings, and the beginnings of reading BR Ambedkar and Buddhist literature.
The imagery in the work also comes from time I’ve been walking in the forests in Goa and the understandings these times in the forest have helped me form.
Are these new works? Can you share the topics or issues related to Goa's natural habitat that have inspired you?
These are works mostly from 2019 to 2023, with a few moving back to 2009 that speak of the same subjects in a different way, with more representations of particular times and places and less symbols.
Interconnection as a lived experience and eloquently spoken about by people of Goa inspire me.
I have had the honour of being a part of a team, interviewing people in Taleigao. It has been immensely educative to listen to the ex-town and country planner, Pedro Coutinho speaking of what a lack of planning can do to an area.
In an interview with Adv Albertina Almeida, Coutinho explained the importance of maps that chart water sources and the wetlands of a place, the importance of good maps that include this information and the importance of using this information in town planning.
You made most of this work during the COVID-19 lockdown and pandemic phase. Does this add another layer to your theme?
The works in the exhibition, from the year 2020-2022 speak of the lockdown, as witnessed in Goa and hearing news from the rest of India. During the pandemic, Goa suffered a terrible second wave, criminally handled, where the dead were sandwiched between the words of politicians, claiming on one hand that ‘there was nothing to worry about’ and after the disaster ‘no-one died because of a lack of oxygen cylinders.’
How could that be said to us, the witnesses/survivors? We were still alive and we carry our memories intact. In both these periods, the first, of witnessing deception, the second of anger, I turned, through memory, to portraits of friends and family, outdoors in green spaces, amidst plants in gardens and with backgrounds of the forest and a memory of older ways of religious practice that respected nature.
What’s often forgotten is that in this world, where human beings are so present, places are often created by people and can’t be separated from them/us. Goa has been similarly created by the people of the state over centuries. Communities of indigenous people have been the creators of the ethos in Goa of sustainable living with the natural surroundings, and this ethos has spread to others. One must be cognizant of this ethos and the people who created it.
The lockdown was a time when many environmental laws were broken, during a ‘safe’ time when people couldn’t congregate. A direct outcome of the lockdown was rapid decisions taken that adversely affected the environment in Goa. It was just more of the same.
Your work also speaks about the work that activists in Goa are doing to conserve Goa’s ecology. Can you name a few of them and how have they inspired you?
I feel the term ‘activist’ is a label that can fit many who think, and create ripples that call for true peace.
This exhibition has, besides portraits of family, portraits of friends who work for this in their own fields of work, Adv Albertina Almeida, the artist Ryan Abreu, the writer and professor R Benedito Ferrao, as well as people I have photographed voicing protests, like for instance at the public hearings against the then impending expansion of the coal hub at the Mormugoa habour.
As the last instance shows, most of the people I have been strengthened by over the years are the ones whose names I don’t know, but who I’ve grown up seeing as a part of organised people’s movements in Goa.
I’ve grown up in a state with very powerful civil movements and voices, and these voices are many. I’ve painted portraits of people, known personally to me and whose protests I have witnessed, who have a very different vision from the current “developments” that have been so disastrous for Goa. Trees and rivers in the paintings are carriers and witnesses of these visions.
As an artist and native of Goa, are you hopeful about Goa?
I can’t really answer this. I really don’t know. I can say I’m hopeful that an expansive understanding has the possibility of spreading through work and conversation. One can always have hope, but one can’t also be wilfully blind to how large the problem is in a casteist divided polity. Where power lies, there seems to be no sense of belonging or care.
Artist Karishma D’Souza's show, titled ‘Can’t See the Forest’, is currently on display at Rue des Sablons 6 and Rue du Vieux-Billard 7 at Geneva, Switzerland, till October 28, 2023