India – A sacred land of spiritual ceremonies and spectacular art

A great sacred river ‘The Ganges’ crosses India in the north…
Along its banks are the ‘Ghats’, steep steps that lead down to the water. It is a place for bathing ceremonies, to celebrate ones ancestors and a place where the ashes of the cremated are disbursed over the water. It is on the Ghats that people congregate to pay their respects to those that went before them.

India has always, since time immemorial, expressed itself in its art, just like Renaissance artists in Italy did. Colour and gold are used on statues and architecture for decoration and in paintings, the subject matter often showing aspects of their culture.

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India and its invaders.
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Abu’l-Fazl presenting Akbarnama to Akbar. Mughal miniature.
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Queen Victoria and The British Empire ruled in India from 1837-1901

A land of diverse culture, diverse tradition, and diverse religious beliefs existed in harmony, provided, of course, that someone did not interfere with them. There were quite a few nations that did. There were so many battles and wars fought by so many different indigenous princes and kings and invading forces it is very hard to keep up with it all. Fought and ruled over by Moguls in the 16th-19th centuries, there was a Portuguese presence in India from around 1510 and the Brits joined in from 1612. The British Empire’s takeover of India was, or appears to have been, the most extensive invasion of all. Ruling from 20 June 1837 until her death in 1901, Queen Victoria gained the additional title of Empress of India on 1st May 1876. Here she is in her regalia.

Tradition and wetsern art

Throughout India, in present time, you will find that the most startling and heart warming traditions north, south, east and west continue on in the Indian way. Wherever you go, local cultures might differ widely, both in religious belief and non religious matters, with local festivals celebrated throughout the year and added to by a national festival agenda.

A great sacred river ‘The Ganges’ crosses India in the north, flowing eastwards on its way to disgorge into the ‘Bay of Bengal’. On the way it passes through many towns and cities, providing a backdrop to the noises colour, costumes, and gathering crowds at festival time. One such place is Varanasi, one of India’s most sacred cities in the north east. Night time here can be pretty spectacular too, as you can see below, during the Ganga Aarti festival or in fact on any night of the year.

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An evening view of The Ganges at Varanasi.

Along its banks are the ‘Ghats’, steep steps that lead down to the water. It is a place for bathing ceremonies, to celebrate ones ancestors and a place where the ashes of the cremated are disbursed over the water. It is on the Ghats that people congregate to pay their respects to those that went before them.

And why single out Varanasi? The answer is that this is where eastern painting traditions meet western art disciplines, in the form of fine art. Indian artist Samiran Sarkar takes on visions of Varanasi and gives them a western treatment using simple techniques in water colour. This is an Indian artist trained in western fine art, painting Indian scenes to be admired by both east and west. His interpretation is of an entirely different view to that of the English that inhabited the city.

English Artist Lord Edwin Weeks painted this water colour of Varanasi viewed from the Ganges. An illustration done in 1890 follows it and it too seems to me to be a panoramic view of India rendered in the style of a western artist.

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A painting by Edwin Lord Weeks (1883) of Varanasi, viewed from The Ganges.

Lord Weeks has captured the busyness, the architecture and the crowded river bank. Buildings, shades, and boats all feature. Even the river seems secondary to the building in the background, which might be mistaken for an English, grand municipal building rather than a temple. Weeks explores the material side of life on the river rather than the spiritual and sacred life which Varanasi is famous for.

The 1890 illustration below was made by an English artist, although his name is not known. Again the buildings, shades and river side activity seem to suggest material things rather than the spiritual. Even the temples seem to be in the picture for their fancy roof top carvings rather than their spiritual purpose. This is perhaps an English version of a place to visit on tour, rather than go to for worship.

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Unknown English artist, 1890.

An Indian artists portrayal of Varanasi however, is quite different and comes 126 years later. Samiran Sarkar, an Indian artist from Kolkata, has painted his vision of the Ghats, which picks up on the spiritual life of The Ganges and what is more, most surprisingly to me as an art historian, has done it in the western style. One would never know the artist comes from an Indian heritage, so here it is, it is oh so subtle.

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Samiran Sarkar Water Colour.

Samiran has captured moments when it is quiet, the river gentle with a few people sitting or standing around along the steps and quays. The shades are up, ready for the heat of the day that is to come and highlights of colour take our eye off the boats in the foreground to activities going on in the mid-ground. The misty background brings distance and an ethereal quality to the whole painting removing material wealth or the lack of it away from the whole.

I am a westerner who has visited India many times and lived with Indian families, doing as they do, for short periods of time. In viewing a beautiful water colour painted by a native Indian, trained in western art academy disciplines, I can really pick up on the spiritual nature of life in India.

Where did Samiran learn his trade? Where did he learn to use his brush to best effect with water colour paints? Bet you can’t guess. The Royal Academy of Art in London? The Boston School of art perhaps? It’s actually in one of the last places you would think of.

The answer is Kolkata, a city that was once headquarters of the British East India Company, back in Victorian times. He attended the Kolkata Academy of Fine Art and he certainly knows how to produce it.

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The Academy of Art Kolkata from Wikipedia.

 

Featured image – Ganga Aarti at Varanasi Ghats, from flickr.com.

Jemima J. Jones
July 2016

Paradise in The Bahamas

The vibrant colours that the Bahamian people produce, in every aspect of life, is astonishing.

The Story Begins

The Bahamas consists of 700 islands, cays* and islets in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Florida. Its history is an eye opener to its current character and certainly to its artistic heritage. I will start with a potted history of these colourful islands and then get to the art, as without it one might not have the full picture involving both the population as a whole and the individual artists.
The Bahamas Map

The history begins way back in the 11th century.
A people known as the Taino moved from Cuba and Hispaniola onto the islands which were uninhabited at the time. (That’s roundabout the same time that William The Conqueror was conquering, or so he thought, the Brits at the infamous Battle of Hastings in 1066).

The island inhabitants eventually numbered 30,000 or so and were called The Lucayan People by the time the next feature of their history arrived in 1492.

It came in the form of an explorer sponsored by Isabella and Ferdinand of Castle and Leon, in other words the Queen and King of Spain! The explorer was actually looking for the good ole US of A, but landed in The Bahamas instead. You’ve guessed it by now, it was none other than Christopher Columbus. Two places get mentioned as his landing point ‘El Salvador’ or per other historians, ‘Samana Cay’. He claimed the island for Spain.

The islands went on to be settled by English Puritans, many Spanish Catholics and from the high seas, the pirates. Enter one of the most famous pirates of all time, Black Beard, portrayed in paintings and more recently in the film series Pirates of the Caribbean.

Capture of the Pirate Blackbeard
Capture of the pirate, Blackbeard, 1718. By Jean LG Ferris in 1920

The Results of Slavery

As years rolled by The Bahamas became an example of the most horrendous violations of human rights when most of the population were used as forced labour and enslaved. More than half of them died from Smallpox. Generations lived in poverty and can be seen here. The art of the photographer shows the state and conditions they lived in.

Happier times began when slavery was abolished in 1834. The Africans, on board British slavers, on their way to being sold, were off loaded on the islands to join the island population. Now in present time 90% of the Bahamian people are descendants from those very same slaves, times have moved on. The Bahamas are now an independent nation, having gained their freedom from British rule and governorship in 1973.

I have had to leave a lot out of course, I could right 5,000 words on this geographical paradise but for now it is on to the art of this amazing place.

Art and the Bahamas

Junkanoo celebration in Nassau
Junkanoo celebration in Nassau

The vibrant colours that the Bahamian people produce, in every aspect of life, is astonishing. The general public enjoy festivals in particular, parades with costume, dancing and music in the Junkanoo at Christmas time. This carnival atmosphere comes out in glorious costume design and colour. Fantastic animals, headdresses, face decoration and or jewellery show artists are on the rampage, a huge contrast to the conditions in the pictures above.

Reflections of the Past

Having studied architecture at the University of McGill in Canada, the artist Minnis uses his architectural knowledge to make the next painting work really well. This is his vision of the Royal Victoria.

Eddie Minnis - Royal Victoria
Royal Victoria – Eddie Minnis

The Royal Victoria Hotel which opened in 1861 survived through till 1971 when it closed. Left derelict until the 1990s, it finally burnt down and was replaced by a car park, of all things.

Our thanks should go to Minnis for a painting that brings back the hotel’s long gone grandeur, flavouring it with this wonderful but subtle orange yellow frontage. Walking through the grand lobby must have been an experience if this painting is anything to go by.

Royal Victoria Hotel early 1900's
Royal Victoria Hotel early 1900s.

Seen from its other side, this photo of the grand building, taken in the early 1900s and photos of some of its famous guests, Clark Gable and Douglas Fairbanks Jnr., in the 1950s.

As we say goodbye to our historic buildings, whether it be through demolition, redevelopment, fire, or dereliction, it is artists like Minnis that allow us to have a view of life from the past and imagine how these scenes must once have looked.

Contemporary with the Times

Eddie Minnis - Bri-land
Bri-land Eddie Minnis 2003.

Born in Nassau, Minnis took up art at a time when no one in the islands had ever made a living by painting. He was the exception to the rule and others followed, but for now we will stick with Minnis.

Minnis gives us a beautifully colourful work, with vibrant blossoms in the foreground of this painting, ‘Bri-land’. However, it is the buggies in the mid ground that grab me. It is easy to imagine driving off to the night lights of Nassau after a day spent in the heat.

So, if you visit The Bahamas look out for Mr. Eddie Minnis and check out his current works of art that depict the colourful life of the island. Reproductions of his originals are available for all. ‘Paradise in The Bahamas’ sums it all up.

*A cay (/ˈkiː/ or /ˈkeɪ/), also spelled caye or key, is a small, low-elevation, sandy island on the surface of a coral reef.

Featured image – Dancers at the Junkanoo celebration.

Jemima J. Jones

Innovation in the world of art

Two spectacular innovations changed the world of art forever, one evolved in America, the other in France. Academy rules were broken, art critics were split over the results, and art buyers began to attend non academy art exhibitions, on mass. They created a different path for many artists.

Innovation one

Prior to 1841 artists mixed their own paints from pigments bought at their local pharmacies or art material specialists. They were ground down further with pestle and mortar and mixed with walnut or linseed oil.

Pigments on sale in a market
Pigments on sale in a market.

Pigments were usually bought once and were stored in glass jars. What you see here is pigments on sale, modern style, in India no less. Lapis Lazuli, from which Renaissance artists made the colour Ultramarine Blue was more expensive than gold! The most important person in a Renaissance painting from Italy would be the person in blue.

The first innovation came in 1841 and meant artists no longer had to sketch and draw scenes outside and then return indoors to work them up into larger oil paintings. Constable was a terrific exponent of that method as his painting below shows.

Constable The Haywain 1821
Constable, The Haywain, 1821

So what was this first miracle that changed so much on the art scene? It was the invention of a metal tube with a screw on lid that could hold pre-mixed oil paints.

It made painting outside possible, known as ‘en plein air’. Artists could sit outside and paint the scene right in front of them. No more mixing of pigments, no more messing about with turpentine or oils, no more dried up old oil paints, just a collection of tubes ready and waiting to be used. The inventor was one John Goffe Rand. It meant many more colours could be made up, tubed and preserved for much longer, and they didn’t dry out so quickly. Here is what they looked like, courtesy of Windsor and Newton.

The history of the artists' colour tube
Windsor and Newton – The history of the artists’ colour tube.

Innovation two

Over the Atlantic in France comes the second innovation that changed the way artists work, the portable easel. It might sound daft, but you can’t go far with a box of paints in tubes if you don’t have a lightweight collapsible easel to take with you. You lugged your great big easels instead. This was not an easy task by any means. It also kept you close to home…and so we come to innovation number two.

Easels have been in existence since ancient times. Here is the evidence, an Egyptian hieroglyph artist at work.

Egyptian hieroglyph
Egyptian hieroglyph.

Some thousands of years later a wonderful French man came up with an easel design that solved the problem of transport. It is not known exactly when or by whom this new design for easels was taken up but Maurice Denis painted one when he watched Cézanne at work in 1906.

A photograph of the painting, which is now in private hands, is reproduced here. The easel can be seen clearly and there are several people watching the artist, who is painted in dark colours, wearing a rather lovely type of bowler hat. The canvas is, according to the photographer Giraudon, 51 x 64 cms. The easel, pallet, oil paints, brushes and canvas all pack down into a box. (The box is not in this painting.) Now with this new innovation Artists began travelling by train and road to find the best landscapes, the best shorelines and the best light.

Maurice Denis - Visit to Cézanne.png
Maurice Denis – Visit to Cezanne

And, as they say, the rest is history. Today’s en plein air artists have much more sophisticated equipment, as you can see here.

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En plein air artists

So how do we see Impressionism in today’s modern world? Let’s take a look at a Cuban artist who has it nailed. Rigoberto Peláez paints landscapes en plein air with an impressionistic look.

His vibrant view of North Carolina shows what spectacular scenes are created outside, with full, natural daylight and the subject in view. In the foreground, Peláez captures rich, autumn colours. The trees in the mid-ground hide the river flowing through the forest, whilst beautiful, blue mountains in the distance complete the impressionist style, creating a fluent whole.

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Rigoberto Pelaez – North Carolina

Long may the use of Impressionist methods be used and landscapes interpreted by such talented artists as Rigoberto Peláez.

Jemima J. Jones

 

Beauté Congo, 1926-2015, Congo Kitok

“Whatever one can say about the attitudes of visiting European artists and colonial patrons, the superb beauty of these Atelier du Hangar artists’ mosaic like landscapes, village scenes and detailed flora and fauna is undeniable, and a precious view into African innovation.”

Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris.
11 July– 15 November 2015.

Organised by André Magnin, this exhibition reveals a historically vibrant artistic culture within Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, much of the work never before seen in the west. The contemporary work engages with global artistic practice but with a distinctly Afrocentric focus, a welcome thematic. Other historic paintings tell another story, that of African pictorial tradition and the teleological idea of the twentieth century western “discovery” of African artistic practices that had existed for centuries. Whether or not there is a consciousness of this irony is not apparent. That said Magnin has clearly developed a meaningful repertoire with the living artists.

The imprint of Europe is emphasised in the section on French painter Pierre Romain-Desfossés post WW II Atelier du Hangar, an artists’ studio for creative luminaries such as  Bela Sara (b. 1920), Mwenze Kibwanga (1925-1999), and Pili Pili Mulongoy (1914-2007). We must also remember Sylvestre Kaballa (b.1920) whose achingly lovely tessellated depictions of nature had a far reaching trajectory, exhibited in Europe and at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Whatever one can say about the attitudes of visiting European artists and colonial patrons, the superb beauty of these Atelier du Hangar artists’ mosaic like landscapes, village scenes and detailed flora and fauna is undeniable, and a precious view into African innovation. It is well worth seeing these early works particularly that of Djilatendo whose early twentieth century diagrammatic patterns echo the long heralded regional artistic tradition of rhythmic symmetrical designs used to embellish art of various mediums.

In terms of more contemporary art, the staggering compositions of the young artist Kiripi Katembo (b. 1979) are impressive if not immersive configurations of colour, people, crowding, refuse, and light. Works depicting panoramic scenes of urbanity such as To Resist (2011) are part of Katembo’s series Un Regard. To Endure (2011) show the heaviness of the burden of living in a world seemingly constantly in crisis, an ordinary woman dwarfed by institutional looking apartment complexes, meteoroid like boulders hovering in the sky.

If the show is criticized for blind spots, these can be traced back to the beginnings of curating and collecting the art of the Congo, when the nation was a Belgium colony and the Belgians commissioned artists engaged in traditional “decorative arts” to make art on western mediums such as paper. For some time, in European art criticism, the distinction between high (painting and sculpture) and low (craftwork or decorative arts such as textiles) has been a crucial tool for evaluating modernism, but perhaps when applied to non western visual culture, is in fact, a useless category, particularly considering that for the most part, in the Kuba region, art and decorative objects were either historically functional or ritual.

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Pictured: Albert Lubaki, Untitled (one of the first known Congolese works)

 

One of the most illuminating examples of the importance of western patronage in terms of determining a place in the story of African art includes two artists active in the 1920s who were also husband and wife: Albert and Antoinette Lubaki. Albert was an ivory carver (b. circa 1895) and was a richly imaginative artist whose finely decorated home fascinated the colonial interlopers including Georges Thiry who served as the artist’s patron. The Lubaki’s watercolour pictures move between the realms of nature, fantasy, village life and legend, a non-plastic schematic rendering. It has been pointed out that such early watercolour paintings serve as a record a mirroring of traditional art forms such as architectural decoration, body painting and scarification, murals and fabrics which were in fact, often produced by women.

Another local artisan’s elaborately embellished residence attracted the admiration of Thiry as well. Djilatendo (Tshelantende) was Lulua tailor whose work seems an admixture of European models and traditional patterning and form including highly stylised animals and people as well as portraits of the colonists, and modern machines such as automobiles and planes. The geometry reflects a historic artistic tradition among the Kuba of inventively symmetrical decoration on carved wood and bone vessels, sculpture, textiles and ceramics and other materials from the Bushong and the patterned woven cloth (Kente / Kete).

A large part of the exhibition focuses on one of the most influential schools, that of the “Popular Painters” who emerged in the 1970s with the debut exhibit, Art Partout, Kinshasa (1978). It is said their work seemed to serve a collective African memory including the experience of the postcolonial urban environment. While it might be an overstatement to say a regional practice evokes an entire continent’s experience, this idea of a collective sensibility or syncretic practice seems key to understanding Congolese art. There is shared motif in the early twentieth century works, mid century and contemporary works. This reflects a cultural continuity, related to the imbedded nature of art traditions that draw or belong to functional and ritual use.

Among these popular painters (Postcolonial Zaire School) are Chéri Samba (b. 1956), Chéri Chérin (b. 1955), and Moke’s (1950-2001). These artists’ readable, contemporary narratives showing daily life, events and politics are often rendered in a highly graphic billboard like style. Samba‘s The True Map of the World (2011) is an iconic example of the genre. Monsengo Shula (b. 1959) is also considered part of this school, yet his work is distinguished by the use of supernatural colours in polemical depictions of the problems of poverty, overpopulation and injustice (Sooner or Later the World Will Change, 2014). These luminescent works are visually arresting and offer continual surprise. Other key contemporaries include Steve Bandoma (b. 1981) a, graduate of the Académie des Beaux-Art, Kinshasa, the young artist is a founder of the Avant-garde collective Librisme syngergie.

It is fitting to conclude with an observation of the work of the recently departed artist Bodys Isek Kingelez  (1948-2015). At the intersection of utopia, reality and politics, the artist’s architectural maquettes are made from recycled materials or refuse such as cans, plastic and cardboard. The fascinating models confront most profoundly the problems of urban living, crowding, waste and use of materials as well as sustainability, and touch on concepts of nationhood and post colonialism.

In this exhibit, Magnin sought to present images of creativity and dispel the conception that African creativity had skipped generations. He has accomplished this, and seems clear that traditional artwork has had continued life whether or not visible to Europe. Much has been obliterated by occupation, and some traditions lost to the brutality of colonialism. And yet, a sense of solidarity might be seen in the fact that the techniques of fabric making were long kept a trade secret. These may all seem obvious matters, but in Europe, the shackles of colonialism have restrained not only human rights, but also our own imaginative and perceptive ability to understand the subtleties of other cultures.

Visual vocabulary is one of the most profound expressions of lived culture, and whatever models it follows, Beauté Congo is a remarkable opportunity to hear voices we might not have the chance to listen to in other circumstances. As the curator says: “We wanted to show the broader public exceptional works from a continent where the television only presents dark, disastrous images of war and illness.”

RJHB, Paris / New York, September 2015

Featured Image – JP Mika, Kiese na Kiese (Happiness and Joy), 2014