A river beyond time

August 29, 2021

The most sacred personalities in Christianity were ‘translated’ into white divinities

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In this age of Black Lives Matter, probably the most relevant images are the ancient depiction of Madonna and Child. Contrary to the current understanding of two holy figures having blonde hair, light complexion, Caucasian physique; some of the earliest depictions of Mary and Jesus presented them as dark-skinned individuals. Not only in the Coptic iconography and Ethiopian manuscripts, but sculptures in a few German cathedrals have a black Virgin and Infant.

However, white divinity is almost a universally believed notion today. The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, later to be converted into Aramaic and Koine Greek, further translated into Latin, English and other languages. Likewise, the most sacred personalities in Christianity were also ‘translated’, changing their pigmentation and features from region to region and in different periods. The Indian artist, FD Souza painted a dark Christ, and a brown Mother and Child, a way of re-claiming religion. Similarly, his compatriot Anjolie Ela Menon is decolonising the Christian faith (mostly brought through the British rule) by rendering religious imagery in characters not from Galilee, Rome, or Dublin, but from New Delhi, Mumbai or Goa.

At her solo exhibition, By the River, (August 19-September 18, Aicon Art, New York) Menon has displayed the portrait of Christ wearing a crown of thorns (Jesus), and the Mother and Child (Divine Mother II). Interestingly these paintings with religious content differ from other such attempts in localising foreign ideas/ personalities. Menon’s models, not being European looking, appear more familiar and plebeian humans, the kind you come across – and normally fail to notice – in small towns and villages of the Indian subcontinent. In a sense, Anjolie Ela Menon reminds us that Jesus Christ and Holy Mother were not from a high stature of society, they were linked to a carpenter’s family. A connection which in any case does not count as far as their divine supremacy is concerned.

Menon paints these figures on “finely textured surfaces… further enhanced by burnishing the finished work with a soft dry brush, creating a glow reminiscent of medieval icons.” She is able to embody a religious aspect in her paintings, because “Menon’s studies in Paris in the 1960s exposed her to the techniques of medieval Christian iconography, particularly Byzantine art.”

Actually the painter with a career “now spanning over fifty years,” is not only portraying Christian themes in this method, but depicts other devotional figures and ordinary people in an identical technique and with an equal ‘grandeur.’ In 25 paintings from the current exhibition, Menon has drawn a Hindu Guru; a devotee of Kumbh mela; a pundit, along with people with no obvious religious identification, the simple folks: a boy behind the curtain; another carrying a cat and holding a few balloons; kids clasping goats to their chests; an old fellow reading newspaper at the window of his house (Rafiya Manzil); a woman sitting on a charpoy next to a girl grasping her doll; or a man and woman lifting a goat while holding on to other such animals (Goatherd I & II).

All these, added with a few portraits of males and females, signify the grounded-ness of life in relation to art. Especially after the pandemic, the meaning of her work acquires a different turn. Loners, engaged in their ceremonial rituals, or domestic routine (reading a paper with the headline: Pandemic surges on), in the company of animals (cats, goats, parrots) suggest the situation of presently heightened human indifference (perhaps many degrees more than the alienation caused by the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century). Human beings in this phase have been frightened of their own specie. In her painting, Haveli, a male figure is standing against open windows and the quadrangle of some deserted building, occupied by goats. In this work, Anjolie Ela Menon “re-visits a familiar theme – the consonance of man and animal, the unity that maintains a delicate balance”. This relationship is sighted in Kumbh mela too, with man balancing a parrot on his wrist, as well as the closed eyes (as if in a trance) of boys hugging goats (one must remember that Lord Krishna was represented as a cowherd.)

The presence of spirituality is sparse in the art of Anjolie Ela Menon, because she constructs images with multiple meanings and references. Perhaps the most daring and direct is the one with a crow perched on an empty chair next to abandoned fruit, a discarded water bottle, a neglected paper cup, a forgotten scarf and a disbanded party balloon. Here the artist creates a situation in which humans have disappeared, their products as residue, last longer.

It is not only the functional items that remain on view after their initial use, but the language of art or of an artist continues to exist beyond a certain phase. One often wonders about the chosen method, medium – and more importantly the manner of an artist’s work, which prevail despite the shift of time, trends, temperaments and tensions. Anjolie Ela Menon’s work defies the passage of years.Using the traditional technique of pentimento, Menon layers thin glazes of oil paint onto hardboard. These surfaces are made vibrant by rubbing them to an extreme. Not only her preference for an old technique (pentimento) of layering translucent images on top of each other, but also her imagery has hardly changed over the years. Even though one finds new characters, different settings and fresh objects, her aesthetic concerns and constructions appear mostly unaltered.

For an art circle, which like the fashion world, is constantly seeking newness, artists such as Anjolie Ela Menon pose a problem of understanding (though there is no question of underestimating due to her celebrity status in the Indian and international art. She has held solo exhibitions at prestigious galleries and museums in the USA, the former USSR and India, in addition to representing her country at the Algiers Biennale and in Sao Paulo, Brazil). Artists like her who have been exploring one set of subjects, visuals and mediums remind one of Garcia Marquez, who once suggested in an interview that some authors write the same book over and over, with a different title each time.

In a sense, the work of Anjolie Ela Menon is in connection and continuation of pre-modern artistic concepts, values, and practices. You don’t need to invent for the sake of it, but you carve excellence from an existing imagery. The newness is not about discovering a separate set of visuals or finding an odd technique, but having an extraordinary and unusual experience on encountering works, which – otherwise have nothing new, like qawwalis of Ustad Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan and Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad. Their pieces are variations on their masters’/ elders’ works, or their own previous forms, yet each performance wrenches one’s heart in a unique manner. Only because these artistes are not conscious of audience’s demands, they seek perfection, intensity, sublimity in their creation, which from the outside appears a self-indulgent practice.

Looking at the recent paintings of Anjolie Ela Menon, one recognises a similar kind of exquisiteness, excellence and devotion, because she is not playing to market. Talking to Neville Tuli, the 81 year old artist admits, “I think painting is one of the most self-indulgent things one could be doing.”


The writer is an art critic based in Lahore



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