Abir Pothi explores the seamless ‘everywhereness’ and dreamlike quality of Kerala-based contemporary artist Sosa Joseph
Indian contemporary artist Sosa Joseph was born on December 23, 1971, in Parumala, a small village in southern Kerala, where she was raised in a house right by the river. “For us, it all began with the river. It flowed through us every day, every moment,” she once said in an interview.
Perhaps it is this very instinct of “flow” that is evoked in much of her oeuvre. The elements of her paintings bleed into one another, alienating themselves less into discrete facets and coming together more as an amalgam of a whole. Colours and figures coalesce, and a sense of the bucolic tends to overwhelm the perception of many of her frames. There is nature, there is community, and the rhythms of life and death ebb and surge in each painting.
Her introduction on the online pages of the Biennale of Sydney, in which she was included in the 21st edition in 2018, beautifully encapsulates: “Joseph’s paintings exist in the indeterminate space between reality and fantasy, drawing on everyday activities and reproducing them in evocative ways. She presents the real and imagined as deeply connected and ultimately indivisible, despite the two being commonly perceived as opposing forces.”
It adds: “While referring directly to the social and cultural context of her native Kerala, the allegorical quality of Joseph’s works renders them universally relevant through an appeal to shared human experience. This tension between specificity and ‘everywhereness’ means that Joseph’s painting never quite fit within the categories of abstract or figurative art.”
That being said, Joseph is identified by many as a figurative expressionist. Although thematically rendering mundane scenarios, there is a magical realism or dreamlike quality in her paintings, where she takes fascinating liberties in the depiction of certain dimensions or characters.
Memories and observations from her childhood as well as adulthood translate into her paintings. Her works seem to be imbued with layers of meaning, quite literally and metaphorically.
Joseph often favours more muted tones, but manages to render a thrumming vibrancy into the narrative of her aesthetic presentations. “Joseph’s application of broad brushstrokes and an atmospheric colour palette of blues, purples and washed-out pinks, lends a sensuality reminiscent of the otherworldly,” critics have said.
About Joseph’s art, Ocula writes in high praise: “Joseph’s paintings bear certain similarities to the works of the Baroda School painters of the 1970s and 1980s — among them Sudhir Patwardhan and Bhupen Khakhar — who developed a style of narrative painting with an inclination towards the urban streetscape and a departure from pictorial realism, replacing it with allegory and a sense of the uncanny.”
The 51-year-old artist lives in Kochi, and had studied at the Raja Ravi Varma College of Fine Arts, Mavelikara Kerala, as well as the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda.
In 2015, her work was exhibited at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, and in 2016, she exhibited at the Setouchi Triennale in Shodoshima, Japan. Her works have also been exhibited at several more galleries and museums, including the Centre Pompidou (Paris), Kochi-Muziris Biennale (Cochin), Nature Morte, New Delhi), and Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke (Mumbai), with presentations at the India Art Fair and Kashi Art Gallery, Kochi.
Just last month, at the Mumbai Gallery Weekend (MGW), Joseph was slated to showcase ‘Where do We Come From?’. She has borrowed the title of celebrated French artist Paul Gauguin’s 1897 Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? for her painting series ‘What Are We?’ (2012), painting Where Are We Going (2015), and the exhibition Where do we come from? (2022), among others. Unlike Gauguin and his spiritual quests, Joseph has since clarified that her adoption of the title is personal, an exploration of who she herself is.
One cannot but be enthralled at what this quest will next manifest.