Posthumous Dialogues with Souza: Homage to a Goan Artist, is being held in MOG-Museum of Goa, Saligao, Goa from 23 April to 30 May 2022. The event, comprising an exhibition of works of 27 artists – both upcoming and established including the likes of Atul Dodiya and Sudhir Patwardhan – is organised as part of a series of events commemorating artist-friends of Raza in the Raza100 celebrations by The Raza Foundation, New Delhi. There will also be a series of talks on Souza’s work, and a catalogue with essays on Souza. Curated by Sabitha Satchi, the show attempts to evoke the deep friendship that F.N. Souza and S.H. Raza shared. The show opened with a dramatised reading of letters written by Souza to Raza in the 40s and the 50s, aptly titled ‘My Dear Progs.’ There will be a catalogue release on May 14.
Sabitha Satchi talks about Souza’s bold language in his aesthetic style and how he was often misunderstood for his nudes. He alters Christian art in the same sense, she says, and how he called himself a ‘fallen Catholic.’ She beautifully captures the essence of Souza’s trajectory in her curatorial note:
Brutally humanistic, unabashedly raw, aesthetically pitiless and violently alive, Francis Newton Souza’s art has a renewed relevance today. F.N. Souza gave the figurative a radically new aesthetic language: bold, brutal, pained, intense, and often provocatively erotic.
Souza was among the seminal Progressive Artists’ Group of Bombay who were active as a collective in the 40s, 50s and 60s, along with S H Raza, K H Ara and M F Husain. Others associated with the group included H A Gade, S K Bakre, V S Gaitonde, Krishen Khanna, Tyeb Mehta, Ram Kumar, Akbar Padamsee, and Manishi Dey. The Group wished to form an aesthetic language away from the nationalism of the Bengal School, with artists in Santiniketan looking to the East for inspiration and connection. Bombay Progressive Artists forged an international avant garde aesthetic style, looking to the West for experiments with both medium and form.
Souza was perhaps one of the first Indian artists to work extensively with acrylic on canvas. His works included expressionist landscapes, radically altered religious iconography, bold female forms, and savagely erotic male and female figures. His use of colour was as bold and provocative as his lines and forms.
Souza’s articulateness added to his persona. He often wrote introductions to his work besides poetry and essays. In his writing he often presented himself as the angry black genius showing his thumb at a conservative and racialised society and culture.
Souza was born in Saligao, Goa in 1924. Tragedy struck his life early when he lost his father, Joseph Newton, who died when F N Souza was just three months old. He was brought up by his mother, Lily Mary, a dressmaker. Souza was also traumatised by a near-fatal attack of small pox in his childhood, an event that had a lasting impact on his art and life.
Souza was expelled from St. Xavier’s school in Bombay for drawing nude images on the walls of the boys’ toilets. Later he attended Sir J J School of Art in Bombay, from where too he was expelled, this time for taking part in the Quit India movement. Following his expulsion from J J School of Art, Souza joined the Communist Party of India in 1947. Along with S H Raza, K H Ara and M F Husain, he started the Progressive Artists’ Group in Bombay and wrote its manifesto. He moved to London in 1949, and after a lot of initial struggle, his big break came when his ‘Nirvana of a Maggot’ was published in Encounter Magazine, by Stephen Spender. Souza was introduced to the owner of Gallery One, Victor Musgrave, by Stephen Spender, and his exhibition there in 1955 was a critically acclaimed success.
Souza was praised by critics such as John Berger for being deliberately eclectic. Berger wrote, “he straddles many traditions, but serves none.” V K Krishna Menon, then the Indian High Commissioner to Britain had already commissioned Souza for murals in the Indian Students’ Bureau in London and arranged an exhibition of Souza’s works at India House. In 1967, Souza moved to New York City. In 1968, he participated in an exhibition in Detroit, and in 1977, his work was displayed in Commonwealth Artists of Fame in London. In 1987, his retrospectives were held in Delhi and Bombay. He also showed his works in Indus Gallery, Karachi in 1988, and in Bose Pacio Modern in New York in 1998. He died in Bombay in 2002.
Although critically acclaimed, Souza struggled to sell his paintings throughout his artistic life. After his death, his paintings sold for millions of dollars. At a Christie’s auction in 2008, Souza’s work ‘Birth’ created a record for being the most expensive work of Indian art sold till date. The same painting was resold by Christies in 2015 and it fetched more than 4 million US Dollars. Many of his paintings were resold for high prices. The artist, when he lived, often struggled to make ends meet, and did not live to see his works becoming a commercial success. Some of the places that display his works now are Tate Modern, London; British Museum, London; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Birmingham Museum of Art; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; Himeji, Hygo, Japan; Haifa Museum, Israel; Museum of Biblical Art, Dallas Texas; and National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.
F.N. Souza’s works make extensive use of Christian iconography, even while often subverting it stylistically. One can sense a certain affinity of the artist with the sufferings of Christ and his mother, Mary. Their depictions are earthy, sparse, and of this world, in a mode that secularises the sacred. The relevance of an artist who is from a minority community in India, and a black immigrant in the West, and whose works intensely engaged with brutality, isolation and suffering in content, and deformity, the irregular and the bold in form and colours, cannot be emphasised enough in our world radically altered by a global pandemic and rising sectarian violence and authoritarianism. In this exhibition that is a homage to this extraordinary artist who never received his due place in Indian art history while alive, we hope to honour and pay homage to the legacy of F N Souza.
Souza’s work assumes a special significance in these times for at least two reasons. The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on the human body, made it diseased and distorted, and the threat of death and extinction looms large over all of humanity. F.N. Souza’s work’s pitiless and disfigured aesthetic becomes suddenly all the more relevant. Secondly, our time globally has also been a time of violence against minorities and rising majoritarianism across the world. F.N. Souza, a Catholic from Goa, in whose works the church and the Bible are recurring ideas iconographically and aesthetically, again reappears in our midst, reminding us of the multi-faceted multiculturalism of India, where many religions and cultures have co-existed to the extent that their influences have gone into the making of each of us – culturally, socially, aesthetically and intellectually. We in India need to remember and honour an artist such as Francis Newton Souza, making a posthumous dialogue with Souza’s work urgent and significant in our violent times.
*Curatorial note by Sabitha Satchi. She is a poet, art curator, cultural theorist, and critic. Sabitha has been the recipient of the Paul Mellon Fellowship at Yale Center for British Art (U.S.A); Commonwealth Scholarship (U.K.); the Charles Wallace Fellowship, British Council, India; the Sarai-CSDS Independent Fellowship (New Delhi); the Graduate School Award (UCL, London) among others. Sabitha taught English Literature in Delhi University for fifteen years.