As winter festive season was starting in Goa last year, a 26-year-old man came out of the airport and thought he had landed in Narnia. “It was as if I had stepped through a cupboard into this magical world full of wild beauty. In the weeks that followed, I lost myself here and made a little life in Goa. I had always wanted to come to Goa as I knew I had Goan heritage and roots here. Now, it was as if I had never left here and never lived anywhere else,” he says.
Graffiti artist Solomon Souza was visiting the place his grandfather, Francis Newton Souza, better known as FN Souza, had belonged. FN was one of India’s pioneering modern artists, founder of the Progressive Artists’ Movement and creator of works of great power and strength. Solomon’s visit was a part of the Serendipity Arts Festival that was held in Goa in December.
Tel Aviv-based Solomon is the son of artist Keren Souza Kohn, the eldest of the three daughters of FN and Liselotte Kohn. “I had an amazingly talented and celebrated artist for a grandfather. He was a fundamental aspect of my life when he was alive and has become more so when he passed away. I was 10 when he passed away but his work is always there. I am understanding more and more about the impact he has had on the art world and people’s ways of thinking,” he says.
It was Keren who surrounded Solomon with art. “My mother made sure I became an artist. She was always painting and teaching. She had an amazing studio and I was always going in there. I was painting on the wall as a child and she would tape a paper on it and let me draw. She never stopped me, instead she encouraged me,” he says. Spray cans and bigger walls were a natural progression for Solomon. “I like to do graffiti and spray cans are a perfect tool, as these are versatile and have strong colour. It is a responsibility when you paint the streets. You could choose to beautify or destroy. If you have a message to spread, you can spread it,” he says.
He moved countries and cities a lot as a child, and changed 15 schools. “It made me, in a way, very social, because I make friends very easily. I had a very crazy childhood. I was a very troublesome child and did stupid stuff. But, I would not have been the same person if I had not done those things,” he says.
A few years ago, Solomon came into the limelight for painting local and global heroes — Jewish World War II soldier Hannah Szenes, American rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the leader of the non-violent movement, Mahatma Gandhi — in a congested marketplace of Jerusalem. “That project got me thinking a lot about the content of my work and how you can portray a message and tell a story when you paint a picture,” he says. Back in London, now, he has commemorated the 30th death anniversary of his maternal grandmother, Liselotte, by painting her face on a giant shutter. She had fled her home in Prague in 1939 after Czechoslovakia was invaded by the Nazis and made her way to the UK. In London, she met FN, newly arrived from India.
In FN’s ancestral village of Saligaon, Solomon found the crumbling house where the legendary artist had lived as well as a community of hundreds of uncles and aunts. “I was eating mirchi and puri bhaji all day. It was exciting for me to wander the streets that my grandfather would have wandered as a child. I saw little children running around in the open and I thought, ‘this would have been my grandfather 70,80 or 90 years ago’,” he says.
Solomon created life-size murals of Saligaon legends in the village, such as women freedom fighters, many of whom were imprisoned and tortured, and Eunice D’Souza, a poet. “I did one of Sacrula, who was an interesting man. People thought he was a bit crazy but he was just very different. He would dress as a priest, though he wasn’t one, in long robes and bless people on the streets. He was blessing the world,” he says. The work is on the wall of an old Portuguese home on a tight bend on a busy road. “I almost got run over a few times painting it,” he says.
On another wall is Anthony de Mello, one of the founders of the Board of Control for Cricket in India. “He is this guy from a little village in Goa who went and exploded on the world, just like my grandfather did. Goans are very smart and international. They love to spread out and explore. I am sure that the Portuguese played a role in creating this culture by coming on boats and, when they left, opened up Goa,” says Solomon.
The artist made more than 20 murals as part of Serendipity Arts Festivals and intended to finish with a giant work on FN. “We found the perfect wall and was set to paint the great pioneer of the progressive arts… however, the universe had different plans,” he writes on his Instagram account, @solomonsouza. The lift he needed fell short of the height he needed to paint. “The police also decided to call me repeatedly, requesting my presence at the local station for questioning concerning my visa to which I eventually obliged,” he adds.
By the time Solomon returned to the wall, he was told by the driver of the lift that he had only 30 minutes. “So, picking up my paint, alighting the work platform and extending a token of gratitude to the man who had tied me to this life and legacy, I painted Souza as a child, the age he would be whilst in Goa, a young thing with the world stretched out and open before him like a huge blank wall,” he writes. The reason the senior Souza looks a trifle annoyed is possibly because Solomon was “quite frustrated and rushed… perhaps that shows in his features”.
The incomplete work is a reason for Solomon to return. Before that, he is finishing a large mural on Stamford Bridge, which is in Chelsea FC’s stadium in London, in commemoration of the 75th liberation of Auschwitz.
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