F N Souza: Rethinking Representation

By Jugneeta Sudan

The mark of a great artist is their ability to map uncharted territory - to go into zones of silence and come back with something to say. Kafka put it succinctly, “Prayer and art are passionate acts of will. Art like prayer is a hand outstretched in the darkness, seeking for some touch of grace which will transform it into a hand that bestows gifts.” In Souza’s art, the gift is the unflinching acknowledgement of the human body and its innate sexuality, rescued from traditions of sins of flesh. One may be able to capture reality more thoroughly than science; to see living beings and their nature through the eyes of the soul, without recoiling in horror, disgust or shame. The human body, cloaked in ambiguity – caught between the sacred and the profane – now stands unleashed through Souza’s stark renditions on his canvas.

The self-possessed Souza undertook the responsibility to portray what he saw and experienced in his world. He mined many insights from his bohemian lifestyle, part product of psychological influences from his upbringing, to project bodies and man-woman relationships in his art. Although his art has distinct modern characteristics, it is influenced greatly by Hindu temple sculptures - particularly those from Khajuraho and Yogini. Diogenes’ vision of Greek cynic philosophy, that cult of shamelessness as superior to modesty is also notable in Souza’s work.

Souza’s figurative art rejuvenates the Body - the organic basis of thought and intelligence. It reimagines human figures and affirms our solidarity with physical form and our incorporeal intellect, ridding it from a heavy, awkward and shameful burden of guilt. It exhorts us to acknowledge the life of the body, as expressive and intentional, the ultimate knowing of an experiential sensory being, the acceptance of which opens channels for a visceral connect within and the living world outside.

By sticking to figures, Souza was able to enunciate the effect of man-made world systems –where the body becomes the epicentre of every execution, cosmic or earthly. It is the body that is marked, bears signs and feels the brunt of the forces acting on it. Merleau-Ponty investigates, “… the bond between flesh and idea, in ‘the visible and the invisible’ and the internal armature which (it) manifests and which it conceals.” Souza’s obsessive representations of the human body paralleled studies in phenomenology and ontology in the 20th century. It entreats modern schizophrenic beings, living in a consumerist and regressive mechanized world to break free through an engagement with their selves.  

Edmund Husserl, father of Phenomenology, posited the human body as primary site for knowing the world. This is in stark contrast to the long philosophical tradition of placing consciousness as the source of knowledge. It questions the ideas of bodily objectification as shown in the media and also the one treated by our medical doctors. According to Husserl, body and perception of sensation cannot be disentangled from each other. Beneath the anatomized and mechanical body prevails an intelligence that feels and records every sensory experience - of smell, taste and touch – and is continuously moulded by them. Without the body, a human being does not exist. The body is the true subject of experience - a far cry from Descartes’ pronouncement ‘I think, therefore I am’. 

Souza’s fleshed bodies embody the natural pulsating human being. They ponder on the violent disconnect between the body and our conscious minds; the dichotomy of sacred and profane bodies; what this means to our psychological makeup, and how it disrupts relationships and our connection to the world at large. They question the viewer - how can you be alive if you do not acknowledge this flesh, and another’s flesh like yours exactly the way it is; how can you establish a healthy and balanced relation with yourself, your community and the larger world, if you fail to accept your own fleshed self? They invite the viewer to travel within and discover Deleuze’s BwO - the body without organs.

The term BwO originated from Antonin Artaud’s radio play, ‘To Have Done with the Judgement of God’ – “When you will have made him a body without organs, then you will have delivered him from all his automatic reactions and restored him to his true freedom.” To make oneself a body without organs is to actively experiment with one’s organic intelligence.  Deleuze’s ‘The Schizophrenic and the Little Girl’ dives into the dark inner organic self and absolutely rejects the surface.  It isn’t so much the organs that are the enemy here but the organization of the organism to the diktat of religious and  the state system. BwO howls, “They have made me an organism! They have wrongfully folded me! They have stolen my body!”

The recurring human form in Souza’s art against a plain background, grounds the form prominently. There is nothing else, but an absolute focus on this extracted isolated form, to see its undulations, folds, crevices and loops held in by a defining outer contour. Souza’s paintings also point to rhythms – life sustaining breath and sensations in our bodies. They freeze intense instinctual movements inside incensed bodies.

The scream of a nude woman spear eagled on a yellow brocade with stars - is a compounded sensation of an arm twisted being, whose whole body explosively parachutes out of the open mouth; the grotesque woman with bent knees and a deformed face peering into a mirror, mirrors the hysterical struggle of a body to escape through the rhythm of its movements; the multiple eyes, fingers, ears… are sensations of neurotic, schizophrenic or psychotic deformed bodies escaping through the organs; couples grappling with misogynistic and masochistic forces. These artworks symbolize modern sensory beings, suspended in voids, struggling with compulsive movements of innate sensations - outcomes of invisible pernicious forces acting on them. 

Souza’s visceral art practice assaults the senses and directly impinges upon the solar plexus. Its intentional disruptive force delivers a punch to the subconscious, driving home reality in a heightened form. This practice upholds the philosophy of playwrights such as Antonin Artaud’s ‘The Theatre of Cruelty’ and Tennessee William’s ‘Benevolent Anarchy’. Each of these playwrights showcased human instincts in pure form and their mangling into schizophrenic-psychotic strains. The schizotypal figures in their creative arts, people in postures of discomfort and strain, are representations of the modern human being butchered by capitalist machinery, and as mere apparitions of their original selves, reduced to the pulp of Deleuze’s Anti-Oedipus. Shorn of words and superficial communication skills, they just whimper or howl, or stare at the viewer stoned, exhibiting convulsive movements. Still, the artist (Souza) remains staunch in his agenda - through the mayhem he depicts sacredness of human bodies - its repression, destruction or ultimate silence to drive home a set of truths expounded by Heidegger and Sartre on the existential crisis of the human condition.

Banner image Souza exhibition at Grosvenor Gallery, London, 2012, courtesy of Selma Carvalho. 

Jugneeta Sudan’s literary criticism, has focused on children’s classic literature, Western classical texts, art history and poetry. She writes for several publications, including the Navhind Times, and Daily O’, India. She has curated talks on contemporary art — Raza Dialogue, with Raza Foundation, Delhi and Museum of Goa, and an evening of poetry, art and music at the Goa pavilion — Serendipity Arts Festival, 2017. She heads PAG, the poetry appreciation group at Bookworm. In 2018, she was runner-up for the Best in Non-Fiction JRLJ award, and her essay Camoes in Goa: The Journey of an Epic was published in The Brave New World of Goan Writing (BombayKala, 2018)