Celebrating the 2016 Rio Olympics with “naïve” Brazilian paintings

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Fabio Sombra, Untitled Acrylic on board, 54 cm x 72 cm, 2000

I just love this picture! Fabio Sombra painted it with the idea of the Olympic Games in Rio on a far horizon. At first pass, you might be forgiven for thinking it is done by a talented child. At second pass, you would notice the graded sky, the perfect composition, the balance of colour and the convincing anatomical pose of each athlete. On further consideration, you would take in the multiple ingenious details from the cameraman at the foot of the Olympic steps (who, confused by the abundance of scenes, is pointing his camera at one thing whilst looking at another) to the two little Red Cross guys helping an injured and grimacing athlete off the track. Of course, Brazil wins!

This is no childish work but there is an innocent charm about Sombra’s painting. It is naïve! It makes me happy. It has a James Rizzi appeal. It features on the invitation to the current exhibition “Rio Naïf et les Jeux Olympiques” at Espace L.

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Gerson, Untitled, Oil on board, 24cm x 19cm, 1994

I call in at Espace L. Its founder, Laeticia Amas, believes that naïve Brazilian paintings have not been shown in Geneva before. I find the whole narrative fascinating and can’t help smiling and swinging along with Gerson’s two happy-cool-clown-trapeze artists.

As an Olympic celebration, the exhibition is set to travel this year to other Swiss destinations with close collaboration between Espace L and the Museu Internacional de Arte Naïf do Brasil (MIAN) in Rio, the Basel-based foundation Brasilea and the Consulate General of Brazil in Geneva.

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Magda Mittakis, Untitled, Acrylic on multiple boards, 24cm x 19cm each, 2015

According to Jacqueline A Finkelstein, conservator of MIAN, the term “naïve” was originally applied to the work of Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) who started painting his signature jungle scenes in his forties and famously said he had “no teacher other than nature.” This glorious montage of small paintings by Magda Mittakis shows just how enduring Rousseau’s influence is.

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Barbara Deister, “Brasil, campeo natacao” Acrylic on board, 30cm x 20cm, 2015

The exhibition is also dedicated to the paralympics. Barbara Deister’s naïve gem shows amputees on the medal podium for a swimming event, an ecstatic crowd and – inexplicably and wonderfully (or maybe just naïvely!) – a white duck in the pool! And of course, Brazil wins! It’s fabulous!

Bravo, Espace L … and good luck with this ambitious project!

The exhibition runs until 5 March.

The expressions and emotions of Alyaa Kamel

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I get a message from Facebook: the 13th November is Alyaa Kamel’s birthday. Another message tells me it is the first day of her new exhibition. Galerie Cimaise has risen to the challenge of showing her “Expressions and Emotions.” Go to this exhibition. Do not expect to see representations of people’s expressions and emotions. You will find Alyaa Kamel’s people but the expressions and emotions are all hers. This is, after all, #alyaakamel: emoting on-line and “out there.”

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A large canvas reveals her fascination for tagging. It is a crush of hopeless, expressionless people: her main theme. I remain convinced that her inspiration is driven by the all-too-frequent images from daily news: thousands of poor middle-eastern souls in crisis. I try to nail down her thoughts. She cleverly responds in a meaningful abstractness. With a gush of words, she throws ideas at me such as humanity, inheritance, memories and genes. I push…. “We all have our secrets, Robin!”

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Another large canvas moves the theme to the individual. The face is grotesque and haunting. One eye is closed. The nose is broken. The lips are mashed. In describing what was in her mind when covering it with glue and kitchen film she loses me. I see only an attempt to obliterate one of those poor middle-eastern souls in crisis; only this time the crisis has been meted out at a personal level. By my interpretation, this is the battered and bruised face of the final interrogation.

This exhibition carries 36 pieces. Alyaa’s expressions and emotions may be elusive but she has a lot to say and she says it better with her drawings and paintings than with her words. The ensemble of the person and her work is contemporary, enigmatic and intriguing. A visit to Galerie Cimaise will not disappoint.

Aboriginal rock paintings in Brisbane

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It is hot and humid. I am in a natural reserve near the heart of Brisbane, Queensland. I walk up to the J.C. Slaughter waterfalls. There are only rocks. The river is dry. A sign indicates “Aboriginal Art”. A small plaque tells me that these rock paintings from 1993 celebrate the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People and that the aboriginal artists are Laurie Nilsen, Marshall Bell, Laurie Graham and Mark Garlett.

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Blow-painting – with dyes spat from the mouth – was a prominent feature of aboriginal painting. Hands and hunting boomerangs were frequently used as stencils. Here, the paintings include, in white, macropod (e.g. kangaroo) tracks. The works have an instant and earthy appeal. I find them beautiful. They take me closer to an ancient culture born of a harsh environment.

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A fabulous serpentine form uncoils itself from under the over-hanging rock. I guess snakes feature so prominently in aboriginal folklore because, even today, they represent the greatest danger for anyone who goes walkabout.

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A few metres away is a human figure. It is as though the painters wanted to represent the future observer of their beautiful stuff. Is it therefore me?!! Maybe it is J.C. Slaughter himself, the civic-minded administrator who expanded the public amenities of 1960s Brisbane? (I can find no link between him and the falls; he certainly wasn’t their European “discoverer”!)

Despite the fact that these paintings are only twenty-two years old, I accept that they are “aboriginal.” They represent creative impulses of people who were the owners and custodians of this parched land for thousands of years before Captain Cook sailed into Botany Bay and the painters are, I assume, descended from these people. As I walk back down the dusty track, a young woman jogs past; she wears Nike shoes, a pink lycra top and an iPhone strapped to her left upper arm. I reflect on the dual and incomparable stories of humanity’s existence on this huge dry continent. A kookaburra cackles its laugh at me. I have a feeling that the bird is ridiculing my attempt to understand what these paintings really mean for aborigine people. But then, maybe it is just telling me to go away.

The Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours exhibition at MAH

Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours 1I meet Philippa Kundig at Geneva’s Museum of Art and History. She is the designer of the current exhibition featuring one of this town’s most famous painters: the eighteenth-century neo-classicist, Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours (1752-1809.) And what a monumental, beautiful exhibition it is! If you like to feast on representation of the classics, the team at MAH serves up Saint-Ours’s full menu of Homer, Olympic games (the original!), Spartans, Cupid and Psyche along with dozens of his meticulous portraits.

Such an important exhibition occupies Philippa and the two curators, Anne de Herdt and Lurence Madeline for more than six months. The works have to be sourced, borrowed and transported. Historical research, deciding on sub-themes, writing the panels and brochures, designing the display, building partitions, printing the materials, lighting the space and finally hanging the pictures are all requisite steps towards what confronts me today.

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The resulting presentation of the works is stunning. Here, by incorporating a vertical break in one of the rich, plum-coloured partitions, Philippa draws the visitor’s eye into the next space, across a rare Saint-Ours sculpture of two naked men wrestling and then on to an Olympian scene where a victorious wrestler is supporting his vanquished foe before the tribune.

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The life and work of Saint-Ours is squarely placed in the Enlightenment. He was profoundly influenced by Geneva’s foremost philosopher of the day, Jean Jacques Rousseau. The painter’s father is said to have possessed a collection of Rousseau’s publications. In one side-room, Philippa shows me a unique, academic and complete body of work. It comprises small oil paintings of scenes from Rousseau’s “The Levite of Ephraim” paired with corresponding ink sketches. Each pair merits minute examination. Tempus fugit!

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“Le Tremblment de terre: version monumentale” 1783 – 1799. Oil on canvas.

The signature painting of the exhibition is a large-scale version of “The Earthquake.” (Saint-Ours painted four smaller versions.) The motivation for this imposing work came with news of a massive earthquake in Messina, Italy in 1783. A family flees the destruction of their home. They look to the heavens as if expecting to find a reason for this punishment. The woman with her terribly vulnerable – possibly dead – baby are centre-stage. Powerful stuff!

Indeed, these were turbulent times. France was in political upheaval and Geneva had its own revolution in 1792. Saint-Ours maintained a fascination for people caught up in cataclysmic and violent events as evidenced by his sketch-book from around that time. My mind automatically makes a link to the paintings of Tahar M’Guedmini depicting the moment when catastrophe hits…… “when time faints.”

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Sketch for “Le Tremblement de terre.”

Needless to say, some of Saint-Ours’s exquisite sketches on this theme are positioned near the final work. This part of the exhibition seems so compelling. Is this because it resonates with current events? I guess that if Saint-Ours was painting today, this is how he would portray heart-rending scenes from the current migrant crisis in Europe. Were subliminal influences from daily news playing on the minds of the curators when conceiving this show and deciding on the signature work?

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Study for “Choix des enfants de Sparte” 1789. Oil on canvas.

Saint-Ours trained at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris. For all the splendour of this exhibition, let’s not lose sight of the fact that he was a true master of his chosen medium. I find myself riveted by the sobre concentration on these men’s faces. And this painting was just a study for a bigger, harrowing canvas of the Spartan elders choosing which children would live to be good citizens and which would be left to die.

So…. Bravo MAH! And…. Brava, Philippa!  Many thanks for the private tour of your work-place. I take my leave and enjoy a breath of fresh air. Right in front of MAH, welcoming me back to the crisp October daylight, is my favourite public sculpture in Geneva – Henry Moore’s “Reclining Figure: Arch Leg.” I run my hand over the super-smooth bronze and can’t help wondering how a MAH exhibition designer would display Moore’s work in 200 years.

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Henry Moore “Reclining Figure: Arch Leg.” Bronze 1969.

Abdul Rahman Chughtai

This is a guest post by Alexandra Karoun Eurdolian.

Abdur Rahman Chughtai

This brought a smile to my afternoon. Took a coffee break in the East Lounge where I was struck by a beautiful watercolor that I had not seen before. The plaque next to the painting indicated that it was a gift from Pakistan (1954), and was painted by an artist who shared the same last name as my friend Alia. A quick message to her and I learned that they are indeed related, her grandmother’s cousin. What are the chances? She shared a few family memories about his life.

According to Abdul Rahman Chughtai’s wiki page, he was “the first significant modern Muslim artist from South Asia.” I was happy to discover his work today. Love the serendipitous, randomness of life sometimes.