In the middle of May, earlier this year, an important moment in Indian art history played out in the unlikely location of Safed, perched high in the mountains of Galilee in Israel.
The young Goan-British-Israeli artist Solomon Souza recalls it as “an end-of-the-world, last supply-run type of thing” because lockdown had been temporarily lifted, while the Covid-19 pandemic continued to rage throughout the region. He was taking the opportunity to say goodbye to his mother before moving to Jerusalem and to “a perfect studio set-up”. Even while he was getting into his car to leave, Keren Souza-Kohn came to him “with a large roll of canvas in her arms. I could see it was old, dog-eared and browning.”
That dusty bundle turned out to be an extremely consequential gift from the past, directly from the hands of the great, pioneering modernist painter (and founder of the seminal Progressive Artists Group of the 1940s) Francis Newton Souza.
Solomon says, “It had belonged to my grandfather, and must have been the last roll he ever bought. My mother had procured it after helping to clean out his apartment in New York soon after his death in India in 2002, and she’d been holding onto it for almost 20 years. Now it was being passed on to the next generation, and I felt its powerful potential the moment it touched my hands. I knew his canvas could only be used to pay homage to my grandfather.”
The results of this extraordinary passing of the baton are in your hands. GQ readers are immensely privileged to bear witness to this startling, eye-popping, irresistibly compelling and utterly gorgeous international public debut. Solomon says, “I’ve taken up my grandfather’s brutal style, his shocking colours and heavy-hitting lines. Moving as he did, I attempt to allow the canvas the privilege of feeling as it would if Souza himself was painting upon it.”
As anyone familiar with both artists’ oeuvres will be able to attest, these new paintings on weathered canvas are all Solomon, yet also bear the signature imprints of his grandfather’s artistic DNA. The three heads are uncannily reminiscent of Souza’s talismanic 1955 Six Gentlemen Of Our Times, although serene, where the originals were spiky with fury. But it is the painting of the young couple that truly takes the breath away, with its lightning strike of museum-calibre genius, along with clear echoes of the superb 1940s oils on board that first made Francis Newton’s reputation.
Solomon says these subjects “are leaving behind them the distant smog, the strain of city life, with the future in their hands, and the tools with which to tend to our damaged, cracked and dry earth, and the seeds of potential it contains.” In fact, much the same can be said about this early work: his first truly mature and self-contained painting, his only major artwork to directly confront and embrace his Indian heritage. Souza is dead. Long live the new Souza.
It’s been a wild ride over the past year for Solomon. In January, even as the Covid-19 contagion spread stealthily across Europe, but just before its presence turned the world upside-down, he found himself strapped into an extensive safety harness that was dangling from the business end of a crane at Stamford Bridge, the hallowed 143-year-old stadium home of Chelsea Football Club in London.
This was the biggest career moment in the young (he turned 27 in July) artist’s life, capping an extraordinary series of highlights, which had culminated in his debut in India last December – the ancestral land of his grandfather. For several magical weeks, he’d roamed Goa on a scooter laden with cans of spray paint, creating murals of unsung Goan heroes, from the Goan-Angolan anti-colonial freedom fighter Sita Valles to the nonagenarian artist Vamona Navelcar, for the Serendipity Arts Festival that immediately attracted considerable attention and acclaim.
But now was the really big time: a personal commission from Roman Abramovich (the Russian-Israeli billionaire owner of Chelsea) to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz – the notorious Nazi concentration camp, where an estimated 1.1 million people died.
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