Sensuous and Telluric, by Rui Afonso Santos
A sensuous and telluric essence, allied to a temporal dimension of memory, characterises Clotilde Fava’s painting.
Her stays in Angola, and her happy memories of this period, are definitively shown in her pictorial imagination. Later, in Cape Verde, she rediscovered the experience of a lost African world, triggering a process in which the dimension of memory increased a strongly sexualised source.
Hers is a figurative style of painting, formally set out in an essentially cubist way, which, as was well observed by Lourdes Feria, revitalised the practice of the Mexican mural painters of the 1930s. A world of African women, with round and powerful forms, strong round faces and arms, bellies that sometimes stick out, captured while they work, in both formal and metaphorical language, and also during their rare moments of leisure.
This figurative source, which draws from Portinari, is common to her generation that trained at the School of Fine Arts in Lisbon. It was a natural reaction to a heavily atrophied education system led by official or institutionalised lecturers of the New State who adopted a formality tinged with an academic modernity that was intended, basically, to create disciples to venerate and justify the historic founding figures of the Empire, who were generally maritime or military.
From this place, reflecting the colours of the land, so important in the African landscape ("the colours of the fertile land", as the great Joaquin Rodrigo would say), emerge the voluminous bodies and forms of these women, who are inversely heroic.
They are the vindication of the African women who, as is usual in those societies, dominate the world of work: they offer fruit for sale, they look after their houses and their numerous offspring, they are bent over under their burdens or overwhelmed by the weight of their children, whom they have at their sides or on their hips, so that their hands are always available for work, the constant work... while the men are often dressed narcissistically, and stand in groups and gossip that takes up the whole day.
In her Angola series, certain geometric plans are found in the compositions: they are found in plain house walls and hidden in windows where figures loom, along the walls where they sit, on the board where they sell their products, and in the clothes that are hung out to dry. Whites or ochres, rigorously orthogonal, occasionally tinted with blue, as they occur in the continuous and symmetrical framing of the glass windows along the small buses, where women, men, children and hens are observed - in one continuous symmetry, rounded off on its upper edges.
In a few cases, this geometric orthogonal design can bring together different and overlapping plans, as can be seen in her paintings where women are under pieces of extended cloth, where she applies whites on whites in the same way as Manet, or in the picture where this play of shapes dominates the lower third of the picture where, among the white clothes, a piece of blue fabric appears, giving a chromatic contrast, or where symmetry can dominate the composition, as in the painting where, standing in front of a small obscured multitude, two women with prominent hands and feet stage a dance that will probably take them into a ritualistic trance of witchcraft.
But it is the curved lines, defining powerfully rounded feminine bodies, which guide the composition. There are also rounded, symmetrical, lines in the play of the folds of the fabrics around their legs, knees, arms and heads, and above all in the brush strokes that define the volumes, given by means of the contrasts of light and dark that define suits and handkerchiefs, as well as in the whites, blacks, and reds.
These round forms are extended into the shapes of the fruits that are stored on walls, to the hampers that they are loaded into, and in certain animals such as hens, roosters, and fish.
If we exclude the asexual white goats, which are symbiotic accomplices, it is in the animal world that the masculine element is found in the universe of Clotilde Fava. This duality is particularly evident in her Cape Verde series.
In this series, the orthogonal nature of the framing is enlivened with more vibrant colours and sharper tones. The brush strokes are overlapped, in shades of white, yellows and ochres, but now they are livened up with intense blues and reds, that are sometimes blended into each other, or can be diluted into areas of parallel bands that progressively vanish. These outlines define new windows, walls, and benches that, as frames, fit around the faces of the black figures or support their bodies.
In some paintings in this series, however, the women are dressed in pure white, entirely monochromatic. In one of the pictures, a simple linear record of a girl dressed in white, the colour only tinges the black of the skin... but it also appears in the tones of the head scarves, the clothes that they wear, the earthenware bowls on their heads, the bunches of bananas and the fish for sale.
These fish are extraordinary. In a world dominated by women, they are the obvious symbol of the masculine element, which dominates here. Thus also appears in the figures of the aggressive roosters with their bristling crests and protruding tongues which, dominated themselves, hang helplessly from the arms of a woman who is obviously preparing to chop off their heads... or which, challengingly, have metamorphosed into hybrid, anthropomorphised creatures, with long monstrous and aggressive legs, which sing about what they can see, in the face of the indifference of the woman who observes them.
The fish, however, are more revealing. They also metamorphose, with bristles along their spines and spectacular teeth, taking on a fantastic appearance that makes them look like the sea fauna of primordial times, and that still exist today in the ocean depths. And, in a triptych of fishmongers, they yield, suffocated, displayed on the sales board, with outstandingly prominent eyes and enormous red tongues, hanging and exposed.
When Clotilde Fava paints parties in Cape Verde, the men appear masked and once again metamorphosed. In anti-symmetrical compositions, where the blue reds and yellows enhance each other, they are monstrous geese with horns and teeth, or even roosters, goats, harmless dogs and cats, their masks shown by the wire that ties them to their heads, standing under the clothes of the omnipresent women.
In another of Clotilde Fava’s series, this conflict between the sexes is shown in more detail. Red roosters are anthropomorphised, with mad staring eyes, with long legs like arms, or truly humanised bodies, which seem to reveal an impotent aggression. The same happens with the fish that are seen on boards and in earthenware bowls, endowed with long red gills and with hands that reach out in search an impossible salvation.
They are hybrid masculine creatures who, in certain cases, taken on a monstrous mythical appearance, shown by their metamorphosis into crazily aggressive winged beings, fish with wings, or humanised forms with the bodies of birds, which Bosch long ago used to visually illustrate the sin and the temptations of the saints.
This battle between the sexes is more apparent in the scenes of loving intimacy. The man is now a lubricious cat dressed in a nightgown, embracing and entwining around a fortunate woman, a dog seducing a pair of women, or a monkey looking singularly sweet and inoffensive.
In the Oceans series, however, man seems to predominate. Man metamorphoses into aggressive fish of the ocean depths, bristling with barbs and teeth, which advance, threateningly, out of the picture, or intend to devour their partners.
Use of metamorphosis as a motif is expanded here. Again, the fish anthropomorphise into bizarre creatures, endowed with hands and human faces, which have grown gills and grasping arms or are involved in a sexual dance - as António Pedro portrayed in his picture “Sabbat - Dança de Roda” – or interlink in a circle in an embrace of anthropophagic mouths.
Such a man can also be a worm-like fish that emerges vertically and squirts out a spout of water, or a humanoid from the depths with its head transfigured in a series of octopus tentacles.
The woman in this series is invariably a mermaid, a mythical creature from the abyss with voluminous hips, but with a strangely bizarre face, African in appearance, masked with a sensuality that is paradoxically diluted in relation to its primordial and mythical affirmation.
When the sexual act happens, these fish are transformed, in their turn, into birds - gulls or chicken-like birds that seduce and copulate, in the natural order of the elements... transforming themselves until, as with frogs and toads, we can not tell if they are mating or fighting.
But the most sexualised of Clotilde Fava’s series is the series of Flowers. Georgia O`Keefe and Robert Mapplethorpe had previously used, by means of painting and photography respectively, the flower as a metaphor for the female or male genitals. Like them, Clotilde Fava uses flowers such as the anturius, hibiscus or lily as metaphors for sexuality.
In this series, her palette is inflamed with colour. Reds, blue and occasional greens explode in pure and vibrant tones. In the world of the women of Clotilde Fava it is, clearly, the sexual organs that predominate. They are seen in the enormous shapes of the petals that make up the floral composition, which stand out in the luxuriant hibiscus with its distended stamens, or the enormous, phallic anturius. Later, systematically, the painter works with close-ups and magnification. These are flowers that gradually metamorphose into sexual organ shapes and that, in increasingly tight close-up, are similar to female genitalia.
In one of the pictures, the composition is centred on sexual organs in which the stamens are seen from above, in free fall. Later, flowers are increasingly extended in explosive colours, magnified to such an extent that they reach a paroxysm of unreality. Here and there, they seem to resemble fragments of an evergreen Strelitzia herb, then they are increasingly biomorphic, first given their structure by parallel lines and the composition of flowers that are less discernable on each occasion, later on in the composition of worm-like shapes, more purely pictorial every time, in an enhanced way that helps it to be almost exclusive in its explosive colour and vibrant effect.
Here too, strange metamorphoses occur. At times, the extended fragments of the flowers recall flying insect predators, if not foreign, disturbing, and probably masculine creatures.
By exercising her memory (which the Paris series particularly illustrates) and using an imagination centred on African woman, Clotilde Fava expresses her essentially telluric and reproductive sensibility, rarely found in female works.