In the times of the Syrian crisis, artist Desmond Lazaro explores issues of migration and identity. Traces roots from Chennai to Leeds and back.
Artist Desmond Lazaro may have been born in Leeds, England, but his family history stretches across continents. The Anglo-Indian artist’s parents migrated from Burma to Leeds in 1957, and his great-grandfather lived in Madras (now Chennai) during the 1800s. “For most of my life, I have been tracing my roots and wondering about migration,” says the 47-year-old artist.
Lazaro came to India to pursue a Master’s degree from the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda, and eventually settled down in Puducherry, 171km from Chennai, the home of his ancestors. To live in India, he needed to obtain a Persons of Indian Origin Card (PIO Card), which required him to trace his ancestry. After searching for several months, he discovered the baptism certificates of his great-grandparents in the church records at St Mary’s Catholic Church in Chennai. He also managed to trace the records of The SS Salween, the ship on board which his parents and grandparents had travelled (at different times) across continents.
These journeys have inspired his latest exhibition, The Incoming Passengers, where Lazaro showcases a film and exhibits made using raised gesso (a white paint mixture) and natural pigment paint on handmade paper from Sanganer, Rajasthan. He reveals how immigrant families make a home in a strange land, and its impact on successive generations. It’s a topic that becomes especially relevant today, observes Lazaro, as the fate of Syrian refugees hangs in the balance.
Lazaro’s artwork reproduces the list of passengers travelling on The SS Salween, the Baptism certificate, a marriage certificate (the marriage didn’t last and led his ancestor to migrate), a painting depicting the ship, an image of an egg-shaped thumbprint and a film that documents his growing-up years in the ’60s and ’70s in Leeds.
“The Incoming Passengers is both a global and a personal exhibition. It revolves around issues of colonial expansion, migration patterns and the idea of nationhood. While it encompasses the past through the migration of my grandparent and parents, and my growing-up years, it also raises questions related to current-day immigration and identity crisis,” says Lazaro.
As with his earlier exhibitions, The Incoming Passengers reflects Lazaro’s passion for Pichvai (temple hangings on cloth) and miniature art. There is also an influence of mythology. For instance, Hiranyagarbha: The Cosmic Egg is an oval image that resembles a thumbprint but also represents the concept of the ‘golden womb’ (hiranyagarbha in Sanskrit) that led to the creation of the universe. “In miniature art, you create 1cmx1cm spirals repeatedly; it’s part of a meditative process. I have used it to create the thumbprint,” he says.
Lazaro sources handmade paper from Sanganer and creates his own pigments. “It takes months to create a single colour but they last for almost a decade,” he says, adding that while his method is traditional, his works are contemporary. But has he found ‘home’ yet, we ask. “While I have spent most of my life in an uneasy space, with no idea where my feet are, I have laid down my roots now (in Puducherry). But my work will always raise questions. As an artist that’s what you do,” he says.
The Incoming Passengers is on display from March 10 to April 16.
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