Skye Arundhati Thomas on Sosa Joseph
Sosa Joseph lived most of his life near the Pampa River in Kerala, India. The fourteen paintings in his exhibition “Where do we come from? has not strayed from his rice fields. Each was a flash of something Joseph remembered, half-memories that came to him in sudden bursts. In A viper in the sugar cane field, 2021, for example, we saw a crowd descending a towpath lined with tall sawtooth cane leaves. The scene is blurred, as if slipping, captured only for a moment before disappearing; it is tinged with uncertainty. A figure at rest, head tilted back, is carried towards the choppy water. Behind them, a snake is coiled around a slender mast and a near-full moon flashes in indigo.
In each painting, the water moved differently. The way Joseph uses oil mimics the fluidity and transparency of watercolor. In Gift of the River I, 2021, the water was wide and wide, sliding across the sky. The landscape presses on the figures that inhabit it; people and animals are mostly outlines, almost transparent. Children hold hands as they move their feet in the riverbed; a low-slung canoe drifts past the bobbing head of a swimmer. The river is glassy, enlivened by shades of aquamarine and teal. A pineapple-yellow reflection skates erratically on the water: the sun touches the surface of the river.
There is a Sosa Joseph color palette. She constantly mixes her paints as she works, and her canvases are animated with the subtle shifts in tone that result. She does not draw paintings or fill them with preparatory drawings; instead, she applies color to the surface of the canvas, then erases everything to start over until she succeeds. It is a kind of automatic painting, with an integrated mounting system. This process of improvisation gives his works their still life quality; the paintings seem to fluctuate like memory itself. The smuggler and his jaundiced child, 2019, was perhaps the most personal and one of the biggest exhibits. Nearly nine feet high and five feet wide, it depicts Joseph’s grandfather, who, like his father, was a ferryman. He stands on the beams of a slender, handmade, curved wooden boat of the type used in Kerala to make short trips between river islands or the shores of backwaters. In the crook of one elbow, he holds a baby, who happily tugs at his mouth; with his other hand, he steers the boat using his long oar. Around the pair, the water is thickly covered with a vivid mix of forest green, purple and blue. The painting is a moody memorial; the baby, Joseph told me, is a representation of herself.
In March 2014, at the very beginning of spring, one of India’s national newspapers published the headline AS PAMPA SHRINKS, LIFE EBBS AWAY. These conditions continue to worsen: The river is polluted and dries up. Joseph said, “I am grateful for the jacanas, coots and coucals; turtles near mudflats, frogs in puddles. I am grateful for the moon above the sugar cane fields and the moorhens in the swamps. I am grateful for trees and vines. I am grateful for the people by the river and their stories. The paintings pay homage and convey an unspoiled and vibrant atmosphere, even as the natural world remains dynamic, even chaotic. His characters play little high and low drama. Joseph plunges us into a brilliant but impermanent world.