Sosa Joseph has lived most of her life by the Pampa River in Kerala, India. The fourteen paintings in her exhibition “Where Do We Come From?” did not stray far from its paddy banks. Each was a flash of something Joseph has remembered, half recollections that have come to her in sudden bursts. In A Viper in the Sugar Cane Field, 2021, for instance, we saw a crowd walking down a towpath lined with tall sawtooth cane leaves. The scene is blurred, as though sliding away, caught only for a moment before it disappears; it is tinged with uncertainty. A figure in repose, head tilted back, is being carried to the choppy water. Behind them, a snake is wrapped around a slim pole and an almost-full moon blinks in the indigo.
In every painting, the water moved differently. The way Joseph uses oil emulates the fluidity and transparency of watercolor. In Gift from the River I, 2021, the water was wide and sweeping, gliding into sky. The landscape presses itself upon 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 a swimmer’s bobbing head. The river is glassy, animated by shades of aquamarine and teal. A pineapple-yellow highlight errantly skates over the water: sunshine skimming the river’s surface.
There is a Sosa Joseph color palette. She mixes her paints constantly as she works, and her canvases are animated by subtle shifts of tone that result. She does not plot out paintings or fill them with preparatory drawings; instead, she dapples color onto the canvas’s surface, then wipes it all away to start again until she gets it right. Hers is a kind of automatic painting, one with a built-in system of editing. This improvisational process gives her works their still-alive quality; the paintings seem to fluctuate like memory itself. The Ferryman and His Jaundiced Child, 2019, was perhaps the most personal and one of the largest on display. Nearly nine feet tall and five feet wide, it portrays Joseph’s grandfather, who, like his father, was a ferryman. He stands on the beams of a curving wooden boat, which is handmade and slender, of the type used in Kerala for making short trips between river islands or the banks of backwaters. In the crook of one elbow he holds a baby, who pulls playfully at his mouth; with his other hand he steers the boat, using its long oar. Around the pair, the water is thickly canopied with a vivid mix of forest green, purple, and blue. The painting is a moody memorial; the baby, Joseph told me, is a depiction of herself.
Back in March 2014, at the very early start of the spring, one of India’s national newspapers ran the headline as pampa shrinks, life ebbs away. These conditions continue to worsen: The river is polluted and drying up. Joseph says, “I am thankful for the jacanas, the coots, and the coucals; the turtles by the mud-flats, the frogs in the puddles. I am thankful for the moon over the sugar-cane fields and the moorhens in the swamps. I am thankful for the trees and the creepers. I am thankful for the people by the river and their stories.” The paintings pay tribute and carry an atmosphere that is unspoiled and vibrant—though the natural world remains dynamic, even chaotic. Her characters play out small dramas high and low. Joseph dips us into a brilliant but impermanent world.