At 7:30 PM on December 19th, 1961, Governor-General of
Portuguese India, Gen. Vassalo e Silva, formally surrendered
Goa to India, ending 451 years of Portuguese control of
this legendary territory. The battle had lasted less
than 40 hours.Tribute from Alex Tavares' first one-man Nairobi exhibition
Just days before the final battle for Goa,
Alex Tavares attempted to pay a visit to the General,
who earlier that year had opened the 27-year old
artist's first one-man exhibition at the home of
Dr. Leao Pinto. Tavares believed Goa to possess
the unique culture and traditions; distinct languages;
the spiritual diversity and strength; the agricultural
and economic potential; and especially the creative spirit
to forge its own success as a nation; and sought to
convey this message to Gen. Silva.
Security guards turned him away at the gates of the
Governor's Palace; and Goa would be surrendered days later.
Tavares stayed amidst the turmoil for another 18 months,
leaving for East Africa in 1963. He has since returned
only through his thoughts, visions and memories. This exile
has been the muse for much of his awe-inspiring collection
of paintings in the Surrealist tradition and other styles,
drawings, sculptures and prints.
Alex Joseph Tavares was born on the island of Zanzibar,
off the east coast of Africa, on April 9th. At the time,
Zanzibar was a British protectorate with a rich and dark
history of its own. it would unite with the mainland territory
of Tanganyika as the new nation of Tanzania in 1964. His mother's
most vivid recollection of his early childhood was of pushing
her son along a tropical beach in a pram carriage and meeting
a fortune teller, who gazed into the youngster's intense
countenance and predicted greatness.
In 1938, as rumblings grew of a German invasion of
Zanzibar, the Tavares family moved to its ancestral
home of Goa, the capital of Portuguese India. Tavares'
mother tongue is Konkani, a Sanskrit descendent and
official language of Goa. The Goans have bravely
maintained their culture through centuries of political
turmoil, creating a strong literary and creative identity
of which Alex Tavares can certainly be considered
Tavares was a young artist when India gained independence from
Britain in 1947. This historic freedom was the catalyst
for political, social, cultural and religious controversy
across India; his development as an artist in this milieu
explain an almost encyclopedic knowledge of both religious
imagery--and other artists' interpretations of those themes.
Three years later, in 1950, Tavares started a five-year
course at St. Joseph's Technical School in Madras, India.
Here, he studied under renowned Spanish artist Juan Monzan.
He finished his studies a year ahead of schedule, creating
monumental wood sculptures for churches in Madras, Guntur
and Bangalore during this time. Upon graduation, he followed
the masters who inspired him by beginning his teaching career
at St. Joseph's.
In 1958, he was awarded a scholarship to Escuelas
Professionales in Barcelona, Spain. Here in
the spiritual home of Surrealism, he also studied
drawing at La Academia des Bellas Artes, a cradle
of artists that counts three of the 20th century's
greatest masters--Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and
Juan Miro--among its alumni. He received commissions
for his sculptures in Brazil and Argentina during his
studies. In 1960, Tavares received his diploma in
Sculpture, Painting and Woodcarving; after completing a
commission for Colegio San Miguel in Madrid, he traveled
across Europe visiting museums and galleries.
He came to Kenya for the first time, by ship from Rome
to Mombasa, in 1960, reuniting with his family for the first
time since leaving for Madras a decade earlier. He returned
to Goa, and the most dramatic crossroads of his life, for
the last time in 1961.
Tavares arrived in Nairobi in 1963, just before Kenya gained
its independence from Britain. Nairobi was a thriving,
cosmopolitan city, home to thousands of native Goans;
whose diaspora for a nation so small is astoundingly global.
After four months, he found a job as a colour consultant
for a paint company. He sculpted and painted in his own
time, a refuge for the pain of his personal exile from Goa.
An early Nairobi breakthrough came when he won a street
decorating competition that was part of Kenyan independence
Soon, he began exhibited in group shows, creating a
spectacular buzz in Nairobi's flourishing art scene.
While wildlife and tribal symbolism dominated the work
of many of his East African contemporaries, Tavares shone
as a "monumental painter of ideas," in the words of
E.P. Njau. His complex and often shocking sociopolitical
commentaries were recognized for their unique, classically
In 1965, Tavares unveiled his first Nairobi one-man
exhibition at Chemchemi Cultural Centre, sponsored by
the Fairfield Foundation of New York City; "chemchemi" is
Swahili for "source" or "wellspring". Legendary journalist,
novelist and academic Ezekial (Es'kia) Mphahlele--one of
South Africa's most important artistic voices in the struggle
against apartheid--curated this landmark exhibition.
Wilfred R. Maciel paid homage to his friend's artistic
integrity in a tribute which appeared on the Chemchemi program:
"Living in India, in Spain and in East Africa has its advantages.
The observations of tensions are universal and necessarily
deserve to be depicted as such. It is not the glamour of
society. It is not the comfortable existence of a bourgeoisie
that interests Alex. He is a man with a mission."
"People from different walks of life in the city have
flocked to see this show. It is as if an elephant has come
to town for the first time!" wrote E.P. Njau in his 1967
review of Tavares' one-man exhibit at Paa-ya-paa Art Centre,
Njau's legendary Nairobi gallery. Tavares would also enjoy
an acclaimed run there the following year. "But why such a
big crowd at this particular show? Is it because Tavares'
paintings communicate more to people than has been the case
with most artists' work?"
"Paa-ya-Paa" means "the antelope rises" and is a symbol
of new "creative adventures." As a gallery it "seeks to be
'just a place' away from lecture halls andaway from experts,
a place where creative ideas and thoughts may flourish and
flow freely between persons in the spirit of equality and in
a relaxed and casual atmosphere..." - Njau
The Gallery would be tragically destroyed in a 1997 fire.
Njau was seriously burned and partially blinded trying to rescue
his priceless collection.
Alex Tavares arrived in Arcola, Saskatchewan in February
of 1969--in the middle of the fierce, unfamiliar Canadian
Prairie winter. His work, which he had shipped by container,
arrived intact from Nairobi. Tavares had a prolific year
artistically despite having uprooted his life halfway around
Tavares would stay only a few months in Saskatchewan,
long enough to inspire a great deal of praise and passionate
debate with an exhibition at Regina's Central Public Library.
This exhibition of paintings--described by a local art writer
as "the most disturbing to hang on the gallery's walls in
recent years"--would be the subject of a CBC News Feature.
Since moving to Toronto, his art has been largely focused on
human abuse of the environment, a vision manifested most
notably the Drape Series. Inspired by the original idea of
capturing on film the falling of huge draperies dropped
from a plane, this Series has been evolving for over 30 years
and has since spawned numerous related extensions such as
Drape Figures. The Ozone Memo series is another such concept of
Upon arrival in Toronto, Tavares began building his profile
by exhibiting in libraries across the city. In 1971, he
traveled to London, England to exhibit at the prestigious
Zella 9 Gallery. The Picture Loan Gallery was the scene of
his Toronto one-man debut in 1972. Gallerygoers and critics
admired The Drape Series' juxtaposition of subtle forms onto
an epic scale execution.
In 1986, Ontario Minister for Citizenship and Culture
Lily Munro opened his 25-year Retrospective at the Wexford
Art Centre in Toronto. He has since exhibited internationally
in China, Japan, New Zealand, Mexico, and St. Kitts.
In 2000, Tavares began work on his Millennium Series, which
would take shape over a two-year period. This newest series
is a unique expression of his personal feelings and reactions
of society to the biggest chronological milestone of our time.
Today, he continues to draw, paint, and create in the brand
new studio of his Toronto home--inspired by the prospect of
this renaissance in the twilight of his brilliant career, a
reckoning with exile.
Click here for the selected Web listing PDF of Alex's
one-man exhibitions, dating back to 1961.
"Click here for the selected Web listing PDF of
group exhibitions, dating back to 1957.
Click here for the complete PDF of his commissioned works.