Desmond Lazaro responds to displacement and bereavement in his work 'Cosmos'

In a recent show at Chemould Prescott Road, the artist showcased works that emerged from his research of astrophysics, and personal experiences of migration and bereavement.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Mar 25, 2022

How does one respond to probably what can be called the most painful experience of losing one’s mother? For visual artist Desmond Lazaro, the death of his beloved mother in 2018 led to his ongoing investigation and predicament of radical homelessness becoming more heightened. He would often scan the sky, wondering if he might find her there. In her curatorial note, Nancy Adajania says that Lazaro’s paintings could function as tools of consciousness. Walking through the 12th century Chartres labyrinth or meditating on the Purusha or Cosmic Person in the Vastu Purusha Mandala is analogous to his going spiritual quest. It depends on how ready we, the viewers, are to receive grace, divine or otherwise. These paintings, an outcome of extensive research of medieval manuscripts, encyclopaedias, alchemical treatises and investigations into astrophysics, were born in bereavement.

Painstakingly created with natural pigments, ground by the artist in his studio and burnished with agate, the solo presentation titled Cosmos at Chemould Prescott Road art gallery in Mumbai, the works take the viewers on a journey of cultural displacement, ideas of nation, layered with references of astrophysics.

I speak with the artist of his references and motivations. 

Venus Transit, The Endeavour, 2020-21 Egg tempera on gesso board with raised gild | Cosmos| Desmond Lazaro | STIRworld
Venus Transit, The Endeavour, 2020-21 Egg tempera on gesso board with raised gild Image: Courtesy of Chemould Prescott Road

Rahul Kumar: Your broader practice investigates the ideas of ‘identity, migration, map-making, mythology, defining and redefining home’. And this originates from the geographical journeys where your family's histories are charted. Please tell us more about this migration and how it informs your art?

Desmond Lazaro: My great grandfather was from Madras. In 1857, he left for Rangoon in Burma. That time across, India and Burma were considered one. My grandfather and my father were born in Rangoon. My father then migrated to the UK in the early 50s. So migration has always been a backdrop to my own life and forefathers. For as long as there have been human beings there have been migrations, because we are always in search of something. In returning to migration, displacement is as much an inward as an outer journey. I had to leave India (my spiritual home) to realise this and Nancy Adajania in the essay for the book Cosmos, that goes with the show, explains it as a radical homelessness, which is also a spiritual search which is quite vital and important to my practice.

She says and I quote, “The multiple geographical and cultural displacements in which his family has participated, across generations, would seem to support this choice of explanatory framework. What has rarely been noted is that the artist has also always been preoccupied with a deep condition that I would describe as radical homelessness: a preoccupation that he has articulated as a properly spiritual quest.”

But, despite these cultural shifts, my anchor has always been a relationship to materials. My colours are ground by hand, and my gold-gilding methods belong to the 15th century. It is a stubborn commitment to tradition because paintings begin with the earth herself. My art is a vehicle through which I continue this time-honoured relationship. 

Purusha IIII, 2020-21, Raised gold gild and egg tempera on gesso board | Cosmos| Desmond Lazaro | STIRworld
Purusha IIII, 2020-21, Raised gold gild and egg tempera on gesso board Image: Courtesy of Chemould Prescott Road

Rahul: Locating a beloved departed soul amongst the starts is the common folklore. It is intriguing how you came about the realisation that you may be “looking in the wrong direction… the greater metaphysical mystery remains on the other end of the telescope: who and what is doing the looking?”. How does this understanding reflect in what you have created in past few years?

Desmond: It comes in multiple forms which all coalesce in a body of work.

My mom passed away in 2018 and that had a profound effect. She was a cancer patient and I remember being in the hospital with her. I made videos of her – short little clips where we discuss early childhood, migration and more. At this stage in her life, she was dealing with the idea of passing on and we were quite frank in our discussions. One of the questions when I asked her what would happen afterwards, I thought she would reply on the basis of Christianity that she would go to heaven, but she didn’t. She just pointed up, and said I am going up there.

When she passed away, I suddenly felt this amazing loss as one normally would. It wasn’t the case of I feel her around me but it was her being out there in the stars and I wanted to know what the stars were… Which began this investigation. I’d also come across the Dunhang charts in China which made me look at what the heavens were, and which we may want to define and understand it as astrophysics, modern day cosmology but also looking at it from the traditional perspective.

When I spoke about looking in the wrong direction, I realised that the greater metaphysical mystery exists… And we can make big and better telescopes, but the search outward has to reflect and also be a part of the search inwards because at the end of the day, we are the centre of our cosmos. The idea of a geocentric perspective is not that the earth is the centre of the universe, but we are. We define everything through us. The intrinsic relationship between the outer and the inner is quite vital.

The Venus Pentagram, After Giovanni Domenico Cassini 1771 & James Ferguson 1799, 2020-202, Pigment paint and raised gild on cotton cloth on birch board | Cosmos| Desmond Lazaro | STIRworld
The Venus Pentagram, After Giovanni Domenico Cassini 1771 & James Ferguson 1799, 2020-202, Pigment paint and raised gild on cotton cloth on birch board Image: Courtesy of Chemould Prescott Road

Rahul: Further, you visited the Chartres Cathedral in France, and examined the labyrinth at its central nave: a cosmological diagram representing aspects of the heavenly realms. How are you communicating the philosophies of ‘how we came into this world and how we will leave’ with your recent works?

Desmond: I had studied with Professor Keith Critchlow - a leading scholar of the labyrinth and the architecture of the Chartres. As a renowned geometer, he has in his 1977 film called Reflections, done a beautiful animation superimposing different concentric circles of colour on the labyrinth. The labyrinth itself, at its central nave, is a cosmological diagram that depicts a series of 11 concentric circles each representing a different aspect of the heavenly realms.

The pathway, a series of 11 concentric circles, represents the soul's journey (and eventual return) from the unmanifest to the manifest state. Each circle represents a different aspect of the heavenly realms: The pedestal, the divine throne, the Zodiac (12 houses), and the seven visible planets (including the Sun and the Moon), Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn with the Earth at the centre according to the Christian tradition.

That really formed the recent work as I was interested in how to represent the universe and so I decided to look at the medieval manuscripts because there was a whole plethora and library of images created. This archetypal model is based on Claudius Ptolemy’s geocentric views of the universe illustrated in cosmological maps and medieval manuscripts. The art and architecture of the medieval world leave little doubt as to our place within the cosmos.

As a mnemonic diagram, the Chartres labyrinth describes these phycological and spiritual envelopes; to walk its path is to remember how we came into this world and how we will leave. The seven liberal arts of grammar, rhetoric, logic (Trivium) and arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy (Quadrivium) would liberate the individual soul, orientate it from the gross to more subtle states.

To walk the labyrinth is to re-enact and contemplate this journey.

01 mins watch Desmond Lazaro talking about his works | Cosmos| Desmond Lazaro | STIRworld
Desmond Lazaro talking about his works Video: Courtesy of Chemould Prescott Road

In addition to what was asked, it’s important to relate the hermitic painting tradition - seven different planets are connected to the seven different metals. Each planet has an association… For ex, gold has an association with the Sun, Mercury with mercury etc and in which the seven alchemical metals silver, mercury (quicksilver), copper, gold, iron, tin, and lead correspond to the seven visible planets. The planets unfold with the metal colours and are actual pigment colours used in traditional painting.

As someone who is steeped in making their own colour, I was quite interested as using pigment as an entry point into the cosmos. It’s interesting to say that the sacred scarlet red of pure vermillion made from cinnabar (Mercurial Sulphate) is associated with the planet Mercury. On one hand, you can say it’s symbolic of the planet Mercury as it is made of the same stuff. At the other end, from a painter’s perspective – it’s mercury in the real. You are dealing with the same planetary material as you are dealing with in the heavens. You don’t need to go and spend time on Mars to understand the six different colours of which Mars is made of… They are here and now. They are physical realities of the heavens in our hands. You don’t have to get onto Elon Musk and space stations. All you do is grind some colour and play with it today and now. The heavens are brought down to the material, to earth to engage with them! It’s not a symbolic act… It’s a very real one.

The Moons of Chartres II, 2021, Pigment paint and raised gild on cotton cloth on birch board | Cosmos| Desmond Lazaro | STIRworld
The Moons of Chartres II, 2021, Pigment paint and raised gild on cotton cloth on birch board Image: Courtesy of Chemould Prescott Road

Rahul: There are deeper meanings to your visual art. How important is it to you to have your viewers experience these ideas, as viewed and understood by you? Also, you refer to science and philosophy; study Newton's colour prism, Secchi's illustrations of a star's light spectrum from his 1870 Spectroscopy catalogue; the Vastu Purusha Mandala, a geometrical diagram that incorporates the course of heavenly bodies and supernatural forces. How do you simplify these complex and varied ideas for your practice?

Desmond: The whole process of research is about simplifying. You are presenting an image and images are much easier to read than books because they have an appeal direct to the heart. And if you do the work well and with integrity, then hopefully, that will have an appeal – be it visual, intellectual or spiritual. The entry point for the viewer cannot be dictated… But if you have done the work, then it should suggest these varying options depending on their sensibilities, what baggage you are bringing to the work.

But the idea of simplification is already there because that’s what the research is about. You are not there to illustrate philosophic and scientific ideas. You are there to go beyond them; to use them as bare bones and jump somewhere else. And you have to take a leap just like the viewer has to take a leap into the work itself and hopefully you will meet somewhere in between.

Artist Desmond Lazaro | STIRworld
Artist Desmond Lazaro Image: Anil Rane, Courtesy of Chemould Prescott Road

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