Everard Read Cape Town
26.04 - 13.05.2023
As the applause of the opera’s opening night resounds, I remember the final square of gouache works that Shakil Solanki offered for his exhibition, The Pearl Fishers, Reprised, at Everard Read. A Sumptuous Palace Opens Itself to Our Gaze, Our Rapid Flight, Carries Us Off to The Heavens (2023) delivers me from the beautiful but bitter tragedy of Zurga’s fate to a hope that honours his deep love of both Nadir and Leïla. In the setting of a seaside village of pearl fishers, the lead characters are confronted by their ideas of love and loyalty when the history of their interconnected relationships come to a head one fateful day.
I feel grateful for Solanki’s interpretation of Georges Bizet’s 1863 opera. The artist writes in his exhibition statement that he was inspired by “the most poetic approach to the canvas” as a result of the prose in Derek Jarman’s Chroma. Here, Solanki also describes “fleshing out a queer subversion of the tragic love triangle,” which Elisabeth Manduell used as her own source of inspiration in readying the opera for its return to audiences following the outbreak of COVID-19, which halted the show’s first run.
In the final square of the printmaker and painter’s quartet, they all appear together – Zurga, Nadir, Leïla – feasting, feeling and free. The angst and desire and love conveyed by their thrillingly talented counterparts onstage was palpable and poignant, and the actor’s performances pushed well past the threshold of whatever bound the lovers all there to the physical plane, reaching the visual artist’s window to their new world. Solanki fashioned for them a “sumptuous palace,” a home of “heavens,” a queer liberation from heterosexual suffering.
The trio – Levy Sekgapane as Nadir, Brittany Smith as Leïla and Conroy Scott as Zurga – are reunited the day that Zurga claims leadership over the village. His ego is elated at the sight of his long-lost companion on his auspicious day, and then again by the duty of protecting his village when he commands a powerful woman to swear an oath to safeguard them all. Solanki developed sketches and then finally ten paintings with the conceptual lead of the production, Matthew Wild. Works which were incorporated into dynamic projection designs to bleed blue while panning, pulling, flowing and changing throughout the course of the opera’s three acts. When combined with Faheem Bardien’s light design, Michael Mitchell’s set design, Adam Szmidt’s conducting, and an additional cast of five sopranos, six mezzo-sopranos, seven tenors, nine basses and the entire Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, Zurga’s last day alive becomes something truly spectacular.
Before They Start Diving, Let Us Greet the Sun, the Air and the Vast Ocean (2023), the first gouache work, feels reminiscent of the first painting that stretched across the canvas-like stage-screen, earning colour and depth as the orchestra activated the audience’s other senses. While no additional paintings were made for the Artscape Theatre stage production since its initial iteration in 2021, the newer works presented upstairs in the CIRCA galleries at Everard Read created communication within the collection. Ideas of playing with an audience’s vantage point to address a narrative when onstage or when hung on a wall swim to the surface, while the narratives themselves plot against the rigidity of their interpretation: letting Solanki’s painting make the most of the streams in between.
Sharing a long moment of quiet intimacy with the exhibited works one morning, I appreciate Solanki’s details – nuanced colour, fine, deft linework – before immersing myself in the live performance which was held so beautifully by Solanki’s gift.
However, Zurga’s ending felt as if it resigned itself to a template that ignored the opportunity presented by these characters and their deep, driving desires toward (all) being together. It’s his character that proves their love for me with his ‘sacrifice’ to ensure Leïla and Nadir’s safety and happiness, despite having ordered them to death because of his initial feelings of betrayal. Theirs is a love of lives woven together. It did not have to be distilled or destroyed once the audience’s dalliance with their relationships completed its tour of familiar territory, that is, the classic love triangle: two straight men fighting over a woman. This is where I thank Solanki again, for emboldening their love through his interpretations of them as elevated deities, his use of elemental mysticism and making his final note in the collection of painted works one of unapologetic queerness.