Apr/May 2012  •   Fiction

Onya: An Artist Not Forgotten

by Inderjeet Mani

The Domedara Gallery is an excellent site for an Onya retrospective. The building has a defiant cosmopolitan elegance, its art deco façade a refreshing contrast to the tired wooden houses lining the road from Chiang Mai to Lampun. The gallery has a fine lawn with pipal trees, a gracious antebellum portico, and a quiet terrace bar looking out over the peaceful waters of the Ping river.

Photography is not allowed, but a colorful catalogue raisonné is available for 230 baht, on the left by the ticket window.

The biographical exhibit on the ground floor includes "Village." Composed at 15, this early aquarelle is devoted to plays of light from a lantern, giving the faces of the villagers huddled in the night a waxy glow. With their large jaws, receding foreheads and shining eyes, they seem oddly familiar, despite their distance from us.

Onya was born on the island of Bambo, when it was still a French colony. His father was French and his mother was of Malagasy-Indian descent. The gallery provides only a few other details, but the broad trajectory of Onya's life is well-known, for he had many friends in the arts community of Chiang Mai.

"My new project is almost ready," Onya told us one evening, over drinks at the Ping Inn. He was wearing his trademark white coat and sweat-stained black beret. "I've been sketching the Bambo of half a century ago. A remembrance of my childhood by the sea."

"We are all children of the sea," Gillespie said.

Gillespie's girlfriend Fon laughed, and they clinked glasses.

The reference was not lost on us, for Gillespie's eponymous exhibit (a Buddha meditating in a vat of blood with bivalves) had been deemed both scandalous and brilliant by The Nation.

"It was not what you might think," Onya continued. "We grew up hungry, surviving on squid and cassava. And the odd scrap of mutton during Eid."

He lit up a cigarette, the flame from his lighter sputtering in the breeze. Behind him, the sun was starting to descend, flashing on the cars inching over the bridge.

"You see, Maman était une domestique. She had to come away to the village to have me."

"What about your Pa?" Fon asked, her hand still on Gillespie's arm.

"I met him only a few times. To collect money and sign forms." He took a slow drag, and then blew the smoke out as he spoke. "He was very formal. He ran a sugar plantation."

"He sounds like a Thai man, abandoning his wife and baby." Ngor said. She herself was a Thai-Belgian luk krung, or half-child.

"Maman was illiterate, and spoke only Swahili. But she had an appreciation for art." He sighed, tapping his cigarette on the bamboo table. "She would tell everyone, one day my mtoto Onya will make the Ufaransa and Marekani admire all our silly faces!"

"Ufaransa and Marekani?" Fon asked.

"The French and the Americans," Onya said quietly.

Ngor touched the old man on his shoulder. "You must forget about them, Onya. Anyone with an eye can see you paint like an angel."

Next to "Village" is a small water-color called "Kaléidoscope," which shows waves washing on a beach where a man in a skull-cap is mending his net. In the distance stands a towering lava dome, oddly reminiscent of the mountain guarding our valley. The entire scene is inscribed in an oval cut into brilliantly colored segments, like a stained-glass window from Chartres.

In these early works, landscape is a reminder of cultural inheritance as well as the reflection of a fractured self. In later life, his categories refined by age, Onya began to see all cultures as variants of his immediate surroundings. Thus the river in his "Rive Gauche" is in fact our humble Ping, and the lacerated body of the actress in "Manhattan Model" is a wretched Hmong from our mountains.

On the landing on the way to the second floor, you will find an alcove formerly a visitors' bathroom, for the Domedara was once the mansion of a Hokkien Chinese jade merchant. Here you can view atmospheric photographs of our neighborhood from the early 1960's, when Onya first arrived. At the festival of Songkran, a number of redneck farangs are to be seen pouring water over traditionally attired Thai women. The caption indicates some of the foreigners died from celebrating too much. Another photo shows the east bank of the Ping with Suthep Mountain in the background, where a man in a loincloth is pinned spread-eagled on an X-shaped crucifix. His hair is matted, and his eyes and mouth are wide open. In a similar vein, the next photo displays a man tied to a post: he has just been beheaded, and the blood is captured jetting out from his neck in two vertical spurts, crossing at the top before spilling down in a fountain. Also worth seeing is a wind-up Victor V phonograph, supposedly the only one of its kind; if you ask permission to play it, you can hear the lovely opening adagio of the Moonlight Sonata.

On the second floor stands the "Suite Chiang Mai," a series of 26 oils Onya painted between 1967 and 1968. Here you can retrace the paths Onya would take on his daily walk across town. Wearing a battered beret, he would be smoking and gesticulating as he made his way past the moat, which he rendered in all its glory, plastic bags and sewage included, next to the Piranesi-like ruins of the old city wall. His dark face sweaty under the noonday sun, he would have presented a sorry sight, and the rickshaw-pullers he fended off would have given him one of their sad smiles reserved for eccentrics and imbeciles. The "Suite" includes the famous ruined chedi of the Seven Spired Yellow Pagoda, set against the brooding stillness of high monsoon clouds, and also the nine blind singers from the Sunday walking street, seated in a row singing for their supper.

When Onya first landed in Chiang Mai, the story he had been born in Bambo and moved as a young man to work in New York didn't pass muster. In this town, where every farang's life is a second act, most biographical claims are met with suspicion. The locals didn't believe Bambo was a real place, thinking it entirely imaginary like the equator and the horse latitudes. Uncle Jack, our half-Scottish nonagenarian, was convinced that despite his distinguished look, Onya was no more than a butcher from Bangladesh who had traded his halal knife for a paintbrush. He also identified Koi, the attractive young woman who showed up soon on Onya's arm, as a former bar tart notorious for fleecing farangs.

Onya seemed very much in love with her. Everyone predicted it wouldn't last beyond the rainy season, but they stayed together for six long years, by which time Onya had spent most of his savings on the upkeep of Koi's aging parents in Isaan, while taking on translation jobs to keep afloat.

But Onya was like that. He gave away what little he had, including his time. In the early 80's, he was the only artist to provide free drawing lessons to girls at a shelter who had formerly served as sex slaves in Thai brothels and labor camps.

We were skeptical. Surely those tribal children would be better off learning dishwashing?

"Mais non!" Onya exclaimed, waving a finger. "They have come from a place of darkness. To be able to sit freely in a garden sketching a flower—what greater blessing is there?"

If you keep to the second floor, you will find Onya's favorite painting, "Malaika." This enormous gouache, on sale for 7,500 baht, features a young woman lying on her back, her sandalwood-tinged face turned slightly to the right towards a light source, with her hair falling in dark curls over her neck. Her lines resemble those of a Modigliani, and she has smooth African features along with melon-like breasts with fat nipples, a button navel, and feet severely calloused; and then you notice the skin has a waxen look. The viewer can't help reaching out to touch her hair.

Some of the works on the third floor, with names like "Untitled XIII," smack of Alzheimer's. This late De Kooning-like style reveals a kind of fragmentation: lines begin, and then taper off; the shapes, apparently mounds or cones, do not come together; everything is open, half-formed and hazy, as if the world is not fully acknowledged.

We know Onya was lonely and depressed at the time, nearing 80 and shaken by his friend Ngor's sudden passing. He was haunted by the thought that his more famous contemporaries, some of whom he had glimpsed in New York, would die, as Bearden and Shapinsky did, without knowing his name. He became over-sensitive, put off by small things. When Gillespie mentioned having met Vasarely at an event in Venice, Onya hurried away, looking as if his heart would crack wide open.

He had by then become bewildered by the city, intimidated by a new high-rise looming over his shack, and he was startled by sudden traffic horns and sharp beeps from scooters. He turned increasingly to the artists of yesteryear, stroking the spines of the art books he had preserved from his New York days.

A man may do all he can, but no man is pleased to have his all neglected, be it ever so little. This observation, made by Johnson in a different context, sums up what many an artist must feel as he reaches the inevitable, unhappy finale.

In his last year he met Jun, at the massage spa opposite the wat. She was petite, with alabaster skin, almond eyes, and a sharp nose most Thai girls would kill for. She spoke Thai, Mandarin, fledgling French, and an English well beyond the usual pidgin for body parts and money. Onya called her khun Jun when she was present, but the rest of the time he referred to her only as his "special someone." He had a way of smiling in her company that made him look, despite the absence of teeth, a good 20 years younger. I remember how, before he became bedridden, he would drape his long arms around her, enveloping her tiny breasts. Caught in his embrace, Jun would gaze up into his eyes, reminding us the spark of love was still a very fine thing.

In time his curly hair started falling out in clumps, and eventually he lay writhing in bed calling out for his maman.

Attachment to the mother, I have noticed, survives the dissolution of the mind. His mother was his first love, his muse, and his earliest taste of the world. I have no doubt she is the lady in "Malaika."

Sometimes Onya would shout for her for hours on end, so Jun and I would try to distract him by taking him out for a spin in a wheelchair, trundling him down the road past the European cemetery to view the scorpion-tailed boats or the monks lining up for alms.

"Isn't that your maman?"I asked him once, just for a laugh, pointing to a novice monk standing by the river.

The young monk was directly in the sun, which created a striped pattern on his saffron robe. Behind him, waves of heat rose up from the river, blurring the outlines of the boarded-up wooden houses along the road.

Onya seemed dazed, clutching hold of his beret as he stared with his mouth half-open.

The rest of the evening he petitioned "Malaika," asking her to forgive him.

It fell to Jun to turn Onya in bed on the hour, in a hopeless battle against bedsores, and to lift him on and off the bedpan. It was she who responded whenever he rang the bedside bell, who kneaded his aching limbs and sponged him and cleaned up after his unapologetic messes. I must say the young woman bore his decline heroically, never considering her own needs.

"My tee rak," Jun confessed to me, "is boy from Yunnan—cannot wait to see him in New Year."

"And Onya?" I looked into her eyes, which were the color of cinnamon.

"Onya is jai dee, with a good heart. Poor man with no children nobody give a damn. I feel for him tellement désolée."

In his last weeks, Onya did not know where he was. By then, even as his brain turned to putty, his limbs and postures, his irrepressible gestures, started to resemble those of his ancestors, men who mended nets and fished in deep waters. At the end, his fingers locked together, his lips remained pursed in steely determination.

He left his things to Jun. After his cremation, which she supervised at the local wat, his works were collected together and offered for sale. The odd tourist would stop by at his shack, but there were no takers, though someone purchased a teak dresser for 400 baht. When Jun finally decided to move on and return to her massage work, she was persuaded to part with his art by an admirer, who lent the collection to the Domedara.

"Frog Pond," his final piece, is located in a quiet corner of the third floor. It is the work of a brilliant madman. The canvas is empty except for two concentric ripples, a few quickly dabbed hints of a furry lotus flower, and a shaky horizontal line suggesting the boundary of water and sky. A smudge of grey marks the emergence of day. There is no frog, but if you lean close you can hear a faint drip-drop, and perhaps the wail of an invisible crane, the lament of a soul battered and broken, crying out like a small frog in an infinite void.

You emerge from that corner out into the terrace, grateful for fresh air. It is reassuring to see the mountains standing tall, the river bustling with sunset cruises and a kayaker plowing forth purposefully. There is a damp breeze, and the first mosquitoes of the evening are singing.

A girl in a red dress approaches with a tray of drinks and canapés.

"Good evening, Mr. Gillespie."

"Good evening, my dear. How is our exhibition going?"

"Sir, you are our first visitor."