A few minutes of conversation with Jezreel Nathan is all it takes to discover that her art is heavily influenced by her emotions. The Singapore-based illustrator grew up in a quaint Portuguese house in Goa. 17 years after moving out of the city and shifting base to Mumbai, Jezreel found herself reminiscing about her life back in Goa and decided to turn her memories into beautifully intricate artworks. The ongoing series that she is now sharing with the world through her Instagram handle oozes with nostalgia.
Her home, filled with interesting trinkets and objects, is the protagonist of the story. Jezreel slips between the past and present to conjure the stillness of different corners of the kitchen and the living room, where calm frogs sit on shelves and lizards scurry along the walls. The burnt-orange and brown-tinted illustrations evoke a strong sense of times that have passed and are cherished till date.
Jezreel tells us why the series began taking shape more than a decade after she left Goa and what went into it.
Design Fabric (DF): Through your latest series of illustrations, you take viewers through your recollections of growing up in Goa. What inspired you to start this project 17 years after leaving the city?
Jezreel Nathan (JN): The first time I thought of doing this personal project was in 2010. I come from an unconventional, quirky and pretty crazy family and growing up was quite a roller-coaster ride; there was never a dull moment in my home. Whenever I’d share the crazy and almost unbelievable stories of my family with friends, they would tell me to write a book, but I never knew where to begin, considering there were so many facets to my chaotic existence. I was also worried that I might offend the people I loved so much. And besides, I never found the time to sit by myself long enough to begin the process.
I recently wrapped up all my freelance projects in Mumbai and moved to Singapore. I decided to take time off from work and explore the city, while trying to figure out how to generate an income as a freelance designer. And of course, I missed home. Although I lived in Mumbai for many years, it was Goa that I missed more.
One morning, I sat at my computer with a cup of chai and as I took a sip, I thought of my grandfather David Nathan, who is my morning chai buddy back in Goa. I was reminded of the slurping sound he makes while he takes his first few sips of hot tea and the giant aluminium kettle in which he’d brew it; sometimes, the kettle was also used as an iron for our damp school socks when we’d have a power cut, and we had many of those in Goa.
The thoughts took me back to the black tea mugs with leaves and berries on them that my grandmother wouldn’t allow us to use as kids. I pictured the dining table and could almost hear the fan squeak above me. That’s when I decided to draw out that first scene. I really enjoyed pulling that image out of my memory and while illustrating the breakfast scene, my mind was flooded with images of all of the other little corners of my old Portuguese style house and the almost ancient objects that I marvelled at as a kid. This project has allowed me to reconnect with my love for rustic, decaying, sad and beautiful things. Working on it at this point in my life makes more sense to me than it did back in 2010.
DF: You began working on it after your recent shift to Singapore. Did the unfamiliarity of a new country trigger a nostalgia for yesteryears?
JN: Yes it did.
Singapore is beautiful without a doubt. It’s extremely clean and green everywhere you look. Living here is easy, convenient and very safe. But every now and then, I do feel displaced and disconnected from who I was, the way I lived in India and I yearn for home.
While I do embrace all these changes and continue to explore this beautiful country and its culture, I’ve now found a way to use my art in addition to my memory to recreate and hold on to home.
DF: Take us back to the Goa of 1986 and the charming home you lived in. Did the culture of the city help nurture the then budding artist in you?
JN: Back in 1986, Goa was all I really knew and needless to say, I loved it. The floor of my house was red and so was the mud, the walls were painted white with chuna – a mixture of powdered shells and slaked lime — that would stain your clothes and skin if you brushed against them.
I woke up early every morning to the sound of the baker’s horn and ran to the back gate, where I’d wait patiently for our neighbour, Aunty Idine (pronounced – Eeeedheen, I think), to take her goats out for a walk. As they passed my gate, I’d bleat after them.
After breakfast, I sat and drew for hours on my slate. It had a space for the duster and chalk and even though I was that young, I remember being very annoyed at the dry texture of the chalk. I’d try to draw everything I saw and if it didn’t turn out good, I’d scribble all over and wipe it out.
Life in Goa, as a baby and then a teenager, was filled with wonder and surprise. I grew to love its old world charm though some would find it very depressing.
A single 50-watt bulb hung in a corner and lit up a huge living room. Kitchen walls blackened up to the roof by soot from using an open wood fire stove. Millipedes and black hairy caterpillars that dropped from the roof during the monsoons. There were giant red ants, hornets, wasps and bees everywhere, always ready to bite and sting. Sticky frogs would hide in my jeans and in every corner of the house. Mould, fungus and moss everywhere. We’d have power cuts for days. And of course, poor Internet connectivity and telephone network because we lived at the foot of a hill.
This is where I fell in love with imperfection and found beauty in dysfunction. All of these experiences played a role in shaping me as an artist. It allowed me the freedom to create work which to many might seem incomplete or lazy or incoherent.
DF: You conjure beautifully detailed still lives of corners of your house, your great-grandmother’s mirror and give us a peek into a local bar. Did all the artworks flow from memory or did you go back to some visual references or images from the time?
JN: Most of these pieces are drawn from memory and in some of the artworks, I’ve combined my recollections of my house as I saw it as two-year-old, as it was when I was a teenager, and as it is today. It makes me happy and surprises me to know I was observant as a child.
A few objects from the house were thrown away, like the grinding stone, chairs with matting and a beautiful old radio but I will never forget these pieces; they had so much personality.
Fern’s Bar was very close to our home. Its walls were painted green and for the longest time, I was under the weirdest impression that the owner called it Fern's Bar because he liked fern plants and therefore, also had the walls painted green. It was only many years later that I actually stopped and read the name out front and realized that all along, I had completely missed the apostrophe in Fern’s. It suddenly made sense that the owner Lawrie Fernandes named the bar after his family. Apart from the mix up with the name of the bar, the inflatable dolphin that hung from the ceiling was the only other pleasant memory.
DF: Is there a certain narrative storyline to the artworks or are they simply snatches of your life back then, interspersed randomly?
JN: I didn’t plan on doing an expansive series, I honestly thought I’d stop after the very first piece and jump onto something totally unrelated, which is usually my style; but then I made one more and another, and realised that each of these pieces allowed me to feel a connection to some things I loved so much about my life and experiences in Goa.
For now, the artworks are created and interspersed randomly based on what memory I feel like illustrating. But I imagine that some kind of order would organically become apparent as I continue to create more.
DF: Do you see it as an extension of your style, or were you attempting to develop a new aesthetic through this series?
JN: I don’t think I have or want to have one style; it seems very restrictive and suffocating and maybe that love for inconsistency is a style in itself. With this series, as with any other illustrations that I do, the style is reflective of a mood. Here, I think it is an extension of the visual culture of Goa as I remember it. A new aesthetic has emerged on its own in the process of me trying to be as true to my experiences as possible.
DF: This series is deeply personal. Was the creative process for this series an emotional one?
JN: Yes, it is deeply personal and emotional. I really want to share more of these stories and flesh out this series through illustration as well as anecdotes. But I’m always asking myself how much is too much to share publicly. So I guess I will continue to share the light-hearted recollections until I find the courage to go deeper and darker, if at all.
DF: Give us a glimpse into some of the upcoming pieces you’re yet to publish. Do you plan to take this project beyond Instagram at some point and give it a larger space and identity?
JN: I have a long list of memories that I can’t wait to illustrate. I can’t really tell what the next piece is going to be as the entire process is very spontaneous. Having said that, at some point, I will illustrate the people I grew up around, like my family, old and new neighbours, friends and teachers and what I took away from my interactions with them.
I plan to take this project beyond Instagram. I hope to turn this series into a book once I begin to see a more structured narrative emerge from this process
Follow the complete series here.
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