Ten beautiful paintings by Cape Town artist, Shakil Solanki are featured in Cape Town Opera’s May 2023 innovative and luminous production of George Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers. The work is screened onto the stage via ‘illuminations’ – in large scale projection format. This production was conceptualised by Matthew Wild and was first staged in June 2021, during the pandemic and lockdown. The May 10-14, 2023 season is directed by Elisabeth Manduell, based on Wild’s concept. It is thrilling to see Cape Town Opera commissioning artists– to create works which are conceived specifically for a production. The list of famous artists working in theatre, includes David Hockney, Pablo Picasso, Edvard Munch, Salvador Dalí, Tracey Emin and Wassily Kandinsky and it is wonderful to see Cape Town Opera celebrating our visual artists. Read on for more:
Imaging The Pearl Fishers
Can you talk about the process of creating images for the opera- and how the story of the opera ‘spoke’ to you in terms of your own body of work and how you reflected about the opera in making the images?
Shakil Solanki: The title, The Pearl Fishers, immediately drew my mind to a passage from Chroma, by Derek Jarman- a queer artist and filmmaker whose work has had a great influence on my artistic practise. The passage describes a pair of embracing lovers, drifting through their own liminal, underwater world. It was through this lens that I subverted the opera’s narrative into a queer love triangle, which already existed in Georges Bizet’s Eastern setting. Matthew and I worked closely to ensure the artworks closely supported the opera’s narrative- apart from this, it was really wonderful to be given free reign, creatively. This process involved combing through Bizet’s script, and creating a wide series of rough sketches which were vetted by Matthew, until we settled on the final 10 pieces. These were then developed and painted over the course of three months, until they were ready to be revealed for the stage.
Secret garden and ocean
In your body of work, “the trope of a secret garden is used as a liminal space, where contrasting emotions of trauma and longing exist hand-in-hand with moments of stillness, using the theme of intimacy as a point of convergence to explore its many dynamics, evoked within many shades of the colour blue.” Blue is very much the leitmotif of The Pearl Fishers and it is about people getting intimate- skin on skin, bodies in the ocean. Can you talk about how you imaged the drawings for this opera- abstracting narrative into your own iconography?
Shakil Solanki: The narrative of The Pearl Fishers lent itself perfectly as a landscape to my artistic languages, both conceptually and visually. While the trope of a garden is usually central to my work, here I exchanged it for the landscape of the ocean- a motif of queerness, desire and passion. The romance of the three main characters’ love triangle shifts with the ebbs and flows of the ocean; gentle and benevolent initially, before growing tempestuous and violent towards the end of the opera. The stage is awash in tones of blue- representative of the sea, and the intimacy within its depths.
Illuminations of deities, palaces and gardens
Can you comment on how you referenced “inspiration” from your “Hindu upbringing and from classical art and images from the East.” This is how Matthew Wild spoke about your work. In my review of The Pearl Fishers, in 2021, I wrote: “Solanki’s drawings/illustrations are dreamy and evocative of ocean; waves, azure and multiple shades of marine blues and greens. I found myself being pulled into patterns and shapes.” Comments?
Shakil Solanki: The aesthetic of the Hindu religion, and Indian culture have strongly influenced my artistic practice on the whole; the richly coloured illuminations of deities, palaces and gardens, in particular. With this project in particular, I leant on depictions of the gods and goddesses; their luxurious ornaments and garbs, and their blue hues of their skins. These blue hues I used to consecrate the queerness which I wanted to bring out in the ‘The Pearl Fishers’ characters, while also reference the prominence of the ocean around them. Each character I wanted to give subtly distinctive colour palettes: deep, purplish blues for Zurga to reflect his regal position amongst the fishermen, with more greenish ceruleans and ultramarines for Nadir, evocative of the sea. Leila was placed in greens and turquoise; connoting the abundance she is hoped to grant the fishers, while also signifying the jealousy her arrival arouses between the two men.
Paintings to the opera stage
You graduated in 2019 [Michaelis]. Is the first time that you have worked on a theatre production? How did this commission came about?
Shakil Solanki: This has been my first venture into the world of theatre. Matthew approached me, after receiving a recommendation to look into my work, from a mutual friend of ours, which I was more than grateful for.
Designing for theatre
There is a vital tradition in theatre/dance/opera of commission artists to work in theatre but we haven’t seen a lot of that in South Africa. It’s usually just set designers who design. It must have been very exciting to be involved with imaging this production – in 2021 – and here it is on again 2023- your thoughts?
Shakil Solanki: It has been tremendously exciting to have been a part of this collaboration. I’ve always found the intersections of art and theatre immensely beautiful; being a part of this project has been so special. The process of producing all 10 artworks in 2021 was a rather intensive one, but so rewarding to see their illuminations projected on stage. Having the production halted due to the pandemic was devastating, but having it renewed this year is truly gratifying. I’m so thrilled that audiences are once again able to experience this staging.
The Pearl Fishers, Reprised
You are currently exhibiting – a solo exhibition – at the Everard Read gallery in the Waterfront: The Pearl Fishers, Reprised– April 26 – May 13, 2023 https://www.everard-read-capetown.co.za/exhibition/296/ Are any of these new works incorporated in the May 2023 season of The Pearl Fishers?
Shakil Solanki: There aren’t new works being added to the May 2023 production of The Pearl Fishers. It is a standalone exhibition. The exhibition draws on the same themes and narratives of my work in The Pearl Fishers 2021.
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✳ Featured image: Shakil Solanki standing in front of one of his new works, inspired by his first series of paintings featured in Cape Town Opera production of The Pearl Fishers [2021 and 2023 seasons]. This new collection of paintings is on show at the Everard Read gallery in the Waterfront: The Pearl Fishers, Reprised– April 26 – May 13, 2023 https://www.everard-read-capetown.co.za/exhibition/296/
Related coverage of Cape Town Opera’s The Pearl Fishers on TheCapeRobyn:
Interview with Matthew Wild – originator of concept of Cape Town Opera’s The Pearl Fishers: https://thecaperobyn.co.za/opera-interview-matthew-wild-talks-about-cape-town-opera-2021-season/]
Review of Cape Town Opera’s The Pearl Fishers, June 2021: https://thecaperobyn.co.za/opera-review-cape-town-opera-the-pearl-fishers-june-2021/
Opera news (preview) Cape Town Opera’s The Pearl Fishers, May 2023 season, directed by Elisabeth Manduell: https://thecaperobyn.co.za/opera-news-international-opera-star-levy-sekgapane-returns-home-for-cape-town-operas-the-pearl-fishers-may-2023/