Iván Mikolji: Tribute to the Redeye Piranha
Fearsome and fascinating, the piranha evokes all kinds of conjecture in peoples’ imagination. Distinguished by their uniquely-structured jaws, these ferocious creatures are designed for the kill and lie silently in wait for their unsuspecting prey beneath the waters of tropical rivers.
Tales about the dangers of piranhas are part of the traditional lore among indigenous groups of South America like the Guaraní and Tupí peoples, who call them “devil fish” and “toothed-fish” in their native languages. In Venezuela, piranhas are also commonly referred to as “caribes”.
But no matter what name they go by, one thing is for sure – piranhas are voracious predators who feed on everything from fish, to crustaceans, to insects and even raw meat. Surprisingly, they can be preyed upon, as well, considered a delicacy by several other predators like herons, alligators, snakes, turtles, and even by their own kind.
Piranhas have also made their way into famous literary novels, finding hair-raising mention in works such as Jules Verne’s The Mighty Orinoco (1898, English title), and Rómulo Gallegos’ Lady Barbara (1929, English title). In his novel, Verne describes how cattle crossing rivers are besieged by “sea monsters”; Gallegos describes them as creatures capable of devouring their victims “down to the bone before naming all three members of the Holy Trinity”. In his multi-volume travel diary, Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent (published between 1799 and 1804), Alexander Von Humboldt provides a detailed description and drawings of piranhas, noting that “there is no more bloodthirsty fish”. Even Theodore Roosevelt made mention of them in his published memoirs detailing his 1913 expedition to Brazil, Through the Brazilian Wilderness (1914). Roosevelt describes the piranha as “the most ferocious fish in the world”.
In his work, Iván Mikolji combines ichthyological exploration and artistic inquiry, pulling from both a wealth of expertise and an intuitive flair that infuses all that he creates. His continual focus has been on the freshwater fish found in the Venezuelan hydrography. One of the species he is most passionate about is the Redeye Piranha (Serrasalmus rhombeus) that frequents the basins of the Orinoco, Amazon, and Essequibo rivers. In fact, he is so passionate about this particular species of piranha that he has devoted an entire series of paintings, drawings, and sketches in which he recreates some of its distinctive features.
But the motivation behind Mikolji’s passionate work with the Redeye Piranha is not its fierce nature. The real driving factor is his fascination with the phenotypical characteristics expressed in this piranha’s morphology, which can be seen in the jagged line of its powerful teeth, the chromatic shimmer of its scales, a serrated keel at its underbelly, the piercing roundness of its eyes, and the nervous arabesque-like dance of its movements. All of these physical attributes serve as the palette for Mikolji’s impactfully graphic compositions, rich with intense hues on a canvas where the piranha becomes an indiscernible extension of the surrounding environment in which it exists. Water and fish flow together in one, undulating, wave-like pattern, free from the limitations of contours.
Despite the redeye piranha’s terrifying pedigree, Mikolji does not see it as a threat, but rather as an integral member of a fragile ecosystem. Enigmatic, suspicious, and solitary, the redeye piranha is rarely found in shoals unlike other, more aggressive members of the Serrasalmidae family. The sheer size of its population and the variety within it make this species a veritable Pandora’s box of unlocked, ichthyological surprises. As such, it calls for much more dedicated research. For now, Mikolji’s art preserves the memory and untold story of an ancestral species that still thrives within the submerged kingdom of Venezuela’s rivers. Its destiny, in the long run, perhaps foreshadows a natural and human eventuality that befalls the eventful, but always generous, “land of grace”.
Mikolji’s series, “Tribute to the Redeye Piranha”, is a collection of art pieces created between 2015 and 2018. Contained in the collection are acrylics, pastels, markers, crayons, and pencil sketches on paper. Mikolji uses a wide array of colors (yellows, reds, blues, earth hues, whites), furrowed broken lines, rhombuses, and circles. The visually stark simplicity of the compositions gives these biomorphic abstracts an air of totemic sacredness, reminiscent of the chaotic contortions of the fish as it executes its bloody faena – biting, chewing, and tearing its prey apart. Most noticeable on the canvas, aside from the vibrant colors, is the imprint of the piranha’s teeth, and the fixed outline of its eyes amid the turbulent lines of the water. Here, fish becomes script, liquid calligraphy, gurgling its credo into the unperceivable waves of time.
The drawings and schematic sketches are dominated by circles and broken lines, which are also a common denominator in the paintings that draw from a wider and more elaborate spectrum of color. In these, the circles are generally positioned towards the upper right of the canvas, while the sharp lines are frequently drawn in black or darker tones. They stand alone and are separate from the entirety of the fish, representative of the vast universe that is made up of symbolism and ideas. Both the canvas and paper are to Mikolji what a throw-net or casting net is to a fisherman. Except that his artistic “net” is immune to ferociously lunging piranhas.
Viewed as a figurative net, the surface of the canvas captures imagery suggestive of another kind of fight: one more symbolic than real, where calm finally prevails, where the fury dissipates and the fish enters an alternate, less turbulent flow definitively more stable than that of the dark river it usually inhabits.
The paintings are also immersive, explorative, and what feels like a prolonged moment of breathlessness in the all too sensitive current. Mikolji submerges himself in the little-known known world of fluvial species. He studies them directly in their habitat, and questions their instinctual movements and behaviors, all in an effort to translate them and bring them to life in each of his pieces. Recreated artistically and kept safely within the borders of their canvas pond, Mikolji’s piranhas lack the attacking or menacing presence that is their default; they simply observe the world from the corners of their red-colored eyes, flowing with the current created by each line.
But just as abundantly as piranhas appear in popular narratives, fictional literature, and scientific texts, emblematic of the hostile and untamed wildness of nature, so do they populate the vision of a healthy ecosystem where each organism serves a specific and necessary function. Consequently, the “Tribute to the Redeye Piranha” project celebrates the diversity found in life itself and highlights the importance of aesthetic sensitivity in disseminating visual archives that teach the value of respect and spiritual communion with the all-encompassing natural world that is the very canvas of our existence.
Original Spanish text Félix Suazo
English translation by Gloria Yacosa
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