‘Wot? No Fish!!’ a moving family portrait
Its noisy and querulous punctuation marks notwithstanding, Danny Braverman’s “Wot? No Fish!!’’ is a quiet treasure.
The structure of this endearing and moving solo show, which made its American debut Friday night at the Institute of Contemporary Art and runs through Sunday, could not be simpler. Seated at a table and occasionally standing, Braverman pulls one weathered drawing after another out of a shoebox, projecting their images onto a large screen while offering explanation, commentary, and conjecture about what they depict and what hidden meanings might lie behind them.
The drawings are the handiwork of his great-uncle Ab Solomons, a shoemaker who began sketching them on the back of his weekly wage packets in 1926 and kept creating them until 1982. Ab drew them for his beloved wife, Celie, and they consist largely of scenes — tenderly affectionate, self-mocking, satirical, intimate, heart-rending — from their long marriage, with glimpses of their East London surroundings, their two children, and even young Braverman himself.
Braverman is a likably relaxed guide through the life and times of Ab and Celie. Though strands of social history, including the collective experience of Jewish immigrants, are woven through “Wot? No Fish!!’’, the show registers as a celebration of dailiness and steadfastness, a family album presented in public. There are drawings of Celie knitting, Ab as a young husband struggling to be a home handyman, the new parents cocking their ears (drawn oversized) to the sound of their crying baby, the family heading off on holiday.
Like any other, this family knew pain. There’s a palpable ache to Ab’s drawings of one of their sons, who had to be committed to a psychiatric hospital. There are occasional hints of marital friction, portraits of Celie’s meddlesome sister, and illustrations of the fear and turmoil brought by World War II, most vividly in a drawing of Hitler, looming like a sinister puppet-master.
The drawings reveal the growth of Ab’s artistic ambitions and the inevitability, domestically and beyond, of change. Except, that is, for Celie’s nose, which Ab invariably drew in red, his nostalgic nod to the fact that she had a bad cold on their wedding day. Touchingly, he seemed to want to preserve an image of her as forever young.
As the show steadily builds, you find yourself thinking about generational connections and the myriad ways the past can ripple undetected through the present. You ponder the reasons why Ab took such creative pains to memorialize his life as he was living it, while feeling increasingly grateful that he did. And by the time “Wot? No Fish!!’’ is over, you realize you’ve just seen something pretty remarkable.