Nearly 20 years ago, the Belgium-born, Mexico City-based artist started collecting amateur portraits of Saint Fabiola, a fourth-century Roman saint who’s often cited as a precursor to Mother Teresa. French academic Jean-Jacques Henner painted the original portrait, a side headshot perspective of the nurse who spent her life caring for the poor and sick, in 1885.
The original has since been lost. In its place: copies that are all variations of "good" (depending on how you define "good").
Alys, who has shown the collection all over the world, including London’s National Portrait Gallery and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, continues to raid thrift shops and flea markets in search of the reproductions. When the salon-style exhibition is installed at the Byzantine Fresco Chapel “like votive images in a church,” says Toby Kamps, curator of modern and contemporary art at The Menil Collection, Alys's Fabiola count will be a crazy 514 copies.
“The images vary widely in size, skill of execution and fidelity to the original image. They are a testament to the power of the deep-seated human urge to reproduce something — to have an image pass through your mind and hand,” says Kamps. “The act of painting a portrait of St. Fabiola for someone to hang in their home is an act of devotion, and the power of this act will be visible when viewers see all 514 Fabiolas on view.”
It’s not only paintings. Alys has also unearthed bas-relief wood carvings, Fabiola needlepoint and jewelry, and a mosaic constructed from rice and beans.
“We thought it would be perfect for the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, a former Greek Orthodox chapel and a favorite place in Houston for quiet contemplation,” says Kamps. “We hope visitors might come and spend some real time in the space thinking about some of the things The Fabiola Project calls to mind — subjects like faith, devotion, originality. We hope they’ll come several times.”
Francis Alys: The Fabiola Project opens on Saturday, May 21, at the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, 4011 Yupon Street, with a chat between Alÿs and curator Lynne Cooke from 2 to 3 p.m. in the Menil foyer. The exhibition remains on display through January 28, 2018. Admission is free. For more information, call 713-525-9400 or go to menil.org.