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Q&A: Boris Gorelik

HL chatted to Russian author, Boris Gorelik, the man behind the search for Vladimir Tretchikoff's models. With the successful sale of Tretchikoff's Hindu Dancer at the Stephan Welz & Co. Decorative and Fine Arts auction on 4 June 2013 (the painting went for R1 300 000) coinciding with the launch of Boris' biography about the artist and his work, we asked how the search is going and what inspired him to start this journey. You've spent years trying to uncover the identities of Tretchikoff's
 models. What inspired you to begin this journey? It is thought that good or great painters use the model's face as a starting point, raw material of sorts. The resulting image may only remotely resemble the sitter. Tretchikoff's Chinese Girl, (the 'Green Lady') isn't simply a portrait of Monika Sing-lee, his Cape Town model. For starters, Monika didn't have that green face! But I think it's fascinating to discover whose face inspired the artist to create a famous image… and what happened to the sitter afterwards. What do you believe is the importance of finding out who these woman
 are? It's a kind of a time machine. It takes you back to the source and gives another dimension to the familiar picture. How did you feel when you first found out who the woman was behind
 Tretchikoff's iconic work, Chinese Girl? Excited, of course. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people around the world had wondered who this mysterious oriental woman was. That picture is like an open vessel - you can interpret it as you wish, fill it with meanings. Some thought she was a daughter of Fu Manchu. Others believed she was a maiden living in a Chinese village, untouched by Western civilisation. Everyone had his or her theory. But she was, in fact, a teenager from Cape Town, a member of South Africa's Chinese community. Who would have thought?! You're currently in search of the woman in the painting, The HinduDancer, which has just been auctioned at Stephan Welz & Co. You 
read a 1959 Sunday Times article, in which it was mentioned that the woman 
was 26-year-old Indian dancer, Champa Chameli from Durban. Are you any 
closer to finding out who she is? No, I still have no clue who she is. I hope that now, with the sale of the Hindu Dancer attracting so much attention, I'll hear from someone who knew her or even from the model herself. You've said that Tretchikoff is 'the most prominent Russian to live 
in South Africa'. In what way do you think South Africa influenced and 
inspired his work? Tretchikoff spent two thirds of his life in South Africa. He painted the people of South Africa - white, black, coloured and Indian. He loved this country. After a very successful tour of North America, he tried to settle in the US but simply couldn't work there. He had to return to the Cape for peace of mind and inspiration, and stayed here for good. He was born in Russia, but South Africa was his adopted native country. Please tell us a more about your new biography, IncredibleTretchikoff. It's more than a biography. It's a book about a pop icon painter, the times and the places he lived in and about mass-market art, sentimental pictures that people like to hang on their walls. Prints of Tretchikoff works sold in their hundreds of thousands in such diverse places as Canada, Great Britain, Germany, New Zealand, the US and Singapore. They were part and parcel of South African home décor in the 1950-60s. Even today, if you want to create a retro chic ambience, they are ideal accessories. The art establishment has scorned this type of 'low' art. But I argue that Tretchikoff pictures are important, if only because they have brought joy into so many people's lives. For more information about the sale of Tretchikoff's Hindu Dancer, visit Interviewed by Lindi Brownell Meiring