Fascinating Faces


Nowhere in the world is there such a small area as the human face so full of mystery and meaning. It becomes all the more evocative when it glimmers through the pages of faded old manuscripts or damp crumbling old walls. Bare suggestions and elusive glimpses of their features alone meet the eye and yet they serve as the hieroglyphics of the soul.

A wide range of such short-hand portraits by Meher Afroz was on display at the Chawkandi Gallery and aroused much interest. It will be recalled that the last exhibition of paintings by the artist was held in 1987 at the same gallery and the theme was masks. That was an attempt to capture the many forms of dissimulation that people adopt as they go about in the world. In this exhibition the artist has tried to show the real faces of people – the proud and the humble, the elegant and the homely, the dismayed and distraught and the calm and meditative.

For twenty years Meher Afroz was known as the leading print maker whose etchings won many prizes in national exhibitions but for the last three years she has devoted herself to painting.

As in her graphic prints, so in her paintings, her style is highly wrought and consciously contrived. Nothing is casually dashed off. The lines of the face broken here and there, the colour faded or smudged at places and spattered with another colour, are all carefully planned and not technical lapses.

Every painting may be said to contain three elements. There is the face with its psychological overtones. There is a design element made up of multiple borders and lines and dots and leaf patterns in the body of the picture. And thirdly, there is the colour, often limited to one dominating and one contrasting colour in each painting.

The first two are deceptively simple while the third is very complex. The drawing of the face is minimal. One straight line suffices for the nose, in most cases. Two thick dots or even one often indicate the lips. An almond shaped patch serves for the eyes. The face is lightly outlined. It is solid and expressionless. And yet it has a certain character imparted by the eyes and the lips and by the way the head is placed on the neck and by the smooth or rough texture of the skin. Most eyes have a blank stare. Some are downcast and meditative. Smooth skins signify youth and refinement. Rough and wrinkled skin suggests vast experience of life. A thick and stiff upright neck indicates pride of authority. A thin tilted neck speaks of elegance. In one case there is a heavily bejewelled neck with a proud upraised face which obviously suggests affluence and power.

Then there is the design of the painting, in which the face is a part, often a small part. In most cases the painting has multiple borders either of straight lines or zigzags or a series of pointed dots. Below the face there is often a rectangle or a box made up of diagonal lines or chevrons. Diagonal bands are also used. Sometimes these bands are made up of small leaves. All this fills up the space and builds up a design. The elements of the design are very simple but they add up to a very compact and powerful composition.

Finally, there is the colour which is the life of the painting. All this work is done in acrylic paint on paper. The palette is very restricted and only two colours or at the most three are used in each painting. The artist is known for her predilection for earth colours such as yellow ochre, burnt sienna, burnt number and others. These are the dominant colours in the paintings but for a change, in this series, some paintings are done in blue and some in green in dark tones. The colours are painted and repainted many times, wiped and scraped and rubbed to create the desired effects and textures. Specks and dots of the lighter colour are left when the darker is over-painted. The top colour itself is applied lightly and wiped here and there. The result is a rough texture as of old faded manuscripts or damp old crumbling walls out of which the image of the face emerges mysteriously and dimly.

These paintings can be enjoyed as abstract compositions made up of certain simple lines and bands and zigzags and pointed dots and foliated patterns. They can also be enjoyed for the richly suffused deep dark colours out of which emerge lighter colours here and there, both highly worked and mellowed and roughened. Additionally, the mysteriously gazing faces provide human interest to the paintings and a psychological overtone.

The whole makes a very powerful and painterly creation that can be admired and enjoyed at many levels.