Brooding portraitures: Stillness Visible

Mustafa Zaman

Verisimilitude, which is explained as ‘the appearance of being true or real’, according to the Oxford dictionary, is what Fahim Chowdhury has dexterously achieved in his portrait series done during the Covid crisis. Two years of uncertain existence as a freelancer made the artist look for an alternative to sitting close to a person and try a good likeness.


A good likeness is the starting point for Fahim. He explores the technique of verisimilitude in his attempt to continue his passion for capturing personalities and their mute expression. During the pandemic, in the changed circumstance, he used the digital means to get in touch with people he knew and used photographs they made available to him as his only reference to develop the current series.


To plunge beneath the thinness of image – as image easily becomes a screen through which to orient ourselves – is to wake up to what is made to accumulate at the bottom, or, to use another analogy, to locate the armature through which this young artist’s works on portraiture stand on a stable ground. If interpreted in relation to the mood he advances through most of these works, one would realize that they actually reside within an intangible locus called ‘memory’, which is also a source of knowledge. Therefore, they cannot merely be seen as the consequence of the engagement of a realist, or a naturalist, to use the more historically correct epithet.


“The visual is a space of appearance wherein the question of orientation, the ‘whither?’ or ‘where are you?’ questions are, invariably, already an essential part of what appears,” writes Hagi Kenaan in ‘The Ethics of Visuality: Lavinas and the Contemporary Gaze’. One may start from this idea of ‘orientation’ and become conscious about the fact that the artist obviously began his project, if one is to call it that, from the position of a realist, but he is inclined to advance a sentiment that has to do with memory rather than what is only possible through verisimilitude. It is through the ‘effect’ that we must begin unpacking these imageries. By taking our cue from Susan Sontag’s aphorism, ‘images don’t tell us anything, they remind us what is important,’ we can declare that Fahim Chowdhury attempted to continue to foster the relationship he had with all these people he depicted during a time when face-to-face encounter was either not allowed or posed contamination risk.  


In Jean-Paul Sartres’ novel ‘Nausea’, its narrator Antoine Roquentin suffers from a curious problem. He lets the reader know that he has profound difficulty ‘recognizing or understanding the psychological expressiveness of the human face’. A face is not merely a face when we are able to glance at it as the thinnest of all images, a mask. However, when we feel that behind such a mask there lurks a person about which we know little, things start to take a ‘psychological turn’ and we grapple in the dark about what makes face-body nexus so elusive. This difficulty in recognizing the psychological expressiveness of human faces is linked to the problem of misrecognition – when faces do not reveal the true selves. This problem deepened over the past hundred years and we can safely say that in late modernity the separation of the face/mask from the person/body was complete. Fahim Chowdhury simply sidesteps such complexities and points to a stable element, which leads to, or the result of, solitary musing. So the ‘stillness’ – which is associated with a journey back to the self – is found  beneath the surface, after one is through looking at the image.

Consequently, one is able to locate an atavistic quality in these portraitures. They can be interpreted as figures from a forgotten era, a throwback to a social reality, despite the absence of any reference to history or situatedness.


It is evident that Fahim Chowdhury is an accomplished draughtsman. Looking at the current bulk of works one realises how academic realism, or naturalism to be exact, can be instrumentalised to capture something that may even elude the sitters. One can assume that the brooding silence that lends a slightly otherworldly aura to them was made possible through the colour of the lead pencil. However, this materialistic interpretation seems way too inadequate in the face of the stillness that one can discover in these pictures, a type of commonality which is divorced from the idea of communality, but leaves one with some substances to speak about.  


Mustafa Zaman is an artist, poet and curator based in Dhaka

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