Fareed Uduman: The Art of Expressionism

11 Jan

He was a well know cartoonist but unknown painter / artist during his own lifetime. He painted for his own pleasure and release, not for exhibitions or viewership. When he ran short of money to buy new boards, he painted over previous paintings. He left his works unnamed, unsigned, undated and unframed.

Some of the paintings disappeared or were damaged beyond repair while others languished in dusty corners, behind door frames and within cupboards of his children’s houses, after his death. That was until 1993, when Laki Senanyake came across some of the paintings and persuaded Jomo, the artist’s son to organize an exhibition of the paintings, that other Sri Lankans may revel in them. And so eight years after his passing in 1985, Fareed Uduman’s paintings were exhibited, wining him national acclaim.

The third exhibition of his works was held at the Lionel Wendt recently over the last two days, drawing sizable crowds of art lovers. Uduman was an ‘expressionist’ painter; like the artist himself was reputed to be, the paintings are absolutely non-conformist!

Colourful swirls, dark shapes and hues, disproportionate bodies, erotic undertones – both subtle and not-so-subtle, breasts and phalluses aplenty – the paintings provided plenty of food for thought while leaving plenty more for imagination. It was too bad the artist couldn’t be on hand to explain what exactly he had been thinking of and what exactly he had wanted to ‘express’ when he painted those paintings; some of them require explanations to guide the viewers on what they were seeing.

A little brochure, giving the titles of the paintings however (posthumously titled by the artist’s son Jomo) helped a little. I should never have guessed that the one eyed darkish face with full red lips and Rastafarian locks was ‘Jesus.’ Or that the white and brown elephantine shapes one could discern upon close observation were ‘mating elephants.’
Picture No: 26 was titled ‘Girl by Street tap.’ Eh, where was the street tap? Oh yes, right there, at the very edge of the painting. Who noticed the street tap when her naked full breasts leapt out at you from the frame?

Some of the paintings though, were exactly what they said they were; the Two Birds, Sneaking Woman, Proud Crow, Bird on Banana Tree and Angry Cock Bird all come within this category.

The ‘Angry Cock Bird’ painted in darkish hues of red and maroon exemplified fury with its puffed up body and angry expression. ‘The Proud Crow’ was aptly named; quite the dandy, stylish and aware of its own aplomb. Brought Rajnikanth to mind!
‘Two Birds’ however is a rather unimaginative name, in contrast to the painting itself. True the painting is of two birds, a black crow and a multicoloured duck. What the name doesn’t indicate however is the wealth of meaning and story the artist has incorporated into the paining. A playful crow with a flirtatious gleam in its eye leaning towards a coquettish duck. Star crossed romance perhaps?

Not having the artist on hand to explain his own views was a drawback but his son Jomo helped.
“That is a house in a storm. He used to go to the Colpetty arrack tavern to have a shot and then he would sit outside observing people and vistas to draw inspiration for his paintings. He saw this scene in a storm one day and painted it.”
The scene was of a house nestled among coconut trees, their fronds billowing in the wind amidst a background of swirling clouds.

Another painting, titled ‘Jomo!’ Was that a portrait of him?

“Yes, it was originally intended to be Medusa. You can still see her snake-like locks. Then one day, he decided to paint my face over hers and called it ‘Jomo.’

Is that a breast somewhere in there?

“Yes it is, my friends tease me about being bisexual or hermaphrodite because of it. That was just his way, he did that a lot.”

And then he points to another painting, one I had noticed already as one of the prettiest and most colourful. ‘Lalangi’: A pretty young woman in a red and white striped dress, next to a sunflower. Behind and slightly to the right of her is a gnarled tree sprouting bright green leaves from the middle of its trunk while on the upper left side is a white dove. He had clearly put a lot of thought and love into this painting.

“That’s my sister in law. It was the last painting he painted a few months before his death in 1985.”

According to Jomo, his father was a very private man and he had chosen to keep his passion and its output private rather than sharing with friends, fellow artists or viewers. He had not sought out other artists to mix with and compare techniques either. Non conformist all his life, he was born a Muslim but lived as an atheist with a strong commitment towards socialism and humanism. He was an animal lover too, and depicted in two of the paintings at the exhibition were his sympathy for them. The ‘Tired Cart Bull’ showed a collapsed bull in front of its cart while the other ‘cart bull’ showed intransigence in every stance of its body, from its firmly planted feet to stubbornly pulled back torso to furious and accusing eye! A selection of his poems were showcased at the exhibition too and one was the poignant “cattle led to slaughter” which showed how deeply Uduman felt on the matter.

Also showcased were a selection of his cartoons, from the time he worked as a cartoonist for the LSSP weekend paper, The Nation.
The Tamil United Front is depicted as the three monkeys, ‘Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil’ in one; except according to the cartoon, they apparently “hear no violence! See no violence! Speak no violence!” The cartoons weren’t dated. It would be interesting to know the specific time periods these were from.

There was one more of the Tamil United Front ‘On Top of the World’ as the title maintains – hung up on a post!
And yet another one of the T.U leader Chelvanayagam titled ‘T.U faced’: it depicts a Gandhian in loin cloth advocating boycott in the North and well dressed urban and urbane gentleman asking for seats in the South! Cleverly drawn ‘split-personality.’ This is history for me since I was born long after these episodes but I remember my father (Tamil) reminiscing on how Chelvanayagam was just such a two faced character. I didn’t know what he looked like but the cartoon rang a bell so I came back and googled Chelvanayagam to see if that was who was being depicted. Bingo! That was exactly who it was.

There are also quite a few swipes at Lakehouse and a hilarious swipe at the ailing ‘Private Sector’ being operated on by Dr. Barnard Soysa! ‘Good Lord! No Heart Here to Transplant!’ runs the title above the astonished doctor. Into a bin by the doctor go several diseased organs – Monopolies, loaded invoices, exchange rackets, bogus earnings, repatriation of capital and 300 – 500 % profits.
Fareed Uduman was one committed communist.

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