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Art Discussion Group - Malta



To commemorate Woman’s Day China Cultural Centre is presenting ‘Face to Face: A Dialogue between Suruya and Grace Cassar’. The inauguration on Wednesday 8th March 2017 is being held in the art gallery at the China Cultural Centre at 173, Melita Street, Valletta. The exhibition opens to the public from the 9th to 23rd March 2017.


‘Life encounters two people: one’s days are fraught with exciting adventures the other’s years pass in peaceful tranquillity’. Suruya sums up her artistic expression with this poetic verse. Perhaps it means that her art hovers between sensuality of feeling, emotion and sentiment and the sublime. I was visibly impressed with ‘Fragrant 3’ (no. 16) that immediately brought to mind an image from Botticelli’s elongated beauties or a whiff of the mythical and modern Modigliani (1884-1920). The distortion or elongation of form transforms reality into an enigmatic spiritual essence, a deconstruction that distils matter into pure energy. In fact Botticelli (c.1445-1510) an early Renaissance artist was still very Gothic in concept in the sense that the human image was so unreal that it is called inane: beautiful as an idea or ideal.

The beauty of this stylized ‘portrait’ with exquisite jewellery and a tapering coiffeur is overwhelming. It seems that one is looking at the sitter’s soul and not her face. Naturally its beauty does not stem from a physical or tangible beauty but from its ideal properties. And although there is great balance and unity in its composition; a compatibility between the abstract and concrete like harmonic music yet the abstract qualities are predominant and its parts are more important than the whole as if it has no point of reference. Her embroidered elaborate costume in dark black intrigues the viewer as much as the calligraphic hairstyle and the meticulous jewellery but the face with half-closed eyes is incredibly expressive, an oriental Venus.

Suruya’s work is graphic, calligraphic, arabesque with flowing line and rhythmic pattern of repeated modules such as the hair painted unrealistically one by one. What the eye does not see the mind knows that it is there and the hand depicts. As the artist’s expression is about aesthetic imagery the result of a subjective creation of the mind. Her art reflects her inner thoughts, desires and conveys her subjective consciousness. It is autobiographical. Her images are not material but feelings, emotions and sentiments.

In two particular works: ‘Mongolian Women 6’ (no. 8) and ‘Mongolian Women 12’ (no.14) one is struck with the affinity these instil with Ancient Egyptian art as to importance given to outline which in scientific terms does not exist but that the mind concocts. In no.14 the sharp outline seems engraved or etched and the profile with one eye lacks only another eye to become Egyptian art. Ancient Egyptian art was influenced by Persian, Assyrian and Babylonian art and oriental in essence the result of a culture exchange. As in Islamic calligraphy Suruya finds human hair ideal to feast in graphic details, in serpentine patterns like woven fabric. 

In no.8 the two heads, one in profile, the other lost might seem flat but to the trained eye, that in the foreground is volumetric as in Giotto (1266-1337) though ethereal not material. ‘Mongolian Women 8’ (no 10) is in sharp contrast. The sublimation of emotion melts and is transformed into an expressive face and body language. The woman is wide eyed, open-mouthed with surprise and is so excited with clasped fingers trying to hold back her emotions. She is wearing an embroidered costume and lovely jewellery. A butterfly is landing on her shoulder. Perhaps the butterfly symbolises joy.

In Fragrant 1 (no.1) the artist focuses on costume. The costume is the subject, not woman but perhaps in such embroidered clothes the lady looks and smells like a blossom hence the fragrance. The costume with red on black and orange on blue is an excuse to revel in the abstract beauty of pure colour or its symbolism. The work does not need a subject as the artist expresses her joy at a sentient world. Colour is pure emotion and as Kandinsky says it is music. With the sitter’s hair pulled back ending in a knotted bun Suruya implies that graphic design in basic shapes in an abstract geometric expression is absolutely and not relatively beautiful.

The artist demonstrates that the subject is not important in a composition. In three works (nos. 12, 17 & 18) the portrait loses its face and the head and hair or coiffeur is depicted from the back. The hairstyle is an excuse to practise arabesque and calligraphy. The exercise shows how vital ritual and ceremony is for Mongolian women. It seems a symbol of status as in the case of costume. In the portrait photo of the artist the importance of the costume in damask or brocade is explicit as it fills the background space in its exquisite and meticulous detail.

As in Gothic art the subjective imagery in her work instead of receding into the background advances or projects into the viewer’s space. Space almost disappears as it is filled completely by her imagery. Abstraction dominates and the ideal or the spirit revels over matter. The concept triumphs over the physical counterpart and she reaches towards an indefinite dimension on a flat surface where ‘more is implied than is expressed, where more is hidden than shown, where visibility though vivid is veiled, where the expanse of the undetermined void extends imaginative space’. Her imagination and fantasy project more than meets the eye. It is a lyrical and poetic journey of feeling, emotion and sentiment from deep inside her to be shared with those who care.

Her work is imbued with the spirit, with the force within. It is lyrical and poetic but forceful and bold.


‘People of the World’ is a collection of portraits representing different nations and ethnic groups created by Grace Cassar inspired by the love for people with different characteristics the result of acute observation and research of physiognomy and costume. The exercise that started two years ago was not intended to be exhibited at any particular venue until she was approached by the China Cultural Centre to participate in Woman’s Day in a dialogue with Suruya. Grace started practising portraiture empirically choosing near relatives to pose for her. But later with the help of relevant short courses abroad (such as the recent master classes under Roger Gill she attended at St. Martin’s College London) she became more resolute and ambitious to add to her gallery of portraits.

Grace Cassar is a romantic expressionist of feeling with an intense leaning towards a classical approach to art and a deep welling of sentiment with moods that vary from the passionate, to delicate and to elegant statements or suggestions the result of a sensitive, sensible and intense character. Her versatile and prolific expression is backed by a solid academic background and a serious study of drawing technique under experienced and established local and foreign masters.

Her collection demonstrates her multi-faceted technical talent in various media. More important still is her skill in shrewd observation and analysis of character. 

The contrasts in her character studies vary from the sublimated beauty, delicate, elegant, charming and exquisite faces of the Chinese, Japanese and Russian portraits to the cynical, teasing smirk on Roberto Benigni’s face and the riveting look and cold hostility of the Moroccan’s blue eyes and the overbearing and arrogant gaze of the Englishman, a portrait executed in two sessions.

The artist captures the innocence and softness of the Russian woman framed by a tiara, the delicate facial features and velvety skin of the Chinese, the frontal charming immobility of the Japanese, the almost virulent look of the Englishman and the sinister intentions of the Moroccan with a skull cap. The tender and youthful expression of the Eskimo girl is in high contrast with the bearded heavy look of the ‘Homeless’ and the dignified Afghan elder. 

The spontaneity, immediacy and crisp rendering in saturated wet on wet watercolour transparency of the Eskimo girl, the few squiggles in the scarf or blouse of the Chinese woman and the light falling on her silken hair, the sense of mystery or enigma or even incomprehension in the Japanese girl, the white enamel eyes of the Indian woman and the avid spiritual search in the poised look in the profile of the Afro American demonstrate the artist’s sensibility and sensitivity.

A collection that emanates a deep sense of sensitivity and sensibility, passion and intensity, a sense of great observation and reflection but above all a human touch: romantic, expressive, warm and felt. Her expression is a paean to the language or expression of physiognomy: facial and eye language in a lyrical and poetic language.

E. V. Borg

art critic & curator

20. 02. 2017