top of page

"Faces of Nepal"


This text is the introduction to the book Salter collaborated on with the scholar and author Dr. Harka Gurung, entitled "Faces of Nepal." The book is a unique ethnographic study of the various ethnic groups of Nepal which combines Gurung's writings about each ethnicity with Salter's drawings and paintings of members of the groups. The book was published in 1996 and received much critical acclaim.


Why Nepal?


The visitor who arrives in Nepal for the first time is confronted by a multitude of impressions: spectacular mountains, dramatic monsoon skies, or sharp winter light, dazzling greens of rice paddy, the beautiful architecture of the Kathmandu Valley. Or perhaps it is the people who make the greatest impression- as they did on me. When I first came to this country, I couldn’t contain my excitement at seeing so many different remarkable faces. I was captivated from the very beginning. Even today, after so many years here, that excitement at seeing a remarkable face remains. The walk through Asan thronged with people is still an adventure.

My fist visit to Nepal was in 1968. I stayed only a brief six months. At that time drawing for me was a hobby, albeit a consuming one, as I had never had any formal training in art. My father had dismissed my wish to go to an art college, saying that artists rarely managed to earn a living at their profession. He insisted that I train as a hairdresser, a profession that would always bring an income and, with it, some independence. He was indeed correct in his way, for I travelled the world in the late 1960s and early 70s, through Africa, Asia and Australia working as a hairdresser. I have never regretted my father’s suggestion.


In Kathmandu in 1968 I worked in a hairdressing salon in Boris Lissanevitch’s legendary Royal Hotel. Downtown Kathmandu was very different then. I remember that we had trouble stopping pigs from wandering into the salon. Tins and bottles were prized items, luxuries which we never threw away but used as storage containers. In those days, Kathmandu women, young and old, wore only saris and traditional dress and were puzzled by the wearing of jeans by Western women. I mostly wore long skirts but if at any time I did wear jeans I was often asked if I was a man.


Following my visit to Nepal I spent some time in New Zealand where, in an attempt to escape from hair dressing, I took a job is a school for deaf children. This I truly loved and for a time thought this would be my life. But that was not to be. There were many Maori children at the school and I was intrigued by them and found myself drawing endlessly. Soon it became clear where my future lay and from that time I have concentrated all my energy and time on drawing and, later, painting.


While visiting Indonesia in 1973, I met the famous Indonesian artist Affandi whose work I had greatly admired. We traveled to Bali and worked there together. Affandi offered advice and encouragement and I know that working with him was a big turning point in my life.

During these travels, meeting artists of many countries, Nepal continued to beckon. To use a Japanese phrase, I was “being pulled by the hair”. And so, in 1975, I returned to Nepal, travelling overland to Kathmandu loaded down with as much art equipment as I could carry. I knew what I wanted to do.


The first drawing that I did upon return was of a small Newar boy, Premlal. That young child was to become my adopted son. During my first year, I trekked in the mountains, gradually learning more about this land and drawing many faces as I explored. When it was time to leave for Japan, a visit arranged for some time before, it became clear that my Nepali son would have to stay in boarding school during my absence. That caused me come anxiety since it had never occurred to me to look beyond personal survival and I did not know how I could find the fees for Premlal.

Just at that time I was introduced to a printer who not only liked my drawings but who suggested that others would appreciate them in the form of prints and cards. I was delighted with the prints, which my new friend produced and found that he was right. Premlal was financed! This was the accidental beginning of my collection, which over the years has grown to about a hundred prints of drawings of faces. I did not intentionally set out to compile a collection of all ethnic groups of Nepal. I drew the faces that interested me and so it just happened. Perhaps this is the reason why not every community is represented by my pictures in this book. In time, I hope to put this right.

Portraiture often creates a bond between subject and artist, two personalities who look at each other, as it did between Premlal and me. But sometimes it can be disturbing, as I learned in my early years here. Once, I was told about an old woman, very poor, who used to sun herself in a patch of grass outside her house and who had a very special smile. When I met her I, too, was enchanted by her smile. As I started to draw her, almost immediately the smile changed to an agonized grimace and she began to rock and moan, unable to control herself and clearly in terrible pain. In fleeting moments and with great effort she would turn towards me with that radiant smile. This courageous woman died not long after I had completed the drawing of her. Nepalis have a reputation for being happy people with a ready smile and this has encouraged visitors to return again and again to this country. My experience with this old woman taught me early on that great but silent suffering is often concealed by a smile and gentleness of expression. I will never forget the woman and I will never sell her portrait.


During a visit to the Terai, I was warned before I entered one Tharu village that the villagers were so shy that no one had ever succeeded in photographing one of them. Sure enough, the moment that I arrived in the village everyone disappeared. I sat and began to draw. It was not long before one small girl, unable to contain her curiosity, crept forward to look over my shoulder. Slowly other villagers emerged from their houses. Later, as people relaxed, there was much discussion and laughter while they decided who would be drawn. As the picture progressed, everyone was free with criticism and comment. This is the usual kind of reaction I get from villagers; people enjoy both watching and being the subject of my work.


In a Rana Tharu village in the far-western Terai, people were very suspicious and it took me three days before they were convinced that I had no ill intentions. The Rana Tharu, who are gentle and shy, had trusted outsiders before but with sad results. Many had been cheated of their land and now all strangers were treated with suspicion. Even after I had gained their confidence the village elders only permitted the young girls to be drawn. They girl that finally agreed to sit with me was not wearing traditional Rana dress and refused my polite requests to do so. Meanwhile the spectators began to relax as I began to draw and the usual giggles started. After completing the face, half joking I began to introduce into the drawing types of earring and head-dress many of the spectators were wearing, inquiring as I did so whether they were correct. This created much comment and my sitter got up to look for herself. Indignantly she made it clear to me that she never wore that kind of earring and with that she disappeared into one of the houses. I thought that was the end of my drawing and that my attempt at communication with these people had been a failure, so dispiritedly, I stated collecting my things together. Suddenly the young girl emerged dressed in all the Rana Tahru finery, including her bodice of coins, and beaming proudly, took her place one again as my sitter, while I and the rest of the villagers laughed with pleasure.


Mountain people are not usually as shy as the Tharu, and anyway, since I usually travel with a porter he reassures them and tells them about my drawings and other villages. Indeed very often word has already travelled up the trail and so people are looking out with curiosity. Being a woman is definitely an advantage when approaching the villagers. A man can make people uneasy, particularly if he gazes at womenfolk, whereas a woman tends not to be as intimidating.

There are other kinds of problems working ‘in the field’. Sometimes, when I express my desire to capture someone’s image they rush away to change their appearance to suit their own image of themselves. One delightful old man of Marpha in the Upper Gandaki region, for example, summoned the barber immediately and before I realized what was happening, had all his long hair, beard and eyebrows removed with a razor.


Trying to keep these pictures clean is a major problem in a village situation. Everyone wants to look and my pictures are handed around, often with work-soiled hands. Early on, when working in one village, I became puzzled when out of a clear blue sky I felt the sprinkling of rain. In haste I covered my picture, but too late. The spectators roared with laughter as they indicated that the ‘rain’ had come from a small bare-bottomed boy who was being held by his sister. From that time on I keep wary eye on infant boys in the audience.

Trekking and travelling with a pencil and drawing pad as technical equipment is easy and at the beginning of my career here as an artist I worked mostly in that medium. Later I began working in oils, which has made working in villages more difficult. I have not yet solved the problem of preventing curious and determined children from fingering irresistibly colorful and gooey paints and from squeezing the precious tubes. For this reason the jostling of people trying to look disturbs me when painting, whereas it doesn’t when I’m drawing. To paint portraits, I need people, and where there are people it’s hard to find a quiet spot. So, while I have found it necessary to do much of my work in oils in a studio, with the help of a vigilante assistant I am once again venturing out into the streets and courtyards. I hope to gradually overcome this spectator problem of mine.


Oil painting has allowed me to explore and to express versatility of style. Some of my portraits are finely detailed, others are created with fast palette knife strokes and my present instinct is to move away from the detail. Oil paintings seem to have a life of their own and only rarely does a painting turn out the way I expect. To start with, I can never anticipate whether I will finish a painting in a few hours or whether it will take days or even weeks. And, the style too, seems to emerge from somewhere other than my conscious mind. Presumably it comes from my instinctive sub-conscious response to the sitter and setting. People have commented that many of my paintings look medieval and this is perhaps because many aspects of village life and old style Kathmandu seem to resemble Western medieval paintings. However, this is not deliberate and I experience many surprises from my own work.


I have been inspired by many artists. One of my earliest favourites was Keathe Kollwitz, the German artist who captured the despair of the poor and rejected of war-ravaged Germany. I get a lot of pleasure from looking at the joyful simple lines of Matisse, the colours of Monet, the strength and honesty of Van Gough- and so many more.

I rarely accept commissioned work. Such portraits have so many pitfalls, and the modern sophisticated man holds little interest for me either. But I do feel the need to branch out, to make a stronger social comment. How this will emerge, what form, style, subject matter, I do not yet know.


My work up to now has been an instinctive response of admiration and delight at the extraordinarily varied, fascinating and beautiful people of Nepal. Unfortunately Western influences have created the idea that traditional ways and styles are backward, such that an erstwhile independent and proud people are often being made to feel apologetic and ashamed. They are sometime patronized and laughed at and the young, who are particularly susceptible to ridicule and to commercial manipulation, have begun to discard their traditional identity and assume a sterile sameness. The strength and security of a respected and well defined cultural identity is being eroded and this is resulting in a loss of confidence and direction in some.


The faces I draw and paint reflect age-old wisdom and knowledge, and survival skills which are today being taken for granted and overlooked. They are in danger of being lost under the onslaught of Westernization. False sentimentality should not divert the greatest possible effort to reduce the hardship of villagers’ lives by introducing all technical advantages to them in the form of piped water, electricity and so on. At the same time, we who are so totally dependent on modern supports, such as the telephone, fax, motorized transport, television, should have respect for those who know infinitely more about survival. These people I have captured in pencil or in oils, have much to offer in terms of their knowledge and understanding of the natural world and in the uniqueness and richness of their own cultures.

Only recently, after I had been here for many years, did the idea of a book begin to take shape. As with my painting I cannot say how or why but I can hazard a guess that it was an instinctive response to this rapidly accelerating dilution of diversity in Nepal. I would be proud if my work contributed in any way to a greater recognition and respect of the rich and varied cultures my ’faces’ represent. It’s a small and humble offering in comparison to what I have received myself from Nepal and its peoples.                       


Jan Salter

5 November, 1995


bottom of page