Anoli Perera: Artist Voice from Sri Lanka (1997)

Sarah Giddens
artdesigncafé - art | 15 September 2009
This interview was previously published in Asian Art News, 7(3), 57-65 (1997) as part of a large feature on contemporary art in Sri Lanka.

Anoli Perera

First educated at the University of Colombo, Anoli Perera went on to study in Santa Barbara, California and Princeton, New Jersey where she apprenticed under sculptor Milt Liebson. Anoli was a joint recipient of the Young Artist of the Year Award from the Colombo-based George Keyt Foundation in 1993. She has shown in several exhibitions in the United States and Sri Lanka. She lives and works in Colombo.

Anoli Perera: “Althought I have always been able to draw, I really got motivated at the art library in Santa Barbara, in the late 1980s. I took some classes in watercolor technique and I began to concentrate on my art. I started with very stylized works, something similar to the Ajantha frescoes in India and the Sigiriya frescoes in Sri Lanka because they were very familiar to me. Then I moved into a Cubist period with strong lines. When I moved back to Colombo I became influenced by the work of the 43 Group (a group of artists who banded together in 1943 to participate in the initial Modernist movement of Sri Lanka Art) and their impressionistic, figurative painting of typical Sri Lankan scenes. Then I completely moved away from that and started something different—accumulation of all those influences: I found myself as an artist.

My materials are quite experimental. I fuse several mediums: sand, gum (or textured paste), silk, cotton, gauze, coffee, and tea. I love coffee stains. Of course, I also work with watercolors, pastels, ink, oil, and acrylic. I imagine images in earth colors and I find I cannot change in this regard. I always come back to them: brick red, burnt sienna, burnt amber, browns, black, and ultramarine.

I put down images in fine line ink drawings. The images are often obscure and mysterious. In fact, my work has been described as enigmatic. I use layers and layers of color over these images. In my art I take things apart and deconstruct ideas, unfocus my mind and put it back together. I don’t think a lot of people understand my art, but they tell me they feel drawn to it.

I sometimes get worked up about political issues in Sri Lanka. That is what inspired my works Monument for the unknown and Violation of Memories. There was a bad period in 1989 when many people disappeared and some were never found. Later when the groups who were responsible denied involvement, I felt is was a violation of the memories of those who remained. I was quite pissed off and so I painted about these events. As a Sri Lankan, it is difficult not to be influenced by what is going on in this country. So, yes, sometimes I paint about political and social issues, basically I don’t shut anything out.

I have been influenced by Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns because their work unfocusses the mind and offers some mystery. I like to paint works that challenge the viewer to think.

For Life I chose the cross because of its associations with suffering—the figures on the cross exude suffering. For this piece, I used silk on paper and stained coffee and watercolors on top of paste and ink. The figures are twisted and bound to the cross and to each other. In life you have all these things: desire, death, eroticism, bonds—life is suffering. Actually, I am a Buddhist—in Buddhism desire is a form of suffering. It is a very symbolic piece. The colors are very symbolic—earth colors for the cross and for the outside, a very transparent blue like outdoor space.

I don’t think my art is specifically Sri Lankan or specifically female—I don’t like labeling—I don’t want to be restricted. I plan to show overseas again, but first there is much to do here in Colombo. The public is quite ignorant of art; the first thing they think of with art is temple art but the scene has moved quite far away from that type of aesthetic beauty. People should learn to think about art and appreciate it in different ways. In Sri Lanka the state cannot sponsor art and it is up to the individual to carry on. So, I plan to have more exhibitions here in Colombo.