Contemporary art in Sri Lanka: In spite of war (1997)

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 17 January 2012
This article was previously published in Asian Art News, 7(3), 57-60 in 1997 with the title "In spite of war".

Imagine sitting on an elevated patio at an international hotel facing the Indian Ocean drinking a beer, listening to waves crashing on the beach, and watching the sun slowly dip behind the horizon. An idyllic picture, but turn around— many hotel windows are boarded up in a business district that is ironically called Fort, eerily quiet and shattered [after a recent bombing]. Turning back towards the sun’s disappearing light, the waves seem to crash louder, [again and again].

This violent edge to life deeply affects the spirit of those in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, exemplified by the remnants of the January 1996 bombing, and a largely distant war fought in the north of the Island— now for almost 15 years without an end in sight. The art community, centered in Colombo, is obviously in no way immune. It affects planning for the future, the economy, and art purchases, their subject matter, and their being. Yet, for the most part, daily life for most is physically unaffected, but news reports act as a constant reminder. Artists such as Jagath Weerasinghe have embraced the war, and have used their art to try to reconcile their experiences and feelings.

Others choose to largely ignore the subject as a vehicle for expression, and pursue their own artistic concerns, including Senaka Senanayake who focuses on creating idyllic visual communities on canvas and an emotional distance from the evils of life. In a troubled country such as Sri Lanka, it is no wonder that his paintings are so popular; an escape from the jarring realities of recent history that continue today. (In February during my trip, several hundred soldiers were killed in the north, near Jaffna and the week I was there, two suicide bombers were captured in Colombo, but not before they swallowed the cyanide capsules hanging around their necks. Aside from these frightening reports, I felt safer than in any city in my native country, the United States).

Despite these "distant" media impressions, for visitors and many residents alike, life consists of the daily task at hand. Artists continue with their work and have much the same concerns as artists everywhere, and many claim that they don’t really feel the war, except on the rare occasions that it is forced in their face— some with a profound sense of confusion.

According to Senake Bandanarayake, director of the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology and art historian, this confusion extends into the art work as well, altogether different from the artwork produced by the 43 Group (a group of artists who banded together in 1943 to participate in the initial Modernist movement of Sri Lankan Art) artists, who are revered for introducing modernism to Sri Lanka. "The big difference between the 43 Group artists and those today is that they set out to create the modern renaissance of the country and invented a modern Sri Lankan tradition." says Bandanarayake.

"The 43 Group were confident— looking for the end of colonialism [Sri Lanka became independent from Britain in 1948] and had positive feelings about the post-war future. Today, we don’t feel like that, especially in a country like Sri Lanka. It’s chaotic, disorganized, and crisis-ridden. It’s very clearly reflected in the work of contemporary artists, and artists are expressing very deep feelings in artistic terms. That is the big difference. However, great similarities between the work of the 43 Group and now also exist— drawing the international vocabulary into the national experience."

Of the ten artists of the 43 Group, two are living and working today. George Claessen based in London and Richard Gabriel in suburban Colombo, continue to produce work, and are important members of the art community, with hopes for an upcoming George Claessen show in Colombo in the near future. Meanwhile, living and working in a modest home, delightfully in-tune with its natural surroundings, Gabriel continues with his unique vision. "It’s very difficult to express my particular style", he says. "I believe that I’ve been influenced by all, but I’ve never worked in a particular style. It has always been an after-thought of what I want to express with my forms."

Senake Bandanarayake, who has written a book on the 43 Group artist Ivan Peries, believes, "Ultimately, globally when we look at art in the 20th century, the 43 Group will occupy a significant place purely by their achievement and the quality of their work."

A fragile contemporary art scene, the center exists in Colombo and consists of shows at different galleries, often with support from local cultural organizations. Three galleries— Gallery 706, Heritage Art Gallery, and Gallery Mountcastle— show contemporary art from a wide variety of Sri Lankans. All are young and exciting venues with the tremendous responsibility of facilitating exposure of Sri Lankan work both in-country and abroad.

Gallery 706, along the busy Galle Road, is actually part of a larger cultural arts vision. Begun in 1992 by Simon Sansoni, the Gallery is positioned behind the Barefoot Shop, founded by textile designer, Barbara Sansoni, which sells textiles and crafts, and sells books on Sri Lankan art. "[Gallery 706] presents a mix of work that must be good— from the older established artists to the upcoming generation, as well as occasionally showing artists visiting from other countries", says photographer, Dominic Sansoni, who runs the gallery with his wife, Nazreen.

The Sansonis put on about six exhibitions a year; previously they’ve shown work by 43 Group members George Claessen, Lionel Wendt, and Ivan Peries, as well as Laki Senanayake and Muhanned Cader. From other nations, they’ve shown the work of sculptor Katrina Monnier and painter / landscape architect, Rachel Sutherland. Prices for works range from US$100 up to US$7000. Other events also take place at the Gallery / design shop as well each year. The Gratien Prize for modern Sri Lankan literature is awarded at Gallery 706 by Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient, a native Sri Lankan now based in Canada, who contributed some of his prize winnings from the Booker Prize to set up this award in Sri Lanka. Barefoot and Gallery 706 also sport an informal garden cafe which becomes a lively environment with visiting journalists, writers, and visual artists.

The Heritage Art Gallery, a non-profit-making body run by Balbir Bodh, a printmaker, was set up in October 1996 by the Heritage Foundation "with the sole aim of promoting contemporary art in Sri Lanka and to help assist young artists. We sponsor exhibitions at our Gallery, and the response by the artistic community, particularly among students, has been very rewarding", says [Ajitha] de Costa, an important force behind the Foundation and Gallery.

In February, the Heritage Art Gallery exhibited a diverse collection of work by Rubert Soysa, Jagath Weerasinghe, Balbir Bodh, Druvinka Bodh, K. Geethanjana, and Shehan Madawela. Most recently, in March, the Gallery held a workshop at the Gallery with the help of the Alliance Française for three artists: Jagath Weerasinghe, [Michel] Chevray, a French painter and sculptor, and Adwaita [Gadanayak], an Indian sculptor. According to Ajitha de Costa, "The Sri Lankan art scene has been quite conventional and we need to gradually open doors to allow new and international trends to blow through."

While the Gallery is non-profit, works are sold largely to cover expenses. At the February exhibit works ranged in price from US$200 to US$1000.

The new Gallery Mountcastle, set in part of a large residential home, recently opened with a show entitled Women in art, sponsored by the Bank of Ceylon, featuring the work of Laki Senanayake, Senaka Senanayake, Marie Alles Fernando, Anoli Perera, Malathi de Silva, Stanley Kirinde, Tissa de Alwis, Badugoda Hewa, Suzanne Tampoe, Noeline Fernando, Jagath Weerasinghe, Sarath Kumarasiri, Nelun Harasgama, and Chandragupta Thenuwara. More shows are anticipated for the future. Futher, Senaka Senanayake also shows [his] work as well as work by others in two spaces at the Hotel Oberoi and the Hilton Hotel. Also, the Lionel Wendt Gallery rents out its space for a variety of exhibitions, and artists and sponsors have used this space to present art shows.

As expected, when a contemporary art system is fragile, embassy-affiliated cultural centers play a much more important role in providing opportunities for artists to show their work. The Goethe Institut, British Council, and Alliance Française actively show / sponsor local artists as well as bring artists from outside, including those whose work has been influenced by spending time in Sri Lanka.

Last year, the Goethe Institut sponsored ten shows which [included]: Anoli Perera, whose work was displayed at the Lionel Wendt Gallery; Shanta [Jayalath], a young traditional muralist; Yayanta Gomes, a Sri Lankan living in Germany; Sumedha, a Swiss Buddhist monk who presents meditative images; as well as German artists who are living in Sri Lanka. Occasionally, original work from traveling exhibitions from Germany is brought down. According to Stefan Dreyer, the Director of the Goethe Institut, the vision of the Institut is to present "visual art that presents a statement of the artist and their time."

One of Stefan Dreyer’s goals has been to help organize an artist’s camp in Sri Lanka, bringing in artists from other countries for cultural exchange. "There is a certain isolation in the art scene. I suggested that some people get together for three weeks and invite other artists from Germany, France, and Britain to work and at the end of the whole thing [put on] an exhibition, to show some of the results of the process of cultural exchange to help the art scene in this country." Dreyer’s idea has inspired others as well and has received support from the British Council and the Alliance Française.

The British Council also actively participates in facilitating exposure for artists. In 1996, shows included An exhibition of watercolors by British painter Michael Aubrey; Faces in my travels, an exhibition of black and white photographs by S.F.T. Kunalan; and Wilderness in paradise, an exhibition of wildlife photographs by Chitral Jayatileke. According to Ranmali Mirchandanai, in charge of cultural affairs at the British Council, "Our brief is mainly to promote British culture in Sri Lanka, which we do through British music, drama, literature, and fine arts presented as often as possible with our limited budget. When it comes to promoting local artists, we first look at the quality of the work and the theme, for example, the environment is currently a priority area. As often as possible we look to help artists who are trying to get off the ground— in most cases we help them get their first exhibition."

Guilhem Beugnon, Deputy Director of the Alliance Française, is also an important person in Colombo’s art scene. In the past year, Beugnon has facilitated showing the photographs of Devika Gunasena; paintings and drawings by Shantha Herath; watercolors and acrylic paintings by Lester Perera; and paintings by Sirimal Sanjeewa Kumara. According to Beugnon, "One of the main objectives of the Alliance Francaise is to promote art and culture in all its forms. We wish in particular to help young and unknown artists from remote areas of the country who otherwise would not have the opportunity of sponsorship. I would like to feel that the Alliance Française was instrumental in helping an artist who, as a result of our sponsorship, reached heights that he otherwise would never have dreamed of."

One of the challenges facing artists is the lack of an established gallery / artist relationship; artists become largely and almost solely responsible for networking collectors and the outside world. Without a clear demand for contemporary works, almost all artists and art show organizers pursue this work on a part-time basis, holding down other jobs which facilitate the work. Other challenges include further developing the core of a contemporary art system: non-profit and profit-making venue development; the number of curators, art writers, critics, and historians, as well as patrons and collectors. While attention has been paid to 43 Group artists’ work, attention to newer and younger work is lacking. Also, the lack of nationally based, international shows has also caused concern. However, within this diffused system, while it is a concern, very few people seem ready to take the initiative to actively and decisively promote Sri Lankan contemporary art internationally, or even a handful of artists, which seems to impede upon internationalizing contemporary Sri Lankan art as opposed to facilitating it. A small group of people have taken on a large burden in this diffused system.

Senake Bandanarayake addresses these concerns; "With the exception of the Sapumal Foundation, which has a good collection of work by the 43 Group, there is nowhere where young people can go to see paintings. Where do we see the work? Only in illustrated books. The collecting world, the economics of art, is entirely dependent on a small handful of private collectors. Money-wise and price-wise, it’s picking up. The first Sri Lankan paintings are showing up at Sotheby’s. In this country, we must create more public collections— not just state collections— but also form private corporate bodies, and I believe the future lies in them."

Yet, purchases and sponsorship can be difficult for collectors within the Sri Lankan cultural-economic context. There is fear of public opinion— if money can be spent on art, then money can be spent on a number of more essential things— possibly opening themselves up for interaction that they’d rather not have. In a country with a comparatively lower economic development, persons who may wish to support art more feel restricted by this. There is also concern that no financial encouragement is provided by the government for corporations to financially support the arts. Lastly, there is the question concerning the real benefits of sponsorship itself.

With these challenges, life and art in Sri Lanka continues. While various difficulties face all Sri Lankans today, with its rich artistic gems dating all the way back to work at Polonnaruva, Anuradhapura, and Sigiriya, it seems only a matter of time, national peace, a little economic prosperity, and the continued efforts by Sri Lankan individuals before Sri Lankan art truly emerges— even onto the international art scene, perhaps bringing a second renaissance of modernity to Sri Lanka. Looking at some of the work, it might just be happening already. Despite the War.