State of Sri Lankan art

Print edition : February 13, 1999

The 1940s and 1950s marked the most significant period in the history of painting and sculpture in 20th century Sri Lanka. A new anti-colonial group of artists became active during this period of political and cultural revival.

IN attempting to locate in perspective the position of the fine arts in Sri Lanka, I would like to draw attention to two events that took place in February 1998 - two art exhibitions organised by two different groups to mark 50 years of Sri Lankan Independence. The state, acting through the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, was responsible for one exhibition, while the other was organised by a group of young artists.

These two events captured and displayed starkly the past and present failures, successes and hopes of the fine arts in Sri Lanka. The exhibition organised by the state included 256 works by well-known artists from the past as well as the present. It also included the works of lesser-known contemporary artists. All this work quite literally covered much of the wall space of the National Art Gallery in Colombo, where the exhibition took place. The other exhibition was held at another well-known art venue, the Lionel Wendt Art Gallery, Colombo, where the works of only 11 contemporary artists were exhibited. The demands and challenges of present realities were reflected in the ideology, methodology and content of the works of these artists. Both these exhibitions drew critical evaluations from numerous sources for different reasons. While the state-sponsored exhibition was critiqued for its unprofessional management and total lack of curatorial sense, the other one was faulted for its lack of conventional aestheticism that could be called truly Sri Lankan. The bottom line is that while one was located on a conventional ideological premise, the other was placed in a context that searched for new concepts in art, which challenged the established and over-hacked conventions. To assess this dichotomous position of the Sri Lankan art scene and its prevailing politics, one has to go beyond the contemporary and trace the history of its evolution in the post-Independence era.

At this point, I would suggest that the art history I attempt to trace is the history of modern art in Sri Lanka. One should also note that the practice of traditional art continues alongside modern art. By traditional art I mean artistic production based - at least to some extent - on conventions of pre-colonial traditions, styles and methodologies, which have also much to do with religion and ritual. However, contemporary mainstream art in the secular sense in Sri Lanka is derived from the European art traditions that were introduced by the British in the latter part of the 19th century.

The history of modern visual arts in Sri Lanka in the post-Independence era cannot be discussed without going further back into moments and processes in the pre-Independence period. This is for the simple reason that most of the changes and new developments in art in the post-Independence era, if there were any, were either initiated or were the outcome of events that took place before 1948. At the beginning of the century, the most influential art body was the Ceylon Society of Arts, established in 1891 under British patronage. It focussed mainly on promoting painting, sculpture and photography that was representative of Victorian academism of the European art tradition. In 1920, the Ceylon Art Club was established by the painter C.E. Winzer, an Inspector of Art in Schools who was appointed by the colonial British Government. It promoted an outlook on art different from the orthodox views of the Ceylon Society of Arts. It had considerable impact on the painters and their work at the time, which was later manifested in the 43 Group in the 1940s. Another art body, the Arts Council of Ceylon, was established in 1951 to promote and revive traditional art forms in regional areas. The post-Independence political elite believed that such art forms existed in these areas in a "purer" form. The majority of cultural events that took place during this time were sponsored, organised or initiated by the council. The present-day National Art Gallery, where a permanent collection of works by well-known Sri Lankan artists is on display, was initiated by the enthusiastic support of the Ceylon Society of Arts and its charismatic members. If there was an art awareness and revival in the immediate post-Independence period, much of the credit for that goes to the visionary capabilities of these art bodies and their enthusiastic members. The effects of the trends they created along with their ideologies and politics are felt to date in the field of art in Sri Lanka.

"Yantra Gala" by Jagath Weerasinghe.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The main institution for art education in Sri Lanka at the beginning of the 20th century was the Colombo Technical College, which was established in the latter part of the 19th century and where courses in drawing and painting were conducted, among others. In 1949, a separate and autonomous body called the Government College of Fine Arts was created specifically to teach fine arts. In addition, independent ateliers maintained by different artists, offering a variety of art education, also existed. One such famous atelier was that of the artist A.C.G.S. Amerasekera under whose guidance most of the early members of the modern art movement, especially members of the 43 Group, got their initial art education.

THE 1940s and 1950s marked the most significant period in the history of painting and sculpture in 20th century Sri Lanka. In 1943, a group of artists, as a reaction to the prevailing ideology of painting which promoted restrictive academism, pseudo-oriental impersonations and imitations of the Victorian naturalism of Western art, established the 43 Group. The political and cultural revivals that were taking place in the country at the time did provide a backdrop for the formation of an ideological position for the group, which was a-colonial and anti-Victorian. The struggle for Independence was high in the political agenda of the local elite at the time, and nationalist sentiments were quite obvious on the cultural scene as well.

However, many of these artists were not opposed to contemporary art trends in Europe. For instance, the 43 Group absorbed inspiration from art movements in Paris and London as well as influences from India (some of the members had affiliations with Santiniketan). Coming from upper and upper-middle class families, these artists had the opportunity and the financial capability to have access to education that went far beyond national art education. Most of them at one time or another had had their art education in Paris and London where their works were exhibited regularly. They successfully fused the indigenous draughtsmanship and colour schemes with the idioms of the West in an original way that paved the way for a new hybrid form of painting to emerge. They created a secular painting tradition that was palatable within a Sri Lankan context, unlike the restrictive and culturally alien easel painting tradition introduced by the British and promoted by the Ceylon Society of Arts. Of the members of the 43 Group, painters such as George Keyt, Justin Daraniyagala, Richard Gabriel and Ivan Peries became well known beyond the borders of Sri Lanka. Lionel Wendt was a photographer and musician; he was also the formulator of the 43 Group. His death at the age of 44 cut off the source of energy behind the group. Then onwards the responsibility of mobilising the group fell on another member, Harry Pieris, who later donated his house and studio, now called the Sapumal Foundation, for the advancement of art in Sri Lanka.

In the immediate post-Independence era, there was a culmination of activities which tried to create, promote and give effect to an awareness of Sri Lankan art. These were part of a process of finding and building a cultural identity that could be called truly Sri Lankan, which was perhaps needed at the time. However, once the euphoria caused by Independence was over, the enthusiasm and grand visions for the advancement of art fizzled out. The influence, paradigms and premises of the 43 Group remained intact within modern art in Sri Lanka for a long time. They still continue to seduce artists as well as viewers within the contemporary art scene. This longstanding dependency on the 43 Group for inspiration in a way illustrates the stagnation experienced by the community of artists. Since the 43 Group, there has been no evidence of any major group or movement that pushed art into new ideological grounds. In this barren situation, artists like Tissa Ranasinghe, who initiated a style of sculpture equivalent to Alberto Giacometti, and painters Stanley Abeysinghe and H.A. Karunaratne did provide hope at certain moments. Nevertheless such moments merely remained sporadic, and they were unable to rescue Sri Lankan art from its paralysing slumber.

"Barrel Installation" by Chandragupta Thenuwara.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

If one tries to locate the state's intervention and contribution to art in the post-Independence period, certain important initiatives come to mind. These include the establishment of the Government College of Fine Arts (which later became the Institute of Aesthetic Studies of the University of Kelaniya) and the establishment of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. The Ministry was supposed to promote cultural activities with the help of the Arts Council of Ceylon. Even with such bureaucratic structures in place, the state failed to give an impetus to or create an atmosphere for the growth of arts or to conceive a vision for the future. Unfortunately, this state of affairs typifies much of post-Independence politics in Sri Lanka. The only school created for fine arts failed to produce artists who were capable of independent thought and action. Moreover, the rest of the state structures failed to bring about an awareness of art in society, which in turn produced an institutional base that was deaf, dumb and blind to art. Schools continue to give only minor attention to art education, while socialisation in the wider society represents art merely as a hobby. For some, painting was simply a decorative craft that adorned temple walls. This lack of art awareness among the general public prevented the emergence of progressive and interventionist structures that are necessary to support and promote art. No system of art galleries, art patrons, critics and dealers developed. Neither the private sector nor the public state sector came forward to establish an art museum or large, private or public collections. Without a supporting and endorsing apparatus and stuck with a public that is oblivious to art and a state that is without a vision, most local artists worked within their own confined spaces for the larger part of the 50 years after Independence.

THIS situation started changing to some extent in the 1980s, and at the moment there is a certain current that seems to stir and kindle innovativeness in the art community. In recent times a few artists have emerged, entertaining new ideological directions. Although the absence of a sophisticated operative structure in endorsing, promoting and marketing art persists, an interest has been created in certain sections of the public. It could be owing to many factors. For instance, even on a small scale some changes are happening in the Institute of Aesthetic Studies with the recruitment of a handful of lecturers who have been able to give a different ideological perspective to art. Consequently, in recent times the institute has produced a few promising artists. On the other hand, organisations such as the German Cultural Institute, the George Keyt Foundation, Alliance Francaise, the Heritage Gallery and the British Council began to provide significant patronage to local artists, particularly in terms of sponsoring and organising exhibitions. Similarly, the Vibhavi Academy of Fine Arts, an art institute initiated by Chandragupta Thenuwara, one of the new wave of artists, has been able to provide alternative art education that functions on an ideological position different from the conventional. More recently, a few private galleries have also emerged, opening up spaces for young artists to exhibit their work. One such gallery is the Heritage Gallery where the new wave of young artists regularly exhibit their work.

The culmination of all these factors has brought about a small but visible change in the community of local artists. Particularly, a group of young painters and sculptors, mostly based in Colombo, have been bold enough to formulate radical methodologies and ideologies that have allowed some of them to break away from the situation of stagnation referred to above. Some of the artists associated with this progressive group are Chandragupta Thenuwara, Jagath Weera- singhe, Druvinka, Balbir Bodh and Kingsley Goonetilleke. They have undertaken, quite successfully, to take Sri Lankan fine arts in new ideological directions. Being a practising painter and sculptor myself, I have close affinity with their work, beliefs and expectations. These artists represent a diverse set of aesthetic principles and methdologies but are united in their belief in creating an ideological perspective that goes beyond the modernist conventions established by their predecessors, the 43 Group. Based on a physical context located in the present sociality rather than the metaphysical and the spiritual of modernist art, these artists represent a different project. It is a project that enunciates their narratives about their own experiences in a way those very narratives demand. This project challenges the conventional aesthetics of modern art that have been popularised for nearly 50 years since the emergence of the 43 Group.

"The Wave" by Ivan Peries.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Such derailment of popular acceptance and appreciation of aesthetics does not always bring in endorsement of the masses or the art connoisseurs in Colombo. The works of these artists have often drawn severe criticism and ridicule. It is obvious that a vast gap exists between this new art and the art consumers in their tastes as well as in their aesthetic epistemology. It would take much effort by these artists and those who endorse them to convince the masses into accepting their work as art, and bridge the divide that exists in the appreciation of art.

Anoli Perera is a sculptor and painter whose works have been exhibited in Sri Lanka and abroad.

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