Our geographically petite island may not appear formidable when up against the global art movement, but Sri Lanka’s contemporary art scene is in no way as diminutive and monochromatic as even the art-inclined are led to believe.
From portraiture to ceramics, photography to the varied approaches of painting on easel, local artists have often gone against the grain to contribute to a growing collection of visually stunning and meaningful work.
While some are strong on political and social critique, others are more appreciated for feats of colour and technique. Here are five artisans to watch out for on their course to ascendancy.
It doesn’t take a connoisseur to note that Namal Kumara’s forte is his unusual colour palette. Whether opting for vibrancy with bright chromatism, or preferring more muted and limited shades, Kumara is insistent on a blend of hues that is unique and inimitable.
Through his work, Kumara hopes to relay the abstraction of relationships through a consistent theme of ‘ruefulness,’ and strongly believes that the concept is best evoked aesthetically via the alliance of complex geometric compositions with the perceptive use of colour.
“I am greatly intrigued with this deep human emotion, and that internal struggle of the mind owing to a great sense of regret. I often play with lines and geometric shapes because I feel that these -more than any other motif- best describe the piercing pain and sharpness of a cut wound.”
Throughout his school years at G/Miriswatta Maha Vidyalaya in his hometown of Bentota, Kumara remembers his unabashed inclination for Music and Art, and is grateful to his family for having encouraged him to satisfy this curiosity. Now holding a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Visual and Performing Arts in Colombo, Kumara is a traditionalist when it comes to art education.
“While the emergence of the internet has helped in many ways, I feel that this easy access to information has resulted in a dilution of dedication and true appreciation for the subject.”
Kumara himself is fuelled by the challenge of bringing to Sri Lanka artwork that the island has not experienced before; and will readily discard a sketch if he learns of the presence of anything resembling it.
While not subscribing to any specific movement, Kumara claims futurism as his closest influence, drawing inspiration from the likes of Italian painter Renato Guttuso. He is currently exploring his theme of choice -through oil, acrylic, and mix-media on canvas- and “will do so until I feel I have expressed all there is to it” and hopes to host a solo exhibition at the end of this year.
Click here for more works by Namal Kumara –
Kesara Ratnavibhushana prefers not to call them photographs. “Visual aesthetics that just happen to be photographs” is what he says best encapsulates the images in his repertoire.
Colombo-born Ratnavibhushana spent his formative years at the Colombo International School, after which he decided to pursue an education in Architecture and Art History at the University of East London. Having dabbled in painting, sketching, and even videography, Ratnavibhushana has always felt an inclination towards seeking artistic expression; and while there was no want of a specific ‘creative epiphany’ that would compel him to seek out a third eye, a chance gig that required him to take photographs of Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai is what Ratnavibhushana claims may just be what it took for him to decidedly venture into that realm.
Ever since, his lens has both actively sought out and incidentally stumbled upon a smorgasbord of experiences and ceremony. From the bustle of the daily grind, to the stoic contours of modern-day architecture. From the reportage of street riots, to the many faces of a touching wedding. From boxing bouts to ayurvedic foliage; all resulting in a heady visual mixture of emotions, energy, and atmosphere from that moment and time -the three tenets Ratnavibhushana incorporates into anything he captures.
Having acquired a prowess in creating spectacular imagery of what would otherwise be considered mundane, Ratnavibhushana has managed to rewire the medium of photography past functionality; instead, channelling the allure of each capture for the purpose of creative commentary on visual culture.
“I try not to make my work overly political however. Although I may have some strong personal opinions about some of the backstories, I would rather let viewers critically read into the photographs themselves, preferring to just entertain that discussion and leave it conceptual.”
From his first exhibition in 2005, Ratnavibhushana has come a long way. Having exhibited at the Lionel Wendt just last month, he is also releasing an exclusive portfolio of single-edition photographs later this year; an ode to contemporary image-making that “seeks to explore the depth of the world around us.”
Click here for more works by Kesara Ratnavibhushana –
For as long as he can remember, Shanaka Kulatunga has always been blending -quite like with the shades in his colour palette- what would in any other instance be two separate lives.
Recognised as an artistically gifted child at a very young age, Kulatunga attributes his first “moment of realisation” to the time his nursery school teacher at the MDH Jayawardena Vidyalaya -in his hometown of Thalahena, Malabe- singled out his artwork from the scribbles of his peers. Many years of succumbing to a confined education system later, Kulatunga entered an art competition whilst still a secondary school boy at Royal College, where he was hailed as a talent beyond his years.
“It was then that I decided I would never push my art to the side lines again.”
True to his word, Kulatunga would then come to oscillate between studying both medicine and art professionally; juggling med-student life at the Colombo Medical College with classes amongst other art aspirants at the Vibhavi Academy of Arts. Now a successful medical practitioner by profession, Kulatunga is also experienced in shedding his white coat in favour of an artist’s beret after hours. He has since discovered however, that his medical student notes have contributed greatly to the movement of his brushstrokes.
“Having a deeper understanding than most of the appearance and function of every bone and sinew of the human face for instance, certainly allows me to create a more realistic depiction of a subject’s emotion at the time.”
Indeed, Kulatunga’s figurative impressions truly do display an incredibly understanding of the human anatomy.
“I think the human form is easily the most beautiful creation in nature. With portraiture I get a sense of re-creating this composition again, and it is for this sensation alone of being able to produce something so similar to that which already exists, that I paint.”
Kulatunga’s mastery of his medium (oil on canvas) has been honed under the tutelage of local titans Lionel Ranaweera and Chandraguptha Thenuwara, and on a global scale, Kulatunga seeks inspiration from the works of fellow portraitists Lucian Freud, Jean Singer Sargent, and Robert Liberace.
While portraiture is commonly perceived as an artform for the traditionalist, Kulatunga believes the contrary to be true, claiming that there is plenty yet to be explored through a “contemporary evolution of a traditional art form.”
Click here for more works by Shanaka Kulathunga –
While ceramic art has been a major force of artistic expression for centuries -even infiltrating the contemporary art world-, artisans contributing through this sculptural medium to the art movement in Sri Lanka are few and far between.
Asela Gunasekara is vocal in lamenting this status quo, having had to become proficient in this artform herself while abroad.
“There is a misconception here that anything produced from the wheel is meant to be functional. And while I understand that the process from a lump of clay to a finished work of art is time consuming, expensive, and often a test of one’s patience, I wish young artists are better equipped and encouraged to give this avenue a try.”
Although one with a keen eye for the arts even as a young girl growing up in Colombo, Gunasekara has only recently had her wings untied. Not given the liberty of choosing her field of study during her years at Museaus College and at Sirimavo Bandaranayake Vidyalaya, and after a stifling stint as a banker, she found that crack of light only after her son started schooling and she decidedly enrolled in a liberal arts degree in Dubai.
Having returned to Sri Lanka briefly, it was master sculptor Prof. Sarath Chandrajeewa who astutely decided that for an obvious expressionist such as herself, painting was just not ‘enough’ of a medium. A return to the Emirates found her under the wing of two expert sculptors/ceramicists, and within a period of just eighteen months, Gunasekara had acquired a proficiency in ceramic artistry that made up for all that lost time.
Working with the wheel seemed to flow naturally through Gunasekara’s veins, and what is usually considered a tedious and even frustrating artform, seemed effortless to her.
“While dabbling with various mediums, I found painting to be extremely disheartening. Being limited to two dimensions had me struggling to express myself wholly, and I found that ceramics unleashed in me everything I had previously contained.”
At her core a free spirit, Gunasekara’s sculptural works are innately spiritual. In drawing inspiration from historical accounts and mythology, and in harnessing the narrative freedom her wheel affords, she is able to create entrancing visual extensions of her belief in the many principles of Buddhist philosophy, and the human condition as a whole.
Click here for more works by Asela Gunasekara –
Thujiba Vijayalayan was born in Chunnakam, Jaffna, and recollects her mother handing her sticks of charcoal to draw with as a child -albeit primarily as a distractionary technique to keep her from constantly being underfoot. Although having finished her schooling in the Sciences, Vijayalayan eventually chose to pursue her interest and went on to acquire a BFA from the University of Jaffna.
Unsurprisingly, Vijayalayan expresses best in charcoal and on paper; although her work with collage, water-colour and mix-media are in no way under par. She has since decided to use her skillset as a means of highlighting prevailing domestic, social and environmental issues, choosing to use forms of the natural world in her paintings.
“In the animal kingdom, creatures are identified as either being strong or weak, and the stronger of the species is known to dominate the vulnerable. I have observed a very similar dynamic in Jaffna society, where in this case it is the women being culturally and socially supressed.”
Though seemingly lacklustre, her often sombre choice of colour is intentional; an articulation of the many social ills she hopes to discuss: from the conversation of the hold of traditional society on even educated women, to our wilful neglect of the environment, and even the deterioration of the natural world through man-made poisoning.
The messaging in her pieces isn’t hard to decipher -and that too is intentional. Silhouettes of sea, insect, and bird life emerge from a camouflage of intricately pencilled settings; the varying shades and contours harmonious, paradoxically resplendent in their muted undercurrents.
Vijayalayan is of the impression that artists sprung from war-torn regions feel a greater obligation to use their art as a means of messaging over purely for the purpose of exposing beauty.
She, herself, hopes to persevere as a transmitter of the causes she strongly believes in, -particularly the undervaluing of women- “even despite the current trend of anti-feminism in our society.”
Click here for more works by Thujiba Vijayalayan –
– Article by Shaahima Raashid