Contrary to common belief the 43 Group is not a bebop music band or a group of 43 artists. The 43 Group is the name of a collective who have now become synonymous with the development of art in Sri Lanka. They have been accredited with changing the trends of their time and paving the way for what is now internationally recognized contemporary art from Sri Lanka. There is no local art syllabus that does not refer to these masters consisting of the following names: Harry Pieris, Ivan Peries, Aubrey Collette, George Claessen, George Keyt, Lionel Wendt, Geoff Beling, Justin Deriniyagala, Richard Gabriel and L.T.P. Manjusri. While Manjusri left the group at it’s early stages and Lionel Wendt was the only photographer in the collective, these were the better-known masters of 20th century Sri Lankan art. Today their works belong to leading collections and have seen the likes of the auction rooms of Christies and Sotheby’s; let’s forget the fact that they are often referred to as Indian painters, for the moment.
What is unique about this group is that each artist believed in the importance of its formation but succeeded in achieving their own respective success and identity as individual artists. The origin of their name came from the inaugural exhibition they held in Colombo in November 1943, one that was to be followed by many more locally and in the UK. The unity of this group was achieved through their mutual respect to aesthetics and exclusivity in their membership, resulting in a standard that raised the bar for the local art scene at the time. It is important to note that they did face opposition to their ideals by the likes of Mudaliyar A.C.G.S. Amarasekara and famous artists such as David Paynter and J.D.A. Perera were never members of the group. These artists achieved equivalent stature, but stood alone in achieving their individual success.
An interesting comparison to the times lies in the collectives we have in Sri Lanka today. Unfortunately they seem to make more of a political statement than one of art. And the ability of each artist to stand alone with their portfolio while working in their collective is often doubtful. Perhaps the times have changed and our art scene is no longer the elitist set that certainly formed the 43 Group in a more post-colonial environment. Nevertheless an inclusive culture need not sacrifice the importance of quality and it is here once again where the importance of the 43 Group appears as an example to a generation where post-war influences are more often than not taking centre stage.
There is no question of the value of the work of the 43 Group artists, but then why has this value remained stagnant as contemporary art prices locally are now equivalent, if not more, than the price of works by our local masters. The problem lies in a generation of collectors and dealers who will not accept the changing times. The majority of 43 Group works sold are sold locally, these local collectors do not want to spend more on a painting than what they are accustomed to paying. These collectors often collect because they have a passion for doing so, not for investment purposes. The dealers rely on these sales as a source of income and do not have access to collectors overseas, thereby remaining ignorant of the rising price of art. This behavior has not only formed various groups of collectors who only choose to collect 43 Group works but the added behavior of dealers who irresponsibly promote these works without correct provenance results in a cliché that now is the 43 Group works. Many now refuse to look beyond their legacy. In all fairness, these collectors may in come cases not relate to the style of new work but in many cases they are quite simply just set in their ways. They refuse to acknowledge the value of decorative or conceptual contemporary art.
In conversation with an established artist whose work is entirely devoted to a decorative aesthetic, a similar attitude presented itself in the form of criticism of conceptual. An opposing view came from a well-known architect and art collector discredited decorative art as ‘less’ contemporary than conceptual work. Whether this is a cultural fault or not, it seems that opinions are often formed by local trend makers, collectors, art enthusiasts and dealers who carelessly impose their opinions on the less opinionated. In time to come the fear is that we may switch from our obsession with the 43 Group only to become obsessed with the work of another small group of artists, and therefore the question lies in the people who promote and present. The correct recognition and values must be placed on the correct periods and bodies of work, regardless of the commercial or social result of doing so. Are we building a history of art or are we dictating it?
The best place to view works by the 43 Group is at The Sapumal Foundation, 32/4 Barnes Place, Colombo 7, Sri Lanka.