LT ARTicle February 2013 | Sri Lankan Art: Who, What, Why, When and Where? By Saskia Fernando

I’m not going to bore you with a brief history but instead attempt to explain where we are, the changes that are taking place in front of us and what needs to happen for us to hit the world stage. I predict it will happen, I don’t know when, so don’t expect any massive revelations, but hopefully this insight will make you too indulge in what we do everyday and come away enthralled and inspired. Despite the consistent debate as to whether our countries tourism is actually increasing I am pleased to report that the number of visitors we have walking into our gallery enquiring about our emerging art scene is on a rise (to add to that, the number of tourists stumbling into our gallery searching for Hotel de Pilawoos has also increased thanks to a map-error made by the Lonely Planet, but I’ll leave that for another article). I was at a young age somewhat unwillingly exposed to the art world by an incurable art-collecting father. My appreciation of George Keyt’s erotic paintings at that tender age consisted of more ‘yucks’ than ‘wows’ but something convinced me somewhere along the line that Sri Lankan art and artists are worth it. After a good ramble about what is going on in our diverse, wonderful little blossoming art world the question from enthusiasts often follows; when will we go international? Does Sri Lankan art have what it takes to make the big time and is investment really worth it? I admit, SFG was opened on a simple passion for all things ‘art’, but four years after we founded the gallery in February 2009 we can safely say that the art scene is growing.

In last years LT Art Issue we discussed the history of the art in Sri Lanka and various developments that have occurred. Overall the interest in Sri Lankan art locally and international has in fact increased after the end of the war. People are often surprised at the contemporary art being produced and while in the past collectors were more interested in the politically inspired, we now find a more open-minded collector entering the scene. In addition, the tastes of young collectors locally are evolving. Preferences are moving away from the decorative and towards the deeper and conceptual pieces; at SFG we acknowledge both. There are a handful of galleries staging continuous shows, artists themselves are grouping together and presenting their works and the university and private schools have shows and events staging new talent at the end of every semester. Observing the new, young artists is crucial in predicting what will happen in the future. So far the future looks bright. At SFG, our youngest artists are namely Mika Tennekoon, Samuel Niruban P413 and Nadia Haji Omar. Tennekoon just staged an incredibly successful debut solo show, the preview of which was our largest attendance to-date. P413 will follow with his debut mid-year. Haji Omar is currently following a Masters at the Visual School of Arts in New York and stays closely connected to the Sri Lankan art scene through SFG.

Sadly, as rumored to exist in other Asian countries, there are many artists who feel threatened by the gallery structure. This occurs worldwide no doubt but more so from those with public university backgrounds and artists who work in collectives. I am biased but I have the results to prove that the gallery system is the only way that artists can enter the international stage and stay there. We experience on a monthly basis artists who try to use the gallery system as an exhibition space, profiting from the publicity they receive and then heading back to their own business dealings under the table. What happens here is their credibility and know-how runs dry. Collectors want artists to be represented so they know that it’s not only they themselves who believe in their abilities. In turn, galleries have a network and a professionalism that allows artists to focus completely on their practice without playing businessman. The artist’s struggle to accept this system works against them and if that is realized it could change things entirely. This is however a change which needs to take place slowly, rapid growth would not benefit any of our scenes players and given the results artists are feeling from the diversification which is taking place, through galleries and curators appearing on the local scene, it is inevitable that their trust will strengthen and with it the art scene. Art scenes that boom overnight seldom experience a sustainable growth and so the steady rise and subtle resistance we are observing is undoubtedly a good thing.

So what do we have to do? The middlemen and the collectors; the ones on the other end of the spectrum. With the considerably lower selling price of art it is firstly up to the corporate sector to invest and promote. John Keells has been, for many years, investing in this industry. The Kala Pola is continuously supported by the company and this year the organization stepped it up a notch with their CSR division investing in an online website which allows any artist to display their art online. Modeled on the Saatchi Gallery site which did the same, this website allows any artist the access to a huge international network provided by John Keells. In addition, the company enlisted four curators, Michael Anthonisz (artist), Udaya Hewaswasam (restorer), Suresh Dominic (collector) and I (Gallerist) to curate a separate section to the site. Pieces displayed on this area of the website will present handpicked works which the curators believe to be the best of what is available in the scene. The site has huge potential if executed correctly and is a positive sign that the corporate sector sees the development as much as we do.

The middlemen, the gallerists, the curators and whatever you want to call the people who have committed wholeheartedly themselves to this tumultuous world of art. With only four professional galleries the scene seems small, but it isn’t. Month by month everyone seems to be upping their game. Galleries are staging more shows and keeping their eye on hot new artists that are ready to exhibit their latest series. There seems to be a healthy competition and an overall good energy between the few galleries in Colombo. They represent different artists and gallerists show up at other galleries openings; the camaraderie is admirable. Beyond this however, the professionalism with which exhibitions are now being curated and staged shows that the days of galleries being secondary businesses are gone. Prices are going up, collectors are buying more and artists are reaping the benefits. What needs to continue developing is the commitment we can already see, a few more galleries wouldn’t hurt; it’s all healthy competition after all.

Have I convinced you? I certainly hope so. I know that some of you may be the types that would rather not talk about the economics of it all and instead sit back and admire creation; but in order for creation to be worth the artists while the wheel has to keep turning, and so the sad truth that everyone has to pay the bills. You still have a role though, and that’s to keep doing what you are doing; criticizing, debating and questioning.

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