LT Magazine August 2013 | Then & Now #3, Buddhist Murals of Sri Lanka to street murals of the present

It was that time of a busy month when I began to stare at the wall desperate for inspiration on what to confront for part three of this new series of ARTicles. It struck me fairly quickly as I gazed at P413’s brightly coloured stainless steel square sheets that the answer was right before my eyes, quite literally. The history of Sri Lankan art began on the walls of temples and ancient rocks. Some of those paintings remain today, many of them restored, dating back to 1500 AD. In these primitive times the wall was the canvas and the painting served a purpose, mostly in relation to a belief or religion.

Two-dimensional line drawing sits at the beginning of every art syllabus in the island. It is after all a practical way to begin at the start of it all. What is interesting in comparison internationally is the rise of street art and this return to the medium we began with: the wall. The wall today serves a purpose as well, a different purpose – to express ones freedom of speech and in many cases watch it destroyed eventually (a strange act that street artists see as symbolic). In this article I will contrast the murals of the late George Keyt with the very contemporary work of P413 (His name comes from the bible verse: ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.’ – Philipians 4:13)

Coincidentally while working on an art tour with Trekurious I had my first view of the Gothame Vihare, a Buddhist temple in Borella. What this temple is best known for is their murals inside the shrine room painted in 1940 by George Keyt. The murals tell the story of Siddhartha, from birth to enlightenment. Commissioned by fellow artist Harold Pieries, custodian of the Gotame Vihara that at that time was in need of restoration, Keyt travelled back and forth from Kandy to Borella, living in the temple and working tirelessly on the mural for four years. At one point, while his colleague Lionel Wendt watched him draw the outline, he attempted to convince Keyt to leave the mural at that. The mural painting and it’s process were for Keyt more an act of tradition and the process of completing the mural was not only about the aesthetic.

Keyt was born to a middle class burgher family and attended Trinity College in Kandy before moving on to study at the Malwatte Vihare. In the 1920s he was inspired by Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy as well as Sinhala poetry, this was evident in his writing as well as his paintings and drawings. It was in the 1920s that his talents as a painter were also recognized and fostered. In the 1930s the Hindu themes also began to emerge in Keyts’ work. While Keyt was also considered a writer and a poet, it was in 1927 that he began to focus almost entirely on his painting, encouraged by his close friend Lionel Wendt. Keyt was one of the first artists in Sri Lanka to work directly from the female nude and his paintings, unlike those of most of the other 43 Group artists, focused on the beauty of the female form.

When Keyt passed in 1993, P413 was born. Today this young artist is building his reputation as the countries first and foremost street artist. In this interview he discusses how he began drawing, painting and how being self-taught motivates him in the field of art.

When did you start drawing?

I took up drawing seriously when I left school in 2008 and I had some spare time. Before that I was just designing occasionally. Drawing started more after I finished school. Designing was working more on photoshop etc. I taught myself how to use programs on the computer.

How did you get to know about street art and graffiti?

The Internet, I had heard about it but I never knew it what it was. Graffitti beyond spray-painting, Painted murals and poster graffiti, like what Shepard Fairey does. I watched a lot on youtube as well.

Would you say that Shepard Fairey is you biggest inspiration?

He is one of my biggest inspirations. He has his own distinctive style, when it comes to street art and that comes from a graphic design background so I can relate to him. Other than Shepered Fairey there is this one guy called Marko Djurdjević, he is a Germn self-taught comic book artist. He does covers for Marvel. He is probably one of the best cover artists I have seen and the reason why I find him influential or inspiring is because he is self taught. He didn’t go to art school. It shows that you don’t necessarily have to go to art school if you want to take up drawing. Marko is more sort of the ethos in terms of how you want to get about doing what you want to do.

Can you talk a little bit about your first gallery exhibition ‘Tar Wars’?

So I was thinking about an idea for this show and one of the things that I spent a lot of time doing is driving because my job gets me to drive to a lot places. I could be in Katunayake in the morning and then back somewhere in Boralesgamuwa in the evening. There is just a lot of driving involved and it’s often very frustrating. That got me thinking that it’s not just me who goes through this on a daily basis so I thought that would be a good place to start. I also thought the idea of describing the local road scene quite interesting and to place a less serious spin on it. To sort of describe how crazy and chaotic it is.

Your work has elements of cartoon, graffiti, and reoccurring characters. Are there new characters in this exhibition?

Yes there is a reoccurring bunny figure. That’s combining street art and twisted cartoon work. They come from my imagination and I am still influenced by cartoons, specifically childish cartoons. ‘Adventure time’, Nickelodeon cartoons, ideally what one would generally consider very baby-oriented cartoons.

You combine your experience of life with a naïve character and make it your own?

Yeah, and that’s what is essentially happening in the street art scene in Europe. That seems to be a trend. I tend to follow more of the European street art scene, minus Shepard Fairey. The European scene is less hip hop oriented than the US scene; they use a lot of character, posters, paint, wall paint; and the design and design influences are bigger because you have so many counties with varying culture all neighboring one another ad it combines in a really interesting way.

It seems that no matter which decade we stand in life there remains something that draws artists to express themselves beyond the private expression of a sketch or notebook. There seems to be more symbolism in defacing or decorating a wall. I struggled at first to understand why thse street artists see the process of destruction of their work as ‘a part of it all’. It didn’t take long to realize what was going on. There is something deeper involved in mural painting in a temple, it is a spiritual process and an ode to a greater power that you must suffer to worship. Just as the street artist takes to a wall, and tirelessly works on it only to watch it be destroyed in a fraction of that time. The suffering, the public nature and the message of these ‘murals’ will always have a different purpose to a framed work. Perhaps they give the artist a deeper sense of belonging and of purpose that enables them to continue to bear their souls again and again before the art collecting aristocracy, nouveau riche, bohemians, and general public that will dissect their work to a point of complete transparent nakedness.

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