LT ARTicle October 2013 | LT Magazine, October 2013 | Then and Now #5, The Owl and the Bull: Contemporary Sculpture in Sri Lanka by Saskia Fernando

Sculpture is not the most popular medium for artists in Sri Lanka. It may be owing to smaller studio spaces or the continuing fixation on paper and canvas. There was also no modern sculptor to boast of in the 43 Group however moving forward a couple of decades, sculpture has started to have its say in the Sri Lankan art scene. The prominent sculptors I would like to look at today are two artists I have often compared before: Laki Senanayake and Prageeth Manohansa. While Laki Senanayake is still very much an active part of our art scene, it is his role in the local art scene in the 80s that I would like to focus on. In addition, Senanayake has been a strong influence on the young Prageeth Manohansa, who welds metal on a similar scale yet with different materials.

Born in Sri Lanka in 1937, today Senanayake lives in his tree house in the dry zone near Dambulla. His home is a treat; a large piece of land that contains various rare species of flora and fauna. I can never forget the first story I heard of his resident cobra and the fear that engulfed me on my first visit there. Senanayake started painting and drawing at a young age and later was convinced by his mother to study architecture. It was in this industry that he met the late Geoffrey Bawa and it was in the eighties and early nineties, when Bawa created many of his masterpieces, that Senanayake was commissioned to create works as centerpieces of these buildings. In many ways the 80s was a time in Sri Lankan art history when art, craft and architecture were heavily intertwined. While work could be clearly defined artists often dabbled in one or the other. While Senanayake is best known for his sculpture his line drawings and paintings are equally part of many public and private collections. It is however, undoubtedly, the owl that the artist is most renowned for. An unlucky animal if you are superstitious yet one the artist was incredibly fixated on drawing, painting and sculpting. Senanayake’s welded metal owls are today his signature pieces.

Senanayake continues to exhibit and most recently his shows feature watercolour, ink and pigment drawings. The artist still works on sculpture commissions and updates his website from his tree house in Diyabubula. In addition he has moved on to digital pieces that he works on from his macbook in his studio in the jungle.

Prageeth Manohansa, who is in his late thirties, has in the past few years been referred to many times as the young Laki Senanayake. Since Senanayake’s reign there had been few others whose work was both unique and representative of the culture, form and art of the contemporary local environment enough to make them stand out as such. Then came Manohansa, in 2009, with his famous bull made of car parts and random scrap and the rest is recent history. Much like Senanayake whose work is today scattered across the island and in collections internationally, Manohansa is making his mark on the local and international stage. His background consists more of landscape architecture that he picked up on from his father as well as a degree from the local Institute of Aesthetics. Similarly to Senanayake, Manohansa is a fantastic draftsman and while Manohansa has focused on the owl, perhaps as an ode to Senanayake, his most prominent focus has become the bull.

Two sculptors, with very similar, yet very different creative processes. The difference in their material being welded metal and recycled metal perhaps shows more significantly a change in the times and an increased awareness of sustainability and environmentally conscious ways of producing works of art. Both these artists have been embraced by their local followers and given opportunities to install considerably large pieces on public display. This is an advantage that foremost sculptors have over the majority of painters in the island whose work is less easily installed. In a world where new media is becoming an increasingly popular form of art we can look forward to seeing more artists separating from the two dimensional and exploring sculpture as one of the many three dimensional forms of expression in the coming years.

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