There is something about photographers. More often than not they feel excluded from the contemporary art scene, with photography a less applauded and collected art form in comparison to the glorified painting and praised sculpture. I refer specifically to our local art scene, but this is certainly the case internationally. The majority of famous photographers are acknowledged more in fashion magazines than in the art magazines. This said, when a photographer does obtain the recognition he deserves (usually this happens once they publish a coffee book), they tend to be those who are outstanding at their work; the challenge to be acknowledged ensured this.
In this new series of ARTicles I will briefly profile one living and one deceased artist. Their commonalities may exist in their art form, their medium, their practice, their subject, their nationality; and so on. The point of this is not only to educate (yes I meant to sound patronising) but also to contrast.
This month we take a brief look at Lionel Wendt (1900-1944) and Stephen Champion (b.1959). Wendt was a Sri Lankan, however at that time when one belonged to affluence the viewpoint on the real Sri Lanka was similar to that of a visiting photographer. British photographer Champion, has dedicated almost his entire art practice to profiling Sri Lanka and it’s changing façade. The contrast in their work comes in their subject and their ability to capture the Ceylon/ Sri Lanka of that moment. This is the photography I admire the most, the kind that transports you to a time, a place, injects you with an emotion and tells a story.
Wendt’s work did not only consist of the male pukka (buttocks) and the exposed nipple. His collection of work went beyond the erotic and featured landscapes and images of our long lost Ceylon. It is however those images that captured raw, naked, Sri Lankan beauty that are the most outstanding of the body of work created during his short lifetime. Wendt was a surrealist and he experimented with different techniques such as polarisation and montage. Few of his works remain, most of them in private collections. On public display they can be viewed in the Lionel Wendt Theatre public spaces, the Sapumal Foundation and The Gallery Café bathrooms. His work has been compared to other famed surrealist photographers Man Ray and Mark Dupain.
Lionel Wendt died prematurely, one year after the 43 Group was established. He was a Barrister and an accomplished pianist. He could not paint and thereby spent time with others of the 43 Group nurturing their talents in this skill. An acclaimed photographer by that time, Wendt was invited to exhibit his work in 1937 by Ernst Levitz of the Leica Company. Wendt is also rumoured to have been the mind behind the making of ‘Song of Ceylon’, the award winning film by Basil Wright that was most recently shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The Lionel Wendt Art Centre and Theatre today stands on the site that was once his home.
I am not a clever photographer and I work from my heart. Spectacular things often don’t work for me.
Born in the UK in 1959, it was after a visit to Sri Lanka in 1986 that Champion began capturing the island that was then at the beginning of what would be a long brutal war. Champion was first acknowledged for his portraits of famed artists such as Gerard Depardieu, however soon after this visit in 1986 began the first of what would be a series of three books published; all capturing Sri Lanka in a state of war, the countries rich nature and the beauty of its people. It is perhaps due to the simple fact that is he not of Sri Lanka origin that Champion, who resides in the UK, has been able to capture entire stories in the faces, moments and places he captures in his photographs. It is common in the view of an ‘outsider’ that they are able to see the reality of this small island and focus on it all with an unbiased, uninfluenced opinion of its state. Such is the work of Champion, it grips you with its brutal honesty, something so rarely found in Sri Lanka.
Champion is currently staging a show at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. This series of works combines those from his publications ‘Lanka’, ‘War Stories’, ‘Dharmadeepa’ and finally his most recent portraits of the island taken in its post war state. The exhibition attempts to combine these contradictory characteristics of Sri Lanka; a country rich in agriculture and natural resources, with the infrastructural development happening fast throughout.
While Champion clearly has a strong opinion and first hand experiences on the atrocities of the war, his work also depicts his love affair with Sri Lanka. ‘My work is a gift lent to me by the people of Sri Lanka,’ tweets Champion. He states that his latest exhibition attempts to combine the three themes that consistently appear throughout his work, it seems that Champion is continuously capturing the Sri Lanka of the past, present and future; in no specific order. His portraits exude stories of the past and his landscapes depict the present in a state of flux.
We all too often shun images of the past, most often traumatic depictions of the war. Champions famed image of the young boy looking down next to two massacred bodies reminds us of a time perhaps we would like to forget. The Pettah image in contrast represents a place long neglected that sadly in the future will no longer exist. Through this contradiction Champion presents the confusion that exists in our society today. The hope that makes us forget the recent past and neglect the beauty of our country that in the blink of an eye can vanish, leaving behind only memories captured in a face or a moment on a photograph.