A fantastic coincidence as I sat down to write part two of this series: Yohan Medhanka, the young contemporary that opened his show last month at SFG Colombo just happened to be browsing through the work of Harry Pieris at the Sapumal Foundation. His eyebrows rose at the honor of being featured next to Sri Lanka’s most reputed portrait artist in this issue of LT. It may seem somewhat premature to feature this 22-year-old new entry into the local scene next to a man who was monumental in the formation of the 43 Group. I am not trying to list out and compare artist portfolios, I would much rather point out good talent to you and let you form your own opinion from there on. Art appreciation begins with the need to be opinionated and whether you frown at this match or not, your preference remains your own.
I like the fact that the Sapumal Foundation is named after Harry Pieris’ nickname: ‘Sapumal’, the flower of the sapu tree that never blooms. The hidden meanings of that are perhaps best left for another day. He was perhaps not the most famous of the 43 Group, nor was he as prolific as Peries or Keyt whom today is selling at Christies for USD10,000/- a pop. It seems that this artist dedicated his life to supporting others. He was as passionate about the work of his fellow artists, particularly the 43 Group members and those who exhibited with the group after 1943, as he was about his own portraiture. His portraits feature the who’s who of Colombo society during this time and while he was an affluent artist he regretted never learning how to speak Sinhalese fluently. He wore white because it represented purity and made him feel like a man of the people. I suppose all these acts can often distinguish one even further and thereby completely defeat the purpose, but the personality of this great man shines through to this day in what remains of his foundation. While under-acknowledged internationally as a portrait artist, his skill is unparalleled by any other modern artist in the country and leaves his work and old home (the Sapumal Foundation) as a testament to a truly great Sri Lankan painter.
Yohan Medhanka was an intern at SFG Colombo in the second year after our launch in 2009. He recalls his short stint as a gallery assistant made him realize he did not have the discipline to work a 9-to-5 job. After working with us Medhanka spent some time living in a monastery and emerged as the painter he is today. The response from his second solo show has been fantastic, it is evident to collectors and enthusiasts that Medhanka is a young talent to be watched; if not stalked. Below are some excerpts from the interview we conducted with him at the gallery prior to the show.
When did you start painting?
When I was a kid, I used to draw and paint, mostly draw. Drawing is my thing. From when I was 4 in school until the age of 13 I would doodle on the desk. I wanted to become a cartoonist, something like Walt Disney. I had a dream to become a filmmaker. I found that art or to be an artist wasn’t something that I really needed to be at that time but it just happened slowly. I studied art in school but I wasn’t the best in my class. When it came to competitions I didn’t win, because my drawings were too mature. I drew with pencil on paper. Then my first lessons on art were from my schoolteacher in a small town school. The teacher saw my work and I was considered the worst student. I didn’t listen. I was the rebel. This was always my characteristic as an artist.
How did you start to paint with oils?
I did something new every week, my teacher taught me about water colour. It was hard to learn oil painting in school. For an exhibition at school we were meant to do some painting. The exhibition never happened but I bought some oil paint and I found a canvas at home, that my father had left behind and it was really old; it may have been 15-20 years old. I stretched it and I did my first oil painting of my mother. Da Vinci was my inspiration for this painting. I taught myself how to paint with oil paints. After O Levels I joined the Art Way Institute and I was there for one year and I found new friends and learnt about how things work in the art scene in Sri Lanka.
What did you learn about the art scene at the institute? What did you gain from this experience?
I was really alone as an artist. I’m a loner. Jagath Ravindra taught us for a few days, he was not a permanent lecturer, he only taught us some lessons. They were the best I have ever had. He has inspired me a lot, he was like a hero to me when I was a kid. Him and his pupils, they have inspired me a lot.
Why did you focus on people in the north in this series, this exhibition?
I think as an artist it is our duty. I am a socialist and I am an artist. I could work in the advertising industry but I choose to be an artist to avoid working on the promotion of a product or idea. We have a duty in our freedom of expression to speak for those unspoken for. I think when it comes to art, mainly in Sri Lanka, the politically inclined artists use art to promote their own agenda. I don’t view art as a tool to promote ones personal agenda.
Have you been to the North?
Once. I loved Jaffna. It was three years ago. I loved the people. I had this crazy dream to become mayor of the city. I fell in love with the landscapes, the people. There was purity there. It felt real and natural to me.
What are you working on now?
Everything around me inspires me. I don’t want to express my political views on my paintings but if you look closely at my paintings, you can see my views hidden therein.
Why are you working on portraits?
I think art in Sri Lanka has become too mainstream. I think in Sri Lanka everyone is too modern. I think we have to shift the current movement to another level. I want to be original. I don’t want to follow the trends.