I was somewhat relieved at being told the subject of this issue of LT by my editor. My reasons for relief were due to the fact that our gallery office is busy at work this weekend putting together the final touches to a two part show opening at a gallery in London in just under two weeks. Coincidentally, the show presents Jagath Weerasinghe’s first solo show in London, an exciting milestone for an artist who has, over the last few years, become world renowned, with work featured in numerous shows both here and abroad, and a large, international collector base growing every year. Weerasinghe is not the only Sri Lankan artist who has made his mark. At present there are a handful of names that stand out; some because of their fast rise to success, and others who have worked their way steadily to a point of international recognition, over their already established careers. The artists I choose to focus on herein are not all represented by my gallery nor are they artists I personally collect, they are artists I would like to acknowledge for their achievements in their chosen genre of the diverse and vibrant Sri Lankan contemporary art scene.
Back to Jagath Weerasinghe, this year he co-founded the third Colombo Art Biennale, and also opened the new gallery of his collective, Theertha. The collective is affiliated with others in the region such as KHOJ in India, and functions with the assistance of international funding. The biennale, while falling short of being presented every other year, was the brainchild of Weerasinghe, who appointed their current founder, unable to take on the heavy task himself. Weerasinghe has participated in group shows in India and prior to this, his solo show, opening on 29 May at Breese Little in London, exhibited his work in a two man show alongside Chandraguptha Thenuwara in 2012. Weerasinghe, owing to his education and exposure, has become a voice for contemporary art in the island, much owing to his ability to articulate himself in English on the subject. Weerasinghe’s practice approaches current issues facing Sri Lanka by presenting imagery that plays with the question he chooses to confront. His art is to be acknowledged for it’s intelligent method is not only presented works of aesthetic appeal but also pieces that often leave behind an open ended argument. Weerasinghe’s understanding of the development of the contemporary art scene through his biennale and collective work is equally important to his practice, as he takes on the responsibility of both artist and representative of the local scene through his collaborations and travels overseas.
The Theertha collective has, as a group of artists, developed a strong affiliation with the Indian art scene over the years. However, it is only one of these artists who broke out to achieve greater success, on an international scale, in his personal career. Pala Pothupitiye studied embroidery in Pakistan and returned to Sri Lanka to create works that focused on his own identity crisis as an artist from the dancing caste, which is considered one of the lower castes in the Sri Lankan caste system. Pothupitiye continued with this subject matter, before moving on to what would become his famed pieces, map works of a political nature, which were the turning point for the young artist who began to be noticed by collectors internationally. His most recent show was a two man exhibition alongside artist Anoli Perera in Hong Kong, thereafter Pothupitiye participated in a group show in Karachi, Pakistan, this year. His work was selected by the Sovereign Asian Art Foundation as the winner of their prize in 2010.
Anoma Wijewardene, a Colombo born and bred artist, found herself pursuing textile design at Central Saint Martins in London. Wijewardene went on to live in London and her work evolved into layered works on paper, a practice that is unique to this artist locally and shows hints of her design background. After returning to the island Wijewardene consistently presented exhibitions of her work both locally and internationally. Her most recent show included a three part exhibition, one of them in the public spaces of the Dutch Hospital in Fort. Wijewardene has held solo shows in London, Kuala Lumpur and India making her the most established and collected female artist in her category.
Chandraguptha Thenuwara completed his studies in Moscow after beginning his education, much like Weerasinghe and Pothupitiye, at the Institute of Aesthetics in Colombo. He is today the only artist/activist who has dedicated his artistic practice entirely to exposing and contemplating the local political and social problems facing Sri Lanka during the war, and today, post-war. His wit and irony stand out strongly for those who engage correctly with his work, however he was once known as the island’s best portrait artist. In recent years Thenuwara exhibited his work at a solo show in Den Haag in the Netherlands and he consistently presents an exhibition of his work at the Lionel Wendt Gallery in Colombo every year in commemoration of Black July. Thenuwara’s portfolio is extensive but his work that has the affinity to speak with such magnitude makes him one of our local gems.
Sujeewa Kumari and Sanjeewa Kumara are the last on my list. They are not a duo in their practice but are in fact a rather ironically named couple who both have, individually, made a strong mark in the local and international art scene. Sanjeewa Kumara is well known for his colourful canvases that depict fairytale-like scenes with imagery from Sri Lankan culture and western art history. He plays with the conceptual, often choosing to hide it beneath his bright compositions. Sujeewa Kumari has, of late, presented the strongest of her works on paper and in new media, through photographic compositions and video art. Kumari’s work will be featured in a London show presenting a group of four emerging artists alongside a solo show of Jagath Weearsinghe at Breese Little in London. Both artists showed their work in a two-man exhibition in Kuala Lumpur early this year. While they tend to pursue their direction separately they have become the strongest Sri Lankan art couple in recent years.
There are many names that come to mind while I write this article, artists such as Jagath Ravindra, Prageeth Manohansa, Anoli Perera, Sarath Gunasiri Perera and many more who have strong portfolios and a growing international following that places them amongst the top of the local scene today. This is reassuring for those working in a growing, yet small, industry. The importance of an international following lies in the fact that in order to be selected to participate in international shows other galleries and museums must connect and comprehend an artists work, a relationship that seldom occurs when an artist’s work is not of a certain caliber. While many artists work is acknowledged and collected locally it is their professionalism that enables their careers to flourish and cross borders, this is the making of a successful artist, in a world that is becoming continuously smaller and interconnected. Ten years ago it was a bigger struggle for an artist to make it through the year without taking on a second job, and while many artists still continue to teach art or explore other design industries to earn a steady income, the ability to earn a decent living of their art is less of an impossibility. I look forward to writing a similar article in 10 years’ time, I am quite sure that much like this article, two pages would not be quite enough.