The surreal, fantastical world of Sri Lankan artist Sanjeewa Kumara – profile | Art Radar, May 2015

Sovereign Asian Art Prize 2015 finalist Sanjeewa Kumara paints echoes of global iconography.

Sanjeewa Kumara joins a handful of select Sri Lankan artists nominated for the prestigious 2014-2015 Sovereign Asian Art Prize. Art Radar explores the artist’s “electric palette”, his use of lush, sensual imagery, and how the collision between Western pop culture and the South Asian island’s post-colonial legacy impacted his imagination.

Sanjeewa Kumara (b. 1971, Colombo) holds a BFA in Painting from the Institute of Aesthetic Studies, University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka (1999), a Diploma in Painting from the AKI Academy of Fine Arts, The Netherlands (2001) and an MFA in Interdisciplinary Research in Arts and Media from the Dutch Art Institute, The
 Netherlands (2003).

The artist’s work has been exhibited in both solo and group exhibitions throughout Europe and Sri Lanka. Kumara participated in the Triangle Artists Workshop in New York and the Visva Karma Culture Forum in Germany. He was also awarded a Prince Claus Fund travel grant. Since 2005, Kumara has been a visiting lecturer at the University of Kelaniya, located just north of Colombo.

Sanjeewa Kumara, 'Rainbow Tree', 2009, oil on canvas, 180 x 144cm. Image courtesy the artist.

First artist of his generation

According to Saskia Fernando, Gallery Director of one of Colombo’s most recognised contemporary art galleries, the Saskia Fernando Gallery, Kumara’s work is unique amongst his peers. She told Art Radar:

Sanjeewa Kumara is the first artist of his generation to approach the subject of post-colonisation by combining the influences of his education in Sri Lanka and the Netherlands; the correlation between the two creating a coincidental and extremely relevant link between cultures. […] As an artist, Sanjeewa does not like to be classified, often moving away from the conceptual entirely and confronting the relevance of the imagery he chooses rather than concept alone. He has a knack for adding a naiveté and humour to the surface of his paintings, considered pictures.

Sanjeewa Kumara, 'Uncanny Personality', 2013, oil on canvas, 150 x 110cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Knight Rider, Rambo and post-colonial legacy

Born in 1971, Sanjeewa Kumara came of age during Sri Lanka’s twenty-six year long Civil War. In addition to the colonial legacy left by the British, Dutch and the Portuguese and the tense scene on the ground due to the violent unrest between the Sinhalese and Tamil populations, Kumara was fascinated with Western popular media, including characters like Knight Rider, Rambo and Superman.

As a Sri Lankan visual artist, he embraced legendary local artists such as Senaka Senanayake, S. H. Sarath, George Keyt and H. A. Karunaratne, as well as the great religious artist Devaragampola Silwathenna Thero, whose techniques and artwork provided fertile ground for his own work.

These influenced Kumara’s signature style, coined “Neo-Oriental” by Sri Lankan contemporary art pioneer Jagath Weerasinghe.

Sanjeewa Kumara, 'Free Will', 2011, oil on canvas, 180 x 140cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Kumara’s understanding of Western art was further deepened when he studied in The Netherlands, first as an undergraduate student and then later to pursue his Master of Fine Art Degree. There he was able to intimately examine pre-Renaissance and Dutch master painters first hand.

Since his return to Sri Lanka, the artist’s work to date deftly echoes his experience of East and West, to “re-image pictures” that plumb the audience’s unconscious and combine elements of sensitivity, delicacy and sensuality. Narratives from Sinhala stage plays, Greek myths, Indian stories and “absurd fairytales” are employed, with vibrantly coloured backgrounds ablaze with abundant floral offerings.

According to Kumara, his work is a combination of mystery and the unknown, supplanted with familiar narratives and symbols:

My paintings reveal the radical ambiguity of fantasy. In [the] short term, my art is predominantly an art of surprise. The uncanny – the fantastic – the marvellous – the hesitation – the supernatural – the uncertainty is very important to my work.

Sanjeewa Kumara, 'DJ and Hybrid Island', 2003, oil on canvas, 140 x 190cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Appearing and disappearing 

Although his canvases combine and sift various images cross-culturally, the artist’s goal is to provide humour, pleasure and harmony. However, his work is not static, rather it is quite pregnant with movement, as if the images are appearing and disappearing off the canvas – perhaps a nod to Sri Lanka’s Buddhist heritage and the idea of impermanence.

Sanjeewa Kumara, 'Ambiguous Cow', 2007, oil on canvas, 140 x 100cm. Image courtesy the artist.

The Sovereign Asian Art Prize

The Sovereign Art Foundation’s Asian Art Prize is celebrating its eleventh year and is considered one of the region’s most established art prizes. Mid-career artists are nominated by independent art professionals throughout the Asia-Pacific region and compete for a grand prize of USD30,000. Fellow Sri Lankan artists Kingsley Gunatillake, Polwaththegedara Sirimal and Pradeep Thalawatta also competed for the prize alongside Kumara. The Grand Prize was announced on 1 May 2015 and was awarded to Cambodian artist Anida Yoeu Ali.

The original article by Lisa Pollman can be viewed here.

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