LT June 2015 | Greener Pastures by Saskia Fernando

It’s been a rather surreal few years; looking back on the time we first started working on professionalizing the local art scene up until now. We have definitely seen the price of art increase, the art industry in it’s entirety reach a point were many can choose it as a stable career and excitingly a calendar of art and culture events that keep most weeks occupied. The attention on us has increased and when any publication refers to the South Asian art scene, Sri Lanka has officially made its mark on the map. It’s safe to say that we are arriving, but this comes with it’s pros and cons. The Sri Lankan contemporary art scene of the past that was quietly hidden and reserved for those lucky enough to connect with it is now being exposed to an international community of collectors, a few opportunistic predators and organizations that have the power to make or break us.

In 2009 Christie’s got in touch a few months after we opened on Dharmapala Mawatha enquiring about the developments. I responded honestly that post-war we were looking at positive change, however prices were less than half of what they are now. The auction houses are after all interested in the value of work and the fact that they were watching was encouraging enough. In 2013 the Mumbai and New York Christies team paid us a visit and received an introduction to our leading local contemporary artists. In the same year they began featuring Sri Lankan modern art in their auctions again. The 43 Group (collective of modern Sri Lankan artists established in 1943) featured in London in 2013 sold out to an unexpected international contingent. Their attention on the contemporary scene was made clear in a private presentation made to Sri Lankan collectors to inform them of their growing interest. A little tête-a-tête thereafter informed me of what was to come. First the auction houses, then the institutions, followed by the curators and collectors. Over the past twelve months we have been graced by the presence of a handful of well-known curators focusing on the South Asian art scene. Working for organizations such as the Dhaka Art Summit, Tate Modern, Venice Biennale and art fairs, they are all interested in finding out about what is happening here. It’s easily explained and left at their discretion to pick and choose from those relevant to their work or not. Often the projects have a designated theme or an overview that requires artists that are relative to it. Each and every one of them leaves having shared their opinion with us, welcome or not.

All glory shone down with the visit of Tate Modern Director, Chris Dercon. Perhaps the first time a Museum Director of such an important institution visited Sri Lanka with an aim to learn about our modern and contemporary artists. His view was refreshing, interested, non-judgmental and overall he was keen to view selectively. With local representatives clambering to meet with him, he arrived and left the island in just a few days right after his visit to the Kochi Biennale in India. The Tate Modern now has its hands on a collection of Lionel Wendt photographs and is looking to expand their collection of modern Sri Lankan artists.

Next month six Sri Lankan artists will present a group exhibition of their work at Mandala Fine Art Gallery in Singapore. This is not the first exhibition of it’s kind; Prageeth Manohansa presented a solo show of his life-sized animal sculpture and drawings at the Art Space by Helutrans in 2012. It will however be the first ‘group’ show to take place in Asia’s emerging art hub. In 2014 Hempel Galleries presented a group show of work by a majority of Sri Lankan artists titled ‘Serendipity Revealed’ at the Brunei Gallery at SOAS in London. This followed a similar yet more local snapshot in 2011 by SFG and Breese Little supported by the John Keells Foundation at Asia House in London.

The growing connections between countries of significant presence in the international art world are undoubtedly concrete evidence that we are progressing steadily. The opportunities of this lie simply in the fact that the more international presence we have the more success our artists will attain. For me the end point is always measured by their ability to make a livelihood of their practice; a struggle for artists anywhere in the world, however this is happening.

On the other end of the spectrum, with such power to cause immediate effect, artists can often become over excited with the increasing opportunities made by organizations that seem to offer them exciting yet short term results. This creates a sudden ego boost, followed swiftly by a price increase and abruptly by a drop in demand. It may sound incredibly pessimistic but it’s something we have to be increasingly aware of. The greener pastures can have such a severe effect on a demand for an artists work that they are left with no market at all. It is therefore a continuous juggle between the pros and cons and assessing the credibility and offer of each and every representative and organization that presents us with their flashy ideas.

Original post can be seen here.

Featured Images: RUWAN PRASANNA, 2015, Contemporary Landscape VI, Acrylic on canvas, 204x153cm

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