Students of Visual Arts & Design and Performing Arts Unit
University of Kelaniya
Barefoot Gallery, Colombo Sri Lanka, 25 April – 10 May, 2008
B.M.C.C. Krishnatha Basnayake – Dream Zone
R.A.N. Chandani Hatharasinghe – Western Province
P.R. Sanjula Kaumudi Karunarathna – Fantasy Friends
J.M. Chirthrapali Champa Kumari – Rebuilding of My Body
N.A. Amali Shrimani Kumari – Cooked Fashion
M.M.A. Nelika Lakmini – Still Life
Madduma Patabendige Shyamali – The Silent Protest
W.T. Dhammika Sirimanne – untitled
R.M. Duminda Subhashana – My Share of Tsunami
W.L. Sandun Mahesh Weerasinghe – Masochism
I was privileged to attend this exhibit of student work from the University of Kelaniya. It was a wonderful experience to see these young artists express themselves and their inner visions so freely, especially given the highly regimented, if not conservative, nature of their formal training. It is always good to see true talent break free from the conventional bonds that are placed around it.
It seems to me an especially difficult thing to do here in Sri Lanka, given the highly structured and formalized nature of the education system, where objective technical skills in subject matter (math, science, history, the Arts, whatever) are given a higher priority than the other side of the academic coin; analysis, a critical and personal approach, and creativity.
These students were exceptionally lucky. They fell under the tutelage of Kingsley Gunatillake, a visiting lecturer at the University of Kelaniya and Horton Place. From what I hear tell, Professor Gunatillake’s decidedly unorthodox manner of nurturing his students, including outside-of-class rap sessions and encouraging both honesty and creativity, was just the fertilizer needed to allow these artists to blossom. Lucky indeed, and lucky for the University of Kelaniya; the education system in Sri Lanka needs more Mr. Gunatillakes, who are willing to trust their students and encourage them to take risks and push beyond the formal and the acceptable. And I mean this for all subjects of study.
It is difficult to summarize the work as a whole, given the wide range of subject matter discussed, not to say the wide variety of materials used. Perhaps the one unifying factor of the exhibit is the deeply personal, deeply psychological and deeply vulnerable expressions that find voice here. As mentioned, the subject matter is wide in scope (abortion to the tsunami to internet porn, etc.) but they are all uniformly dealt with in an immediate, personal way.
Each piece, or series of pieces, tackles a different subject matter, and each artist presents their ideas in an open and honest way. For example, whatever your politics on the subject of abortion, Madduma Patabendige Shyamali’s “The Silent Protest,” does give one pause in its simultaneously abstract yet graphic depiction of the cost of abortion. The simple use of small baby cream bottles, each with an abstract form of a woman, each with a less abstract figure of an unborn child, underlines the seriousness of the decision.
The work of one contributor especially surprised me. The “Still Life” series by M.M.A. Nelika Lakmini took a bit of pondering and thinking on my part before I realized what was going on. When one thinks conventionally of still life paintings, one conjures up images of Old Master paintings of apples, insects, a vase of flowers, and perhaps a pewter pitcher or two. This time I was confronted a riotous blur of color, painted with thick strokes of paint that at first didn’t seem to quite form into anything recognizable. Then I started to realize, “Hey, that looks like a plastic cup. And that looks like a plastic water bottle.” It was then that I realized I was looking at the antithesis of the classic still life: a pile of garbage. I enjoyed being forced to think about what I was seeing, and the commentary on the growing throw-away consumerism and lack of environmental consciousness in Sri Lanka was quite refreshing.
“My Share of Tsunami” by R.M. Duminda Subhashana and “Western Province” by R.A.N. Chandani Hatharasinghe provide an interesting commentary on the psychology of human suffering. I live in Batticaloa, and near my house still sits the wreck of van. When the tsunami hit, this van was driving along a road at the side of a lagoon, and the waves washed the van almost a kilometer inland, rolling it down the lagoon, and killing the entire extended family of passengers. Thus for me “My Share of Tsunami,” which is constructed out of pieces of car doors, with painted parts of human bodies, including horrified faces, spoke to me in a particularly effective way. On the opposite side of the spectrum, “Western Province,” a series of maps on which are painted faces and torn/burned/bloodied clothes speaks to the horror of terror bombings in the West, especially in the Colombo area. The faces of the victims are sketched in to become a part of the maps themselves, and illustrate the community gaps their abrupt deaths leave behind. This is especially timely given the two bombings two nights ago (25 April 2008). Suffering, whether as an act of God or manmade, result in the suffering of average people, the little people, as is illustrated by both artist’s work.
Two pieces talk directly to the experience of modern woman in Sri Lanka. J.M. Chirthrapali Champa Kumari created a set of four inter-related pieces called “Rebuilding of my Body.” Each piece has one or two pictures of the artist in various dress styles – blue jeans, or a dress, for example. These photos are then echoed throughout the pieces in rows of matching silhouettes, each one differently composed. Many are cut-outs of various fabrics manufactured around the world. The message of a lack of control over self image is patently clear, as is the frenetic drive to fit all categories of beauty – as decided by outsiders. In a similar vein, “Cooked Fashion” by N.A. Amali Shrimani Kumari is a commentary of the split between the traditional and modern roles of women as seen through style and fashion. The use of simple cooking pots of the kind used in everyday households in Sri Lanka, the interiors of which contain sketches and paintings of women in hip clothing, speaks to the schizophrenia of a modern woman in a still-traditional society, as well as illustrates that tradition – traditional values, traditional tastes, etc, – still form the solid backbone of modern woman in Sri Lanka. This also seems to imply that all this mad rush to follow Western fashion trends is actually superficial, and that the core of a woman does not change.
Two pieces playfully reckon back to back to the wonderful days of childhood and childhood imagination. First there is the untitled piece by W.T. Dhammika Sirimanne. It comprises a set of tiny abstract animals, each no more than a centimeter or two high, constructed out of wire, beads, bits of materials and so forth. Each animal is individual and full of character. Some look like insects, others like tiny miniatures of larger animals found in nature. The skill of construction, with the imagination involved, is really quite impressive.
The second “childhood” piece caught my eye immediately and is one of my favorites. “Imaginary Friends,” by P.R. Sanjula Kaumudi Karunarathna is absolutely delightful. I’m not sure how many there are, but a swarm of tiny sci-fi robotic looking creatures enters through one window and, antlike, swarms down the wall, pools onto the floor, and then climbs back up and out through another window. The creatures themselves, made of bits of wire, beads and circuitry, are individualized. The wave to each other, congregate to have discussion, and call to each other across the distance. You can practically hear the faint murmur of little beeps, squeaks, and chirps. The overall effect is like some fantastic Disney-esque (and I mean this is a good way) children’s movie. The good kind; the kind that makes you feel warm and glow-ey.
Lastly, there are two deeply psychological studies on desire.
B.M.C.C. Krishnatha Basnayake apparently has a thing for Aishwara Rai (who wouldn’t?) and an active fantasy life. However, one of his dreams went from the erotic to the horrific, as dreams are unfortunately wont to do. He expresses this experience in his piece, “Dream Zone,” an extremely well conceived piece. On the ceiling is an embroidered pillow, the colored threads of which are pulled tautly down to the floor. As the threads get close to the floor, the colors dim, eventually reaching the floor a uniform black. Small glass balls, with painted pictures of Ms. Rai, hang throughout the piece, although more heavily concentrated towards the black-threaded bottom. This top-down linear expression of a dream which was probably not linear in form, is a particularly imaginative way of expressing the change from erotic to scary. I hope that working this piece has allowed the artist to return to former, happier dreams of Ms. Rai.
The last piece is perhaps my favorite of the bunch. Called “Masochism,” this piece is both very personal and quite universal. W.L. Sandun Mahesh Weerasinghe has really opened up and exposed himself, as it were, or at least one aspect of his inner self, to the full glare of the public. In this piece, which is a series of computer mother boards, and CD cases, the viewer finds erotic photos of naked women, over which crawl presumably real dried insects. In his explanation, the artist writes about a fascination (obsession? addiction?) to internet pornography and the dissatisfaction that ultimately comes from an overload of overly-easy to get, overly-explicit, overly-stereotypical images that eventually kill off the romance and mystery of one of the greatest experiences of existence; the act of making love. By calling it “Masochism,” the artist is commenting on the pain of conflicting desires and compulsions; the need for meaning in sex, versus the physical (and oft time psychological) need to have it off. I think this is very brave and honest on the part of the artist, considering the discussion of the subject matter takes place in a conservative social context. Additionally, this is a universal subject in this day of DVDs, the internet, and cable TV stations. So bravo to him, for his honesty, his bravery, and his understanding of a very human failing.
Actually, bravo to all the students, who have obviously invested a lot of themselves into their work. The results are uniformly successful. If the talents displayed at this exhibit are an indication of the future of art in Sri Lanka, despite the overly formalized training sometimes received here, then these young artists have a fine future ahead of them, as does Art in Sri Lanka in general.
Well done! Well done indeed!
San Francisco / Los Angeles / Batticaloa