Saturday, July 1st, 2006

A Turn in Sri Lanka

Kusana Manjusri, watercolor on paper, 2005, c.24 x 30 inches
Kusana Manjusri, watercolor on paper, 2005, c.24 x 30 inches

Religion is a natural subject with Sri Lankan artists. “I am a Tamil and was a Hindu but now I am a Christian”, said one.” I am a Buddhist but I pray to the Virgin Mary”, said another. “I was informed that you were a Buddhist monk,” I mentioned to an artist, “is this true?” “Several times, but I keep leaving the monastery.” he said. “Do you still meditate?” I asked. “Yes,” he said, “it helps control my anger.”

Conversation also turns to their island nation’s heartbreaking recent history. Sri Lanka before the 1983 civil war and the establishment of the northern zone was a much better place, or so everyone says. “The politicians turned Buddhism into an identity issue in order to sow divisions within the population so they could hang on to their power. The Tamils were part of society. Everyone got along.”

The Sri Lankan foreign minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, was assassinated behind his private residence on Bullers Lane in Cinnamon Gardens, an area of embassies and large residencies in Colombo, the capital. On that same road I had visited the artist Saraswathi Rockwood, who occupies a rambling house and garden. Her mosaics of mythical and Christian images lean amongst the fruit trees. Her scrapbook of clippings covers her earlier life as a socialite and a society portraitist. One circa 1950’s newspaper photograph shows Rockwood painting the Burmese Ambassador’s wife. Later that day her husband shot her. “Jealousy”, Rockwood says. “It was the only violence here, then. It was the thing for the women to have boyfriends–the Ambassador’s wife had a bandleader–everyone was fooling around”.

Rockwood scoffs, “I wasn’t interested in that.” She pages through the many political cartoons she published in national newspapers. We turn towards a recent Rockwood oil painting. It is brightly colored and looks like a cheerful genre scene, but it too, has a political message. She points to the monkey amid the figures on the upper left. “He is tearing apart a necklace of flowers. That is the story of this country.”

The lands that edge the Indian Ocean are filled with rubble, the legacy of the tsunami. Most residents of the hardest hit areas still live in tents. In Galle, the largest city on the central coast, the best known art gallery has transformed itself into the very busy office of Project Galle, a clearinghouse for volunteers who help the local people rebuild. A number of western volunteers have instituted art programs with children in this area. In fact, the Sri Lankan art that is internationally known at this moment consists of children’s paintings containing tsunami imagery. Mostly seen at benefits and auctions for area relief, these quasi-therapeutic documents have become a genre unto themselves.

Traveling inland one discovers that Sri Lanka is still a rural country with an extraordinary variety of trees. The boh tree, under which the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment, is particularly honored. One boh tree continues to grow out of a building in a busy Colombo traffic circle. Its heart-shaped leaf appears in stylized form in both traditional and modern architecture, where the border repetitions of this distinctive shape trim the perimeters of roof overhangs. C.Anjaledran, a noted Sri Lankan architect and student of Geoffrey Bawa, used this theme in his award-winning buildings that comprise the newer sections of the SOS Children’s Village in Piliyandala.

The restrained gingerbread style of Dutch and British colonial architecture often appears among roadside cottages throughout the country as well as in institutional structures such as The National Art Gallery, where “Frontiers Lost”, the title of an exhibition documenting the people and environment of the Northern region of Sri Lanka was held in the west wing. 184 photographs, taken by the cinematographer Keethi Sri Perera between 1963 and 1983 illustrated every aspect of life in the area that had been closed to most Sri Lankans since the emergency. The installation presented a wistful, documentary overview of a territory inaccessible to the Sinhalese majority until the 2002 cease-fire. The artist’s statement disclosed his aim to influence all who see the exhibition “To live in harmony, disregarding the divisive powers of national, religious, racial or political ideologies, without being the cat’s paws of power hungry misanthropists”.

Of the gallery’s permanent collection of twentieth century Sri Lankan art, two works stood out: a painting consisting of an abundance of semi-psychedelic doodles on white ground that slowly revealed a depiction of two heads and another smaller painting of several exuberantly splashed transparent bars of color. Both of these works were by S.H. Sarath, a widely known mid-career painter.

Sarath lives and works in the Colombo suburbs in a modern house. Two sheer wood columns flanked the doorway as they stretched up three stories to attach themselves to the overhanging roof. Many of his earthy, hallucinatory paintings used the tree as a subject. Sarath has developed a manner of painting that utilizes quick, intuitive responses. His idiosyncratic mark-making subsumes figuration in an overall decorative effect. Using very wet paint, his fingers and other tools continually rework the entire surface until the image is realized amid rivulets of runny color. Sarath’s paintings seem to address traditional, earthily sensual imagery while loosely adapting modern elements to them.

Working with Sri Lankan themes is a way of reaffirming a common culture. Saman Kumarasinghe, for example, makes watercolor and pastel drawings that combine apsaras, or South Asian dancing nymph figures, with local flowers such as frangipani and lotus. Kusana Manjusri does works on paper derived from copies of figural groups he has traced from archeological sites. Manjusri’s method removes any romantic, antiquarian overtones and presents these figures outside of time, they could as easily be from a distant planet as from the remote past.

Manjusri has exhibited in the gallery space at the Barefoot store on Galle road in Colombo, a clothing and fabric store and gallery and a common stop for tourists. Barbara Sansoni, who began this enterprise, has spent a lifetime studying color, vernacular architecture and design. Her fabric patterns, as a rule “never create gray, when weft crosses warp.” These vibrant yard goods are produced by rural handweavers and are an outstanding example of how modern design meets tradition in Sri Lanka. Sansoni’s work possessed an unaccountable optimism that seemed to prove the use value of art in even the worst of times.