Wednesday 12 October 2011

The Exciting Future of Sri Lankan Contemporary Art

The Future of Sri Lankan Contemporary Art

I believe an exciting future lies ahead of Sri Lankan contemporary art, one that stands apart from the glory days of the 43 Group and the days of Imperial art education before this. One that is distanced from India and China’s dominant art scene that moves at an untameable speed across the waters, forcing, in some ways by example, the route for other smaller countries in Asia wanting to enhance their art market. Sri Lanka has the chance, in this economic upturn, to tread carefully, to take each step with grace and, in this, stand out in the stampede.  

Many who come to my gallery ask me why I am excited about Sri Lankan art? What makes its future special? I always tell them that as much as war destroys, ravages, rapes, scars and burns, it can also inspire creativity. Of course, this creativity never makes the past war worthwhile. That would be an insensitive and na├»ve thing to say. However the creativity is unmatchable and within that creativity is often a strength of conviction that astounds as much as heals. I honestly believe that the art that will now emerge in these post-war years will help Sri Lanka and it will be creative like nothing before it. It will never re-build, un-ravage or vanish a scar but as it is borne from this tragedy, as such it will be a potent antidote, like a poisonous snake’s venom being used for a victim’s cure.

The future I am excited about involves an increasing desire to artistically respond and attend to Sri Lanka’s recent history, its civil war that ensued from 1983 until May 2009. How can such a historical haemorrhage as this period do anything but create new ideas, mediums, new senses of self and new understandings of what it is ‘to move forward’? I envision artists rising to this challenge, describing Sri Lanka’s unusual modernity with open emotion and daring courage like war veterans stepping forward to express their trauma or else long-ignored soothsayers, their portentous voice overlooked for the sake of louder, inflexible voices in the crowd. I look forward to this as much as I wait with baited breath for Tamil artists to come to the fore in the art world to add variety to Sri Lankan contemporary art. Right now art is dominated by talented Singhalese artists, the vast majority of which, from my experience, working out of Colombo.

What art will war torn areas like Vanni and Jaffna give rise to? What movement will returning talented artists like T. Shaanathanan initiate in the Northern province? How will artists in Colombo that have been political, or at least socially-motivated, in their art for many years re-direct their work with this new freedom given to them. I am excited to see how artists like Jagath Weerasinghe, an outspoken artist if ever there was one, will respond in his work and how we in return will respond. Anoma and Jagath Ravindra, two established artists, have for a long time been interested in themes of finding redemption, salvation, peace and escape from this world. What will they find in their abstract forms and layered meditative surfaces that will refresh and guide us in our progress to a new Sri Lankan future?

It will take a greater variety of artistic minds to make of the art scene something idiosyncratic and worthy of exploration (and indeed investment) on a global level. But I believe that the variety exists. Ready or reaching maturation. I believe that artists have now a chance to help society rebuild itself, to right history, to correct identity and in doing all of this restore faith and hope to a country that for so long has been without any, shrouding its despair in tourist beach resorts, fashion shows and umbrella-ed cocktails. Artists in this way are charged with the greatest of all commitments at one of the most pivotal periods in Sri Lankan art history. This is why I am excited. The route artists take, and the decisions art dealers, gallerists and buyers make in the coming years, will shape art from this small island for a very long time.

Jana Manuelpillai
The Noble Sage Art Gallery, London   

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