Modernism in Sri Lankan art emerged from a set of crosscurrents: a process of westernization over 600 years of European colonial rule; the emergence of local nationalisms; and the sentiments of Indian freedom movements. In 1896, the British colonial government introduced a course in painting and drawing at the Government Technical College; however, Christian imagery, watercolour painting, colonial photography, and the engravings of visiting artists (amateur and professional) effectively shaped art practice by pushing it towards representationalism.
The Portfolio Sketch Club was formed in the early 1880s to provide recreational activity to western ‘elites’ and Eurasians living in the colonial port city of Colombo. That led to the formation of Ceylon Society of Arts (CSA) in 1891, along the lines of the Royal Academy in London. The Ceylon Art Club was then established in 1922 as an alternative to CSA, which was associated with amateurish pretensions and sentimental Victorian realism by many. The Ceylon Art Club remained active until 1932 under the leadership of a colonial Inspector of Art Education, C.F. Winzor. Many artists in this group were attracted to Post-Impressionism and Cubism in Parisian Modernism, as well as India’s Bengal and Santiniketan schools. Later, an artists’ group called the Winzor Art Club actively promoted Winzor’s vision of art and art education in Jaffna, which operated from 1938 to 1955.
In 1943, the first professional modernist group of artists, the ‘43 Group, was formed and led by photographer, Lionel Wendt. The cosmopolitan attitudes of this group radicalized their art practice. While the ‘43 Group was active, an ultra-nationalist wave in art also existed in opposition. This movement was infused with tendencies of Orientalism and sought to propagate an exclusively Sri Lankan or Asian idiom, free of European influence.
In the late 1970s, a violent shift occurred in the social and political climate of the country: the effects of insurgency, ethnic conflict, militarization and an open market economy. This contributed to a paradigm shift in art practice since the late 1970s, which became vividly evident in the works produced in and after the 1990s. This wave is clearly demarcated by its direct reference to politics; its aesthetics of popular culture; its use of material; and by its institutional production. It is also connected to the emergence of new global and local art networks including private art galleries and contemporary art and craft associations in Sri Lanka. These changes also correlated with the establishment of the Vibhavi Acadamy of Fine Arts in 1993 and the curation by Sharmini Pereira of a path-breaking 1994 exhibition titled New Approaches in Contemporary Sri Lankan Art
in Colombo. These developments were instrumental in the formation of the country’s first conceptual artists’ collectives: the No Order Group in 1999 and Theertha Artists’ Collective in 2001. With the support of artists’ collectives and other cultural organizations in Colombo, a Colombo Art Biennale has taken place since 2009.
Art writing in Sri Lanka came about as part of a cultural discourse that became possible through print media in late 19th century. In colonial times, the English, Sinhala and Tamil presses played a pivotal role in shaping new notions of art as a consequence of modernity. This shift took place in the media in the absence of books, periodicals and catalogue writing on art. However, class lines divided newspapers by language and artistic preference. Opinion pieces in the Sinhala and Tamil presses concentrated more on the validation of pre-modern art, while contemporary practices gained more attention in English dailies. For many reasons, English remains the language of contemporary art today as it is still mainly situated in the city of Colombo. Art practice has been radicalized time to time, but there has been little variation in the quality or quantity of writing on art over the last century. With the exception of a few historical overviews and critical studies of modern and contemporary art, most available writing falls into the categories of artist biographies, catalogue essays or newspaper articles on specific exhibitions. There are also limited available publications focusing on artists’ collectives and art institutions. The few scholarly enquiries into modern and contemporary art exist in the form of unpublished dissertations.
R. K. de Silva’s three volumes (1985
) on visual documents of Sri Lanka from the Dutch and British periods are worthy of praise—they provide rich visual material. They also include supporting information that explains the complex transformations that took place in the field of art during those periods due to the fusion of diverse cultures. Similarly, three other publications provide a broader platform to illustrate the paths of modernism, implicitly and explicitly, that are associated with westernization: a publication by Ismeth Raheem and Percy Colin Thome on photography (2000); the catalogue essays on exhibitions of colonial photography written by John Falconer with Ismeth Raheem (2000); and a publication on paintings and engravings of Ceylon by 19th century artists by Ismeth Raheem (1986). Along with these works, Senake Bandaranayake’s seminal work (1986
) on rock and wall paintings up to the colonial period gives glimpses of the proto-modern by recognizing the influence of modernity on the wall paintings of Buddhist temples from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. This is described under the umbrella term ‘transitional style’.
Developments in the pre-independence and post-independence eras are represented in a set of writings that offer a historical survey of modern and contemporary art. Albert Dharmasiri’s pioneering work (1993) on modern painting is further elaborated in his collaborative writing with Senake Bandaranayake on 20th century painting (2009). Their linear narration of art history is built upon biographical sketches of selected artists including information on their cultural milieu. Similarly, Ellen Dissanayake’s foreword and Sarath Chandrajeewa and Ruwan Laknath Jayakody’s introduction to an A-Z artists book on contemporary art The Power of Sri Lankan Art 1943-2012
are crucial to understanding some of the parallel histories missed in earlier writing. Likewise, histories of regions, minorities and women absent in these historical overviews are addressed in the writings of T. Shanaathanan and Anoli Perara in a volume titled Artful Resistance: Contemporary Art from Sri Lanka
(co-edited by Sylivia S. Kasprycki and Doris I. Stambrau).
For writing on artists’ collectives, there are vital publications available on the ‘43 Group. A book by Neville Weereratne (1993) and a mimeographed text (1956) produced by the secretary of the ‘43 Group on the activities of the group in Europe from 1952-1954 provide meticulous information on its organizational set up, exhibitions and other activities from an insider’s point of view. Similarly, Ellen Dissanayake (1986
) and Martin Russell’s (1953) essays assess the aesthetic significance of the group in localizing the styles and aspects of European modernism. Albert Dharmasiri (1988) discusses the biographical data and signature styles of the painters who are associated with the ‘43 Group. This is done to contextualize the collection of Anton Wickramasinge and, under the title of modern art, approaches Modernism as a stylistic venture rather than a culturally specific phenomenon. In the absence of modern and contemporary art museums in Sri Lanka, the collection of the Sapumal Foundation is critically important. The Foundation and its collection are housed in the private residence of Harry Peries, who was the secretary of the ‘43 Group. Neville Weereratne’s publication (2009
) on the Sapumal Foundation documents a precious collection of paintings by the artists of the ‘43 Group.
In terms of mapping post-1990s art, Jagath Weerasinghe theorized and historized art after 1990s under the rubric of the ‘1990s trend’—this writing remains influential. By contextualizing the trend’s thematic engagement with artists’ personal histories and the nation’s violent histories, Weerasinghe tried to differentiate it from the art of the past. Other writers such as Senake Bandaranyake, Sasanka Perera and Anoli Perera followed this model unquestioningly in their own writing. In his recent book, Sasanka Perera (2012
) further elaborates on Jagath Weerasinghe’s arguments by revealing the aspects of remembrance and memory in art that engage with militarization under the rubric of ‘political art’.
A larger volume of writings on art may be found in the category of artists’ biographies. These have varying intentions and approaches. There are individual books published on many of the ‘43 Group painters. These include the book on Ivan Peries by Senake Bandaranayake and Manel Fonseka (1996
); as well as L.C. Van Geuzel (1950
) and Manel Fonseka’s books on Lionel Wendt (2000). Also found in this category are books on George Keyt by Sunil Goonasekera (1991) and H.A.I.Goonetileke (1989, 1990); Neville Weereratne’s book on Richard Gabriel (1999
); Shamil Wanigaratne’s book on George Claessen (2000); and the book on Justin Deraniyagala published by Arun Deraniyagala (2011
). Eve Darling and Albert Dharmasiri’s book on David Paynter (1982); Jomo Uduman’s book on Fareed Uduman (2005
); Neville Weereratne’s books on George Beven (2004
) and Tissa Ranasinghe (2013
) are notable biographies of non-‘43 Group artists.
Edited volumes also exist that address the work of important painters. These include a volume on George Keyt edited by Ashley Halpe (1977); L.P Goonetilleke’s edited volume on the Ceylon Society of Arts gentlemen artist, A.C.G.S. Amerasekara; and S. Wijesuriya’s edited volume on M. Sarlis (1991), who is known for his kitsch temple murals. Gamini Jayasinghe documented Solious Medis, another important temple muralist. Neville Weereratne’s text for the retrospective exhibition of the ‘43 Group painter Geoffrey Beling (2008
) is also biographical in nature.
Apart from these publications on artists’ biographies, there are also exhibition catalogues that extensively record artists’ biographies. The increase in number of private commercial galleries since the late 1990s has encouraged the production of exhibition catalogues to varying standards as a form of promotional material.
There are few published texts that critically engage with art practice or works of art. Senake Bandaranayake’s writing on Ivan Peries (1987-88
) unpacks the predicament of the bourgeois artist. Similarly, Manel Fonseka’s essay for a Fukuoka exhibition catalogue (2003
) tries to frame Lionel Wendt’s photographs in modernity. Quadri Ismail’s essays on the works of Ivan Peries (2008
) and Jagath Weerasinghe (2009
) attempt to read the paintings as texts, based on contemporary cultural theory. Likewise, T.Shanaathanan’s essay on the artists of Jaffna (2009
) addresses issues of identity against the backdrop of nationalisms, ethnic conflict and displacement.
In terms of art journals, the close association amongst Mulk Raj Anand (who initiated Marg
magazine in Bombay), George Keyt and Anil de Silva in the 1950s was instrumental in the publication of many articles on Sri Lankan modernism. Later, in the 1980s, Lanka Guardian
carried several articles, mainly on the painters of the ‘43 Group. As part of their education projects, the Theertha Artists’ Collective has a journal called ArtLab
. This journal, published in both Sinhala and Tamil languages since 2000, seeks to broaden understandings of modern and contemporary art.Remarks:
To access material which is not yet available in the Asia Art Archive’s collection, please contact Sri Lankan Archive of Contemporary Art, Architecture and Design: firstname.lastname@example.org.
|Falconer, John, Ismath Raheem, Regeneration: Photography in Ceylon: 1830–1900, British Council, London, 2000 [not yet available]|
|Raheem, Ismath, A Catalogue of an Exhibition of Painting, Engravings of Ceylon by 19th Century Artist, British Council, Colombo, 1986 [not yet available]|
|Raheem, Ismeth, Percy Colin Thome, Images of British Ceylon: Nineteenth Century Photography of Sri Lanka, Times Edition, Singapore, 2000 [not yet available]|
Modern and Contemporary Art Overviews
|Dharmasiri, Albert, ‘Painting: Modern period (1815–1950)’, Archeological Survey Centenary volume, Department of Archeology, Colombo, 1993 [not yet available]|
|Senake, Bandaranayake, Albert Darmasir, Sri Lankan Painting in the Twentieth Century, The National Trust, Colombo, 2009 [not yet available]|
|Dharmasiri, Albert, Modern Art in Sri Lanka, The Anton Wickramasinge Collection, Associated Newspapers of Ceylon, Colombo, 1988 [not yet available]|
|Russell, Martin, The 43 Group Tenth Anniversary, Times of Ceylon Annual, 1953 [not yet available]|
|Secretary 43 Group, 43 Group, Ceylon, Report on the Activities of the ’43 Group in Europe 1952-1954, Colombo, 1956 (mimeographed text) [not yet available]|
|Weereratne, Neville, 43 Group: A Chronicle of Fifty Years in the Art of Sri Lanka, Lantana, Melbourne, 1993 [not yet available]|
Art after 1990s
Biographies and Monographs
|Darling, Eve, Albert Dharmasiri, David Paynter, 1982 [not yet available]|
|Fonseka, Manel, ‘Rediscovering Lionel Wendt’, Lionel Wendt: A Centennial Tribute, The Lionel Wendt Memorial Foundation, Colombo, 2000 [not yet available]|
|Goonasekera, Sunil, George Keyt, Interpretations, Institute of Fundamental Studies, Kandy, 1991 [not yet available]|
|Goonetileke, H,A,I., George Keyt: A Life in Art, George Keyt Foundation, Colombo, 1989 [not yet available]|
|Goonetileke, H,A,I., George Keyt Drawings, George Keyt Foundation, Colombo, 1990 [not yet available]|
|Goonetilleke, L.P, ed., The Dozen of Painters in Ceylon, Felicitation Volume, Presented on the Occasion of the 84th Birthday of Gate Mudaliar. A.C.G.S. Amerasekara, O.B.E., Colombo, 1966 [not yet available]|
|Halpe, Ashly, ed., George Keyt. A Felicitation Volume, George Keyt Felicitation Committee, Colombo, 1977 [not yet available]|
|Wanigaratne, Shamil, George Claessen: Artist, Sculptor and Poet 1909–1999, Paradise Isle Publication, London, 2000 [not yet available]|
|Wijesuriya, S., et al., eds., The Popular Art of M. Sarlis, Participatory Development Fund, Kotte, 1991 [not yet available]|
|Shanaathanan, T., ‘Painting the Artist’s Self: Location, Relocation and the Metamorphosis’, R. Cheran, ed., Pathways of Dissent: Tamil Nationalism in Sri Lanka, Sage, New Delhi, 2009, pp 93–106|
|Lanka Guardian [not yet available]|