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Contemporary art in Sri Lanka by Jagath Weerasinghe

by anurakri last modified 2009-08-12 09:45


The beginning of post-traditional art practice in Sri Lanka may be traced to the last decades of the 19th century. It was during this time that the Sri Lankan art was profoundly influenced by various art forms and the approaches of European academies, such as academic realism, romanticism and orientalism. Ideas of European modernism in art began to appear only in the second decade of the twentieth century [1]. 


The first most significant movement in modern art in Sri Lanka originated in the late 1920s and early 1930s in the works of photographer Lionel Wendt (1907-44), and in the paintings of George Keyt (1901-92), Justin Deraniyagala (1903-67) and Geoffry Beiling (1907-92), who later formed the core of Sri Llanka’s most important collective of modern artists, the ‘43 Group’, along with several other dynamic artist personalities such as Ivan Peris (1921-88), George Claessen (1909-99) and Richard Gabriel (b. 1924), and a few others.


The ‘43 Group’

It was the ‘43 Group’ that positioned the sign of the Ecole de Paris as the mark of excellence in art taste in the art of the mid-twentieth century Sri lLanka against the academic realism and orientalism influenced by the Royal Academy and other British art schools [2]. As such the formation of the ‘43 Group’ can be viewed as a project that constituted an anti-colonial stance within the larger picture of national struggles that gathered momentum in the mid-twentieth century in South Asia for regaining political independence from the British colonizers [3]. The most significant achievement of the ‘43 Group’ can be considered as their successful attempts at rephrasing a selected number of modernist trends and artisitic approaches that flourished in France in the late-nineteenth century and early-twentieth century, giving rise to a distinctively Sri Lankan modernist art. Of the members of the ‘43 Group’, George Keyt can be considered as the best known Sri Lankan modernist, whose work combined a modernist idiom rooted in a ‘Cubism-like’ pictorial language with orientalist themes, motifs and moods. His works played a pivotal role in the popularization of modern art in Sri Lanka. If Keyt is to be considered as the ‘orientalist visionary’ in the ‘43 Group’, then the works of Justin Deraniyagala and Ivan Peries represented the two extremes of expressionist trends of the ‘43 Group’. The intense and complex psychological dispositions portrayed in Deraniyagala’s canvases subtly explore and reveal the tragedy and irony of the human condition, while the symbolic and meditative landscapes of Ivan Peries suggest extreme tranquility and compassion.


Parallel to the formation of the ‘43 Group’, there were also other trends that were active in the art scene during mid-twentieth century Sri Lanka. The ultra-nationalist discourse in art that demanded a ‘purely’ Sri Lankan/Asian art form untainted by Western influences was one of the two major artistic forces.The artistic trend influenced by the ‘Santiniketan’ school of art founded by Rabindranath Tagore, which expressed a much wider sense of the idea of ‘nationality’ and ‘modernity’ was the other important presence in the art scene.


The two decades spanning from the late 1960s to the late 1980s experienced relatively less dynamism in art by comparison with the 1940s and 1950s, except for an important development that had far reaching consequences in terms of method and style in  painting. Sri Lankan modern painting up until 1960s was mostly a figurative style that evolved with inspirations absorbed from such major European trends as post-impressionism, fauvism, cubism and other similar trends, except for an artist like George Claessen (1909-99) of the ‘43 Group’, who was both an abstractionist and a representational painter. This situation changed in since 1960s when the non-figurative tradition of painting got firmly established in Sri Lankan modern art as a result of the works, ideas and teachings of the painter and art teacher H.A. Karunaratne (b.1929). In other words, it was H.A. Karunaratne who established the sign of the New York School as the mark of excellence in art making in Sri Lankan painting.


Karunaratne, who had spent spells of art training in New York and Tokyo in the 1960s, was a lecturer in painting at the Institute of Aesthetic Studies(IAS) of the University of Kelaniya. This is also the sole art institution that offers a degree level education in Sri Lanka. By being an established teacher at the IAS he was in a privileged position to persuade a whole generation of younger artists to work within the ideas of abstraction and abstract expressionism. Hence it may be proposed that modernist art practice of Sri Lanka, from its inception in the early twentieth century to the beginning of 1990s, was largely defined by three major ideological and artistic visions on art and artists; (1) the approaches of the ‘43 Group’ influenced by the art making methods and aesthetics of the Ecole de Paris, (2) concepts and ideals promoted by Rabindranath Tagore and ‘Santiniketan’ school of art, which were absorbed and rephrased with both explicit and implict nationalism by Sri Lankan artists, and (3) the works and thoughts of Karunaratne which derived from the ideals of the New York School and which he incorporated into an idea of ‘religiousness’, strongly linked to Buddhism. While these three main projects in art had certain disparities and conflicts at some level, it can still be argued that they all shared a common approach to modernism in art. It That is the fact that modernism in art was conceived by those practitioners asin a fundamentally pastoral and bucolic.  These formulations of a bucolic and pastoral world in art were, of course, pitted against the colonial or the Western ‘other’. The sensuous canvases of Keyt, the symbolic works of Ananada Samarakoon (1911-62), and the meditative abstractions of Karunaratne can all be placed within this attitude of a bucolic and pastoral past/world and within the project of nation building.



Art of the 1990s: Pluralism and ‘para-modernism’ [4]


The last decade of the twentieth century stands out as a period of extraordinary revitalization of art in Sri Lanka that has paved the way for a diverse and multifacetted practice in the visual arts in the country. A whole new generation of artists equipped with a range of new ideas and concepts on art, themes for artistic investigation, and especially with an understanding of the idea of the artist as a political individual, has come to dominate the art scene in Sri Lanka. What is obvious when looking at this outburst of artistic talent is that the artists of the new generation are making a major theoretical assault on almost all the established ideas on art making in Sri Lanka. What is also important to note here is that most of the animators of this high-powered movement are a group of young men and women who were forced to spend their teenage years in a highly chaotic social and political environment in their rural villages and hometowns. These radically new, yet artistically interesting young men and women are attacking the established ideas of excellence in art, from a consciousness formed within the habitat of a rural periphery by positioning their 'bodies' and 'lives' as the crux of the matter of art making! Put in other words, ‘small-town’ Sri Lanka is impacting its mark in Colombo's metropolitan art world.


In a way, most of the works of the artists that emerged in the 1990s seem to reveal them as a group of people living with memories of violence, dispossession and despair on the one hand and on the other, as if they are the casualties of the alluringly strange beauty and the evasive nature of urban culture. At the same time, the prime force that sustains their artistic activities, I would argue, is a struggle that these artists are engaged in converting the self realization of their oppressed and marginalized position in society into a dynamism that allows them to surmount their despair and gain subsistence in the very society that rejected them in the recent past. In their artistic constructions, they have transformed the frustrations, despair and alienation ensuing from social-political devastation and urban delusions and chimerae into ways and methods to become accepted and acknowledged in the society.


The key feature in the art of the 1990s is its conscious efforts to define art as an expression of ‘now’ and ‘right here’; art and art making process as an expression of being contemporary. In other words a majority of the contemporary artists show a common conviction in their artistic efforts by necessarily placing themselves and their creative energies within the ‘current cultural moment’ and within its immediacy, and less frequently in the distant past. This necessity to be in the 'current cultural moment' states a common idea held, consciously or unconsciously, by most of the contemporary artists; that is the refusal of a metaphysical narrative that couches a wish to be universal in a theological and trans-cultural sense [5]. In other words, this position negates the established conviction that a work of art is an enclosed entity with an objective self-existence.


This position has liberated them from two historical fetters; one from a tradition, which was signified as 'genuinely Sri Lankan' within the anti-colonial and nation-building projects of early and mid-twentieth century, and second from the confusing belief of art as 'self' or 'soul's' expression, where 'self' or 'soul' is defined as an apolitical existence. These ideological positions have formulated into a formal body of artistic approaches and strategies where the sentiments and sensations of violence and frustration, and tensions and passions of the consumer society, and the material/carnal and visual situations of the urban and rural middle class could be brought into the domain of high art and of the contemporary affluent society. The art of the 1990s is an issues-driven art and an engagement with issues that are directly concerned with the ‘living reality’ of society.


The disbelief in the possibility of making art that is capable of conveying the layers of cultural and social meanings embedded in an art work to an indefinite audience implies neither a resistance to international modes nor a cultivation of a parochial sense of identity among the artists. This disbelief, in my opinion, reveals a rather complex and an extremely subtle attitude - a social attitude - towards the ‘art consuming elite’, implicitly maintained by the artists who began to dominate the art scene since the 1990s. This disbelief in a way repudiates the basic sacrosanct premises of the system of beliefs that formed and nurtured the art producing and art consuming elite community of Sri Lanka, specifically based in Colombo. This community, which entertained certain anti-establishment traits in the mid-twentieth 20th century to the extent of accepting the challenging works of the ‘43 Group’, has over time become part of the establishment and within its scheme of power politics acquiesced to the ideologies that have given rise to countless social calamities since regaining political independence in 1948. As such, this disbelief conveys a position (or a pose?) of nonalignment maintained by the artists towards a social class that has allegedly been accessory to flawed ruling regimes. This disbelief also marks the formation of a collective identity of circumvallation and valorization amongst the artists of the 1990s caught in a malevolent social context. As mentioned above, the artists that have come into prominence since the 1990s are predominantly from rural and urban middle classes that represent relatively underprivileged social classes and who were mostly brutalized by the political bloodsheds that devastated the southern regions of Sri Lanka during the 1970s, 1980s and the early 1990s. The formation of a collective group identity by way of art practice, a practice that could demand serious attention and respect from the art consuming elite, provided a protective arena for this new generation of artists to be radical and vocal with their new found art concepts, art forms and expressive interventions.


The social factors that contributed towards the development of these major changes in Sri Lankan art in the 1990s are varied. On the one hand it developed in a background that has been disturbed and punctured by political violence and a twenty year old war in the north of Sri Lanka, and on the other by rapid and mostly undisciplined economic increases gone amuck. Ironically, it is also this economic growth that provided various remunerative opportunities to the younger artists to sustain themselves in the city during and after their art training in Colombo.


There are also several important ‘internal factors’ that have developed within the art and art-consuming field itself, which played a crucial role in the formation of the new artistic trends in the 1990s. There is general agreement among the artists of the 1990s and among the art writers [6] that the exhibition 1992 titled ‘Anxiety’ by Jagath Weerasinghe, a Sri Lankan artist who had returned to Sri Lanka after his graduate studies in painting in the US, presaged the art of the 1990s. Weerasinghe’s exhibition that opened with an artist performance by another Sri Lankan artist, Nimal Mendis, which involved breaking of coffins and spreading of flowers, in many ways set the pace for future developments and energized the younger artists. Works of Chandraguptha Thenuwara, another Sri Lankan artist who returned to Sri Lanka after his graduate education in Fine Arts in Russia during the same time, who initiated the Vibavi Academy of Fine Arts (VAFA) in 1993 with artists Kingsley Gunatillake and Weerasinghe, can be considered as the other important factor that contributed to the formation of new trends in the art of the 1990s. Both Weerasinghe and Thenuwara began to teach art at the Institute of Aesthetic Studies (IAS) in 1994, which enabled them to influence a whole new generation of younger artists to look at art in a different manner. While Thenuwara imparted a body of knowledge that had roots in the academic training he had received in Moscow, Weerasinghe intervened by introducing a new approach to art history as a critical practice in visual arts.  The new ideas that the students received from Weerasinghe and Thenuwara were given a space to mature within the new curriculum of the art department of the IAS that was introduced in 1994 by artist and designer Sarath Surasena. By about 1995-97, several other artists, such as Muhanned (is it Muhanned? YES it is)Carder, G.R. Constentine, Anoli Perera [7], Gunatillake and many young graduates from the IAS joined in to sustain the momentum spurred by Weerasinghe and Thenuwara. Anoli Perera’s activities and her works as a woman artist within the group contributed a great deal in defining the role of a woman artist in a largely male dominated art scene. Her art works and art related activities since 1997 have opened up a substantial arena of possibilities for emerging artists, specifically for women artists.


Commercial Art galleries, art curators, and art dealers are still a very new phenomena in Sri Lanka. Until the early 1990s the only commercial art gallery in Colombo that showed serious art was the ‘Gallery 706’. However, by 1998 there were more than four commercial galleries in Colombo [8]. These art galleries maintain a cautious and somewhat limited enthusiasm towards the new developments in art. Of these galleries, the Heritage Gallery, which ran only for a brief period of two years from 1997 to 1999, sponsored by art collector Ajita de Costa, and managed by an Indian artist Balbir Bodh, made the most important initial contribution to the art of the 1990s. It helped many young artists to come to the limelight and gain acceptance in the art community.


By the early 1990s, within a few years of their emergence, the new art trends began to draw the attention of international art curators. The first important international attention came from the curators of the Fukuoka Art Museum, Japan, currently named as the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, who featured Weerasinghe’s work in their newsletter in 1993, and in 1995 included an installation and several other works by Weerasinghe in the 4th Asian Art Show. Since then the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum has been continuously featuring works of the 1990s trend in its triennials. The next important curatorial intervention was the exhibition organized by Sharmini Pereira [9], titled ‘New Approaches in Contemporary Sri Lankan Art’, held at the National Gallery of Art, Colombo in May 1994 [10]. By the end of the 1990s, art and artists of the new trend were receiving relatively considerable attention from art curators from Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. This recognition received from ‘outside’ brought respect and seriousness to the art and artists of the 1990s, in the eyes of the local art audience. This in turn strengthened and reinforced the art trends of the 1990s, giving rise to an enhanced sense of self-confidence in this new generation of artists. One other international phenomena that contributed to the growth of the new artistic trends of the 1990s is the artists-led international art workshops in the South Asian region, such as ‘KHOJ’ in India, ‘Vasl’ in Pakistan and ‘Theertha’ in Sri Lanka.


The self-confidence thus gained, culminated in giving rise to a new kind of an artistic personality, which was not seen before in the domain of Sri Lankan art: an artist who was conscious of his or her intellectual and political powers and possibilities. It was this radically new identity, which can be identified as an ‘enlightenment’ in its own right, that prompted Weerasinghe, Thenuwara, Perera, Constentine, Carder and Gunatillake, along with four junior artists, Sarath Kumarasiri, Pradeep Chandrasiri, Nilanti Weerasekara and Pushpakumara Koralegedara to come out with a manifesto titled ‘No Order’ in 1999 that clearly announced the basic tenets of the art of the 1990s. This period also saw the artists assuming the role of art curators and art historians. A number of group shows on historically and critically important themes were organized and curated by artists during this time. [11].


Themes of the 1990s art

Art and artists of the 1990s can best be categorized in terms of their subject matter. Within this categorization one can see a broad diversity that speaks for a range of complex and subtle psychological dispositions at work. Currently the most prevalent subject matter among the contemporary Sri Lankan artists is the investigation of the ‘self’ and the frustration of the individual in the face of organized political crimes. This investigation of ‘self’ is also carried out to other spheres too where cultural taboos and traditional/Victorian conventions on sex and sexuality, women’s role (Fig.1) and ideals pertaining to ‘youth’ were challenged and confronted. One of the interesting things that happens here is the alignment of personal pains with those of  society, and thus the artist portrays himself/herself as the suffering individual on behalf of others, implying a self-inflicted vicarious punishment. Consequently, these form a collection of art that shows subtle, but strong signs of autobiographical narratives. These autobiographical narratives usually  tell us of a character that is desolate and melancholy, yet sanguine or of a character that is struggling with some sort of bondage; a captivity and a perplexity whose location and position is not yet defined, but being defined. This broad generalization of the works of contemporary artists in relation to their subject matter can embrace most artists who had exhibitions during the past decade and a half in Colombo. 


The works of Pradeep Chandrasiri, T. Shanaathanan [12] , Pushpakumara Koralegedara, Sujith Rathnayake, Sarath Kumarasiri (Fig. 2), Anoli Perera, T.P.G. Amarajeewa (Fig. 3), and my own works show this trait of constructing biographies as an artistic expression in its most evident form. According to Chandrasiri, Shanaathanan, Koralegedara, Rathnayake, Kumarasiri and several others, making a work of art is the surest and most immediate way of registering the sentiments and sensations of an individual who is made frustrated and dismal in the face of political or personal adversities. The painting or the sculpture is the vehicle for this activity of ‘chronicling’ the pain and 'history', before it is normalized and de-radicalized. Perhaps because of this, their works carry signs of immediacy and indeterminacy. One can propose that their works present themselves as visual representations of a carefully ordered chaos and perplexity. While the work of Pradeep, Pushpakumara, and Anoli Perera are clear examples of chaos set into 'order', some of Sujith Rathnayake's works are excellent examples of perplexity presented as a rational consciousness. Shanaathanan presents both chaos and perplexity placed within an almost surreal and mythical environment.


We can also suggest that most of the works of this category are indicative of individuals living with memories of violence, dispossession, and despair. However, as mentioned above it is not merely remembering violence but a struggle to surmount it. It is probably to accommodate this desire that a need for an autobiographical approach to art has emerged. The important subtext of this observation is that they, most of the contemporary young artists, portray themselves as if they were engaged in a Narcissistic-injury, a process of self-formation [13] . While the works of Chandraguptha Thenuwara, and Mohanned Carder can also be placed within this category, they also stand apart from the rest, as their works do not betray autobiographical moods as much as the others do. Thenuwara's 'Barrelism' (Fig.4) and Carder's 'Night Landscapes' are among the most poignant visual statements of frustration and despair that the contemporary visual arts have seen in the recent past.


The city as an artistic expression

The other most investigated area in the new art is the urban environment or the city, and the consumer culture. Before the 1990s trend, the city and city life and behaviours related to urbanism were not valued as points of departure for artistic explorations. urbanism had been equated with the 'a-aesthetical'. The city was seen as a barren land with no 'beauty' or 'real life' where an artificial hodgepodge of humans and buildings had occurred. This, I would suggest, was a continuation of the early modernist discourse in art, which had positioned the ideas of 'beauty' outside the 'present', but within the bucolic and the pastoral pasts; amongst the 'primitives'. Towards the end of the 1990s, an obvious shift in attitude towards the city began to appear in Sri Lankan visual arts.


A few artists can be seen working with the theme of the city and urban life. Some have been attracted to the residues of the urban and consumer culture, making art works that focus both on the strange beauty and the evasive nature of urban culture. Works of Anuradha Henakaarachchi, Bandu Manamperi (Fig.5), Upul Chamila Bandara, and a few others can be considered in this category.


These two broad general categories are not discrete and distinct from each other; their borders seem to merge strangely in the works of many artists. This merging can be seen   in Chandraguptha Thenuwara's 'Barrelism', or in Sarath Kumarasiri's terracotta 'Trousers'. There are also other thematic trends that have developed within the 1990s trend as can be seen in the works of Chandana Wasanta, Manjula Priyadharshana, Chaminda Gamage, Pala Potupitiya, Arjuna Gunatillake and Anura Baragamaarachchi. However, in general what is very clearly visible in the works of the 1990s trend is that they show an artistic personality that has been evolved and matured with a commitment to the understanding of the social and political meanings of the works produced, and the relationship and the responsibility of the artist to those meanings. In short, the art of the 1990s marks the 'loss of innocence' in art making in Sri Lanka. It has made it difficult to be unreflecting in the practice of art making.



As one can see from the foregoing discussion, the artistic trends that developed in the 1990s in Sri Lanka are a complex and a wide-ranging repertoire. There are, however, a number of artists who work outside the categories I have indicated above. Their works receive considerable media attention and command high prices in the art market. It is difficult to place contemporary thinking in Sri Lankan art within an evolutionary frame. The theoretical basis, evolutionary history and implicit or explicit conceptualization of current art practice, defy description in terms of categories such as modernism or post-modernism. To say quite simply that it is ‘post-traditional’ gives one breathing space. Nevertheless, this characterization is also misleading – one can often see underneath a yearning for tradition, for an ideal lost, for roots in the past. Its immediate stylistic qualities have something in common with Euro-American modernism. At the same time, the critical stance on which most current artworks are constructed presents a post-modern aura. Just as the ox-cart and the microchip jostle in the streets of Colombo — a post-colonial, a-historical space in which history of technology is turned on its head — post-traditional, para-modern art practice address this confusing situation cheerfully, confidently, violently, with a sense of tragic irony.



I am grateful to Anoli Perera whose constructive comments helped to rewrite and rephrase certain arguments and ideas in this essay. I am also grateful to Chandraguptha Thenuwara for checking and finding vital information required for the essay.


Jagath Weerasinghe is a Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology, Colombo. He is also an artist and an art writer.


[1] Senake Bandaranayake, Sri Lankan Paintings in the 20th Century, unpublished manuscript, n.d, p.2-5

[2] Bandaranayake, Sri Lankan Paintings, p.3-5

[3] Jagath Weerasinghe, Made in IAS: an exhibition of paintings, sculpture and installation works by 16 artists from the Institute of Aesthetic Studies of the University of Kelaniya (Introduction to catalogue), Gallery 706, Colombo, 11-20 July, 2000, p.5.

[4] This section of the essay has been heavily drawn from two of my previous essays on the same subject; Jagath Weerasinghe, ‘The Moments of Impact: the art of ‘90’s trend in Sri Lanka’ in Pooja Sood (ed), KHOJ 2001 international artists’ workshop (New Delhi: KHOJ International artists’ Association, 2002), pp.85-88; and ‘Weerasinghe’, Made in IAS, pp.3-5.

[5] Jagath Weerasinghe, No Glory, Sarath Kumarasiri, Recent Works at Heritage Gallery, 18-36 April 1998.

[6] Senake Bandaranayake, Anxiety: An Exhibition of Paintings by Jagath Weerasinghe, (Exhibition brochure essay), The National Gallery of Art, Colombo, 23-28 November 1992; Anoli Perera,  ‘State of Sri Lankan Art’, Frontline, February 26, (1999), pp.66-68;

[7] Muhanned Carder and Anoli Perera are also part of the Vibavi Academy of Fine Arts. Carder returned from the USA in 1995, with a degree in Fine Arts from Chicago Institute of Art. Anoli Perera also returned from the USA in 1992 after a period of four years. She is mostly a self-taught artist who has worked for brief periods in several art workshops and art studios in the USA.

[8] The four commercial galleries that were active in 1998 were Gallery 706, Heritage Gallery, Gallery Mount Castle, and The Paradise Road Galleries. Another commercial gallery, The Bungalow was opened in 2000.

[9] Sharmini Pereira is an independent art curator based in London

[10] In this show Sharmini Pereira put together eight artists including Weerasinghe, and Thenuwara. The others in the show were Kingsley Gunatillake, Tilak Samarawickrema, Bandula Peiris, Druvinka Madawela, Laki Senanayake and Tissa de Alwis.

[11] Anoli Perera’s show titled, ‘Reclaiming histories: a retrospective exhibition of women’s art’, held in 2000 at Sapumal Foundation and Jagath Weerasinghe’s show titled, ‘Made in IAS’, also held in 2000 at Gallery 706 are good examples of this development.

[12] Shanaathanan is an artist based in Jaffna.

[13] Heinz Kohut, The Analysis of the Self, International Universities Press, New York, p.551, 1973


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