Sri Lanka has developed a thriving, vital contemporary art scene over the past twenty years. New artists are emerging to complement the work of their predecessors, who blazed trails in their employment of novel, often controversial, modes of practice. Yet contemporary art remains firmly outside the mainstream in Sri Lanka, supported by a small percentage of the general public and the efforts of a handful of individuals, universities and galleries.
While the art scenes in Pakistan and Bangladesh are beginning to gain recognition, and Indian contemporary art continues to boom, Sri Lankan art is virtually unknown internationally. The handful of institutions in this country that do promote Sri Lankan work tend to do so in the context of South Asian art, with little focus on the country itself. Not a single Sri Lankan contemporary artwork has ever sold at auction in Great Britain.
With so little attention paid to the scene, the popular impression of Sri Lankan art continues to be defined by the country’s most famous movement, the 43 Group. The collective was founded in Colombo in 1943, and sought to pioneer a consciously Sri Lankan interpretation of European modernism. The 43 Group artists, among them painter Harry Pieris and photographer Lionel Wendt, became renowned for their competitive strain of modernism. They remain the country’s most acclaimed artists, despite the group’s last formal exhibition being held in 1967.
There followed a period in which Sri Lankan artists began to break with a perceived over-reliance on European modernism. Prompted by the developments of Abstract Expressionism and the New York School, a seam of abstraction developed. The time was a crucial one in the development of Sri Lankan art, with practitioners moving towards a sustained engagement with their chosen medium.
Sri Lankan art is said to have become ‘contemporary’ in the early 1990s. The ‘90s Trend’ ushered in a revitalisation of art, characterised by a heightened awareness of the theoretical and conceptual. Sculpture and painting (which continues to be the most popular medium) were now complemented by digital, installation and performance art. There emerged a concerted effort to employ art as a social and political sounding board.
The civil war in northern Sri Lanka had by this time endured for twenty years. The conflict became the subject of explicit political protest in art, standing in stark comparison to the relatively benign themes favoured by the 43 Group. Art was no longer considered a pursuit outside society. Sensitivity to context became a priority, as compulsively communicated through the artwork itself.
While Sri Lankan art was gathering momentum, its infrastructure kept pace, and more widely available arts education helped cement this growth. Established figures fostered young talent, recognising the need to nurture future generations and diversify beyond the dominant discourses of the leading voices. The University of Kelaniya was for some time the only institution that offered art to a degree level, but was joined by the Vibhavi Institute of Colombo in 1993. Younger artists converged on Colombo from all over Sri Lanka to learn, and the number of practising artists grew substantially. This in turn saw the theme of urban life infiltrating Sri Lankan art, with the capital city itself becoming a subject.
While it would be reductive to posit a general Sri Lankan ‘style’ of art, it can be confidently argued that these artists share a commitment to exploring their Sri Lankan background. Sri Lanka is a small island which has experienced enormous upheaval over the last thirty years, which has in turn informed modes of expression and subject matter. Loose categories, which overlap and intertwine, can be suggested for the purposes of this article.
The first of such loose categories brings together artists that overtly address political concerns. A second would collect those with more abstracted themes and styles, while another group of artists focus on the expression of personal and cultural histories. Associated with each of these groups are some exceptional young artists, whose emergence provides healthy competition for the more established generation.