Sri Lanka’s chequered history, from the Sinhalese-Portuguese war of the 16th and 17th centuries to the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict in an independent nation and the current economic turmoil, is finding resonance at the ongoing India Art Fair in Delhi. Two artists from that country are displaying work that showcases the diversity of its culture as well as its suffering. One has used clay, the other has worked with found objects. While one is rooted in the country itself, the other is based in Australia.
Artists from the island nation have always responded to events in their country—some referencing the pain and agony, others creating acts of resistance. Australia-based Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, whose family practised both Hinduism and Catholicism, hopes his work can offer succour. “Hindu, Christian, and Buddhist cultures have coexisted in Sri Lanka. The work mines some of those reference points,” he writes in his artist statement. Kandy-based Kingsley Gunatillake, who calls himself an abstractionist and works with both canvas and 3D figures, has focused on the painful phase of the civil war from 1983-2009. “My viewers will find peace through my work that boldly questions violence,” says Gunatillake, who was born in 1951.
Nithiyendran is known for his ceramic sculptures, which feature audacious use of colour and ornamentation. Born in Colombo in 1988, he moved to Australia to study art at the University of New South Wales, and is currently based in Sydney. However, his work, which responds to ideas of gender, race and religiosity, is rooted in the imagery of Sri Lanka. His warrior figures are multi-limbed and polychromatic. Aesthetically, they are hyperbolic, exaggerated, often grotesque, and over-stimulated. There is a distinct element of the performative in Nithiyendran’s figures. His recent works are a gesture to a range of global histories that reflect his own ancestry.
At a time when the world is being divided by religion, privilege, caste and more, Nithiyendran’s “borderless” work assumes great significance. As an artist, he hopes to make his art accessible and enable people from different cultural backgrounds to respond. At a time when people from the country need succour, he hopes his art will provide relief.
Gunatillake studied at the Fine Art University, Colombo, before heading to Glasgow, Scotland, for a course in environmental education from the University of Strathclyde. In his sculptural works, he makes use of books, often cutting, engraving and burning them. Focusing on the nearly three-decade-long civil war that ripped the country, his “wounded” books are sensory responses to a personal experience of violence. “My art transforms the reader into a spectator in the way that I change the fundamental structure of the book,” he explains. Through the act of burning and cutting books, Gunatillake relives the burning of the Jaffna Library in 1981.
His practice is painstaking. Gunatillake begins with a concept, and once that has taken shape fully, goes hunting for “appropriate” books. “I like to use old and used books,” says the artist, who uses these as a “powerful weapon”. For him, it’s the written text that binds humanity together with knowledge and inspiration.
Both the artists “construct” their works. Nithiyendran begins by making them in parts, often creating multiple simultaneous pieces that inform each other. He does not work with a distinct plan or a preconceived design in mind. Nithiyendran’s expression is a reflection of himself, and of references drawn from the visual culture of his Sri Lankan roots. The use of the ancient medium of clay creates a time register when juxtaposed with digital, emoji-like expressions.
The clay sculptures radiate heightened human expressions and emotions. “My figures are aware that they are being looked at, and that creates an element of acknowledgement,” he explains.
He keeps his titles straightforward and literal. So Double Sided Multi Limbed Figure (2021) or Blue Figure With Snake (2021) are exactly what the title suggests. Gunatillake, too, doesn’t go in for abstraction in titles. Bullet Book (2019) has burnt bullet insertions through the pages of an open book, while Democracy (2019) takes on the title of the book he used.
Materiality and process play a significant role in the practice of both the artists. Through their distinctive approaches, they express deep personal emotions rooted in the situations of their homeland.
Rahul Kumar is a Gurugram-based culture writer.