Since the end of a 26-year civil war between the government and Tamil separatists in May 2009, Sri Lanka has had one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, with significant development in tourism.
The government offers some support to the visual arts, although the focus remains on literature, music, dance and theater. Political censorship also remains a critical issue—particularly in film—resulting in many practitioners working “under the radar,” exhibiting in selective spaces and practicing self-censorship.
Sri Lanka’s visual arts community is supported by private organizations. In the capital Colombo, the National Art Gallery houses a small collection of traditional paintings, but has been mismanaged in recent years, leading to its overall decline.
Among the private organizations is the Sapumal Foundation. Based out of modernist painter Harold Pieris’s former home and studio in central Colombo, the space contains a historically important collection of paintings by the ’43 group, photographs by Lionel Wendt and a small reference library on Sri Lankan modern art.
The George Keyt Foundation focuses on its annual open-air festival in Colombo, “Kala Pola” (1/26), which features predominantly decorative artworks.
Also in Colombo, the Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund runs an active space with a range of visual and performing arts programs at their venue, the Lionel Wendt Art Centre. Artist and activist Chandraguptha Thenuwara’s annual solo exhibition, “Monotony” (7/24–31), included installations commenting on the government’s postwar “beautification” of Colombo. In conjunction with “Monotony,” Thenuwara presented the parallel exhibition “Drawing Series” (7/24–31), consisting of paper works depicting bodies, weapons and barbed wire, at nearby Saskia Fernando Gallery.
The Theertha International Artists’ Collective is a Colombo-based nonprofit that was established in 2000 and is part of the international NGO, Triangle Network. A main creative hub, Theertha regularly exhibits works by emerging artists in its recently relaunched adjunctive space, Red Dot Gallery. The exhibition and accompanying catalog “Sethusamudram” (1/27–2/15) was inspired by the mythological and political relationship between India and Sri Lanka; it was held in collaboration with India’s 1 Shanthi Road gallery.
Another important nonprofit is Raking Leaves, which promotes contemporary art through publications and printed matter. In January, as an extension of its mobile library projects with Hong Kong’s Asia Art Archive, Raking Leaves opened the Sri Lanka Archive of Contemporary Art, Architecture and Design, a permanent space in the north city of Jaffna with a comprehensive collection of catalogs, journals and books. The space also holds regular talks, screenings and seminars and acts as a research center for visual arts students. In October, the government placed a ban on foreigners traveling to northern Sri Lanka, significantly affecting programming and staffing at the Archive.
The Goethe-Institut in Colombo holds regular film screenings, exhibitions and performances. In 2011, the institute, along with the Colombo Art Biennale, initiated the Collective of Contemporary Artists, which runs collaborative projects focusing on showing public art in alternative spaces. Elsewhere in Colombo, the 30-year-old nonprofit Women and Media Collective advocates gender-based issues through projects such as the “Women’s Photography Exhibition” (11/25–28).
Founded in 1993 by Chandraguptha Thenuwara, the independent nonprofit Vibhavi Academy of Fine Arts (VAFA) provided tertiary-level education in the fine arts to many of Colombo’s contemporary artists, but has been less active since 2008 due to a lack of funding.
In December, Thenuwara also ran an artists camp jointly hosted by three visual arts universities: the University of Jaffna, Eastern University in Battiacoala and the University of the Visual and Performing Arts (UVPA) in Colombo. The latter is home to the JDA Perera Gallery, named after the nation’s pioneering figure in art education.
Sri Lanka’s commercial galleries are primarily located in Colombo. In 2014, five-year-old Saskia Fernando Gallery opened a new space opposite the UVPA, in addition to an existing outpost in the southwest city of Galle. Program highlights included “Decorated” (1/25–3/15), Sri Lankan painter Jagath Weerasinghe’s faceless portraits exploring the duality of existence, and Sarath Gunasiri Perera’s pastel abstractions in “In Search of Freedom” (9/15–10/15).
Barefoot Gallery showcased Alex Stewart’s watercolors inspired by miniature paintings in “Archeology of Being” (5/9–6/1). Paradise Road Galleries mounted Branka Ridicki’s architecturally inspired paintings (5/22–6/26) and Chathurika Jayani’s explorations of dwelling (9/12–10/2).
Hempel Galleries, founded by Colombo Art Biennale (CAB) director Annoushka Hempel, exhibits work by Sri Lankan artists locally and abroad and runs an outpost in Galle. In 2014, Hempel Galleries was one of several venues around Colombo to participate in the third edition of CAB, “Making History” (1/30–2/9), which presented 60 artists—nearly half of
them Sri Lankan—alongside a solo show of Rosemarie Trockel. For the first time, the Central Cultural Fund (part of the Ministry of Culture and Art) contributed to the private event.
Abroad, Muhanned Cader presented his cartographic-inspired paintings and collages at Talwar gallery in New York (10/24–1/31/15). Hempel Galleries traveled a larger version of the group show “Serendipity Revealed” to London’s Brunei Gallery (10/9–12/20). Elsewhere in London, Saskia Fernando Gallery collaborated with Breese Little Gallery to present a group exhibition of Sri Lankan artists, “Emergency” (5/29–6/28), alongside Jagath Weerasinghe’s traveling solo show “Decorated” (5/29–6/28). Elsewhere in the United Kingdom, Priyantha Udagedara showcased his collage-like layered canvases contrasting Sri Lanka’s beauty with its painful history at the student-run Norman Rea Gallery at the University of York (6/17–27). Back in Asia, Shalini Ganendra Fine Art in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, showed the colorful, mythological new works by Sanjeewa Kumara and Sujeewa Kumari in “Garden of Eden” (12/15/13–3/30).
Looking ahead, VAFA will relaunch its educational program with additional residency facilities in 2015. For the 56th Venice Biennale opening in early May, the Sri Lankan Archive of Art, Architecture and Design is in talks to participate in a public program accompanying the Biennale’s inaugural India-Pakistan Pavilion.