Saturday, December 6, 2014

Wild and Wonderful

On the 11th and 12th of October, Lionel Wendt saw two artists, a generation apart, unveil their talent. WILD AND WONDERFUL was essentially a "Colombo 7 affair" as far as I was concerned. Still, the exhibition was one-of-a-kind. I interviewed both artists. Yes, in Colombo 7.

For some in Sri Lanka, art always has been coterminous with exhibitions. While this isn’t exactly very true a claim, what we have seen in recent years is a rapid increase in the number of new, budding painters coming up and displaying their talent for all to see. This doesn’t exclude veterans, of course.

Art, as we all know by now, is not elitist. By its nature, it rebels against the aristocratic tendency some conservative-reactionaries like to see it following. Neither is it plebeian, and I don’t deny that. Exhibitions, nonetheless, remain the only way to portray, display, and recognise talent.

Teruni Wickramanayake and Anya Ratnayake are nearly a generation apart. Nonetheless, their love for the medium they have decided to pursue as a hobby has brought them together in an upcoming exhibition. “Wild and Wonderful” will unveil itself for every art-lover in the metropolis (and beyond) next Saturday and Sunday at Lionel Wendt.

The title is the event’s signature: “Wild” representing Anya’s side to the exhibition (a collection of stippling portraits of wildlife) and “Wonderful” (featuring abstract paintings) that of Teruni. More so a fusion of two sides to the same coin.

A survey of Teruni’s room will confirm just how much painting has been impressed upon her. “I’m a relative of Harry Pieris,” she tells me, referring to one of the members of the celebrated ’43 Group of painters who heralded a radically new era for art here. She had picked up a love for the medium at an early age, complemented by her visits to several countries which boast of robust art cultures. Admitting that she holds no dogmatic preference for any one style over another, she makes it clear nevertheless that abstract art holds great interest for her.

“Wild and Wonderful”, however, is not all about art. Anya comments on her side of the story candidly, admitting that she’s a relative newcomer. Her paintings will feature wildcats, animals which she thinks have been neglected by the painters and photographers the world over. “It’s always leopards and tigers and lions we depict,” she tells me by way of explaining this, “There are people who don’t even know what an ocelot is. My primary aim in this exhibition is to raise awareness about these animals.”

She credits her parents with having encouraged an interest in painting at an early age; admitting that she still has a long way to go, she nonetheless makes it clear about the intense dedication and interest she has put into this effort. I don’t think anyone can deny that.

Reviewing the present state of painting in Sri Lanka, Teruni is not all too rosy. “We have enormous reserves of talent here. Unfortunately, they’re being marginalised. I must say that the situation has improved a little now, but the biggest problem, which is the lack of proper art-galleries, remains.”

I put it to her that the number of artists displaying their talent on pavements across Colombo bears testament to this, and she agrees. “It’s mainly to do with cost and affordability,” she says, “I remember how a group of students exhibiting their paintings at an art-gallery had to do, uncomfortably, without air-conditioning, because they just couldn’t afford that ‘necessary frill’.”

“Wild and Wonderful” isn’t her first exhibition, by the way. She’s had two others before. All that’s an entirely different story, of course, but those two exhibitions, one in 1997 and the other in 2012, made her aware of the intrinsic talent and value she possessed. “I was unsure whether I would be able to sell even one of my paintings. In the end, I sold 13 out of 26!” Perhaps it was a case of too much modesty, but she tells me how she used to give away her paintings for free, underestimating her own talent. “That’s long gone, I know. Now I have realised what I’m good at.”

It is fatally easy to attribute labels to artists. At the end of the day though, these labels alone will not vindicate those who leave their legacy imprinted on their works. We have our icons, dead and alive, and what they create continue to move us whenever we see them. “I don’t know why artists’ creations become expensive and reflect their true worth after they die,” Teruni says, and Anya agrees with her openly.

Ivan Peries (another painter from the ’43 Group) is of course a classic example for this curious fact (“no-one can get close to his paintings,” someone once wittily told me, referring to their price), but perhaps it is reflective of the “valueless while alive, valuable while dead” mentality our society has brought itself to accept unconditionally.

In any case, both Teruni and Anya testify to how much talent the metropolis in Sri Lanka boasts of. At the end of the day, painting is an inborn talent (both Teruni and Anya wholeheartedly subscribe to this view), and while it may not be a familial trait, it is true that painters cannot be made but are born.

“Wild and Wonderful” will blend in the best of both worlds, no doubt. In any case, next Saturday and Sunday (the 11th and 12th) will be their baptism of fire. Lionel Wendt, after all, has been a vigil of sorts for both established and budding artists. One can only wish Teruni and Anya the very best in their endeavour. No small fusion, what the two of them have achieved.

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, October 5 2014