Sri Lankan artist Sarath Gunasiri Perara responds to the artamour questionnaire. Based in Kadawatha, Sri Lanka, he has participated in several solo and group exhibitions and workshops. His works are in private collections in both Sri Lanka and overseas.
1. When did you decide and what prompted you to become an artist? Please give a brief account of your challenges and struggles in your journey as an artist. Any role models?
SGP: I was born in a small village in Gampaha District in Sri Lanka in 1964. At that time, there would have been only about 20-30 families residing in the village. We knew almost all the families well; many were our relations. There were six members in my family – my parents, my brother and two sisters, and of course myself. My school days were wonderful; situated about two miles from home, walking through the lush green fields to school every day was really fun.
My father worked as a truck driver and travelled to remote areas in the country and came home only once a month. So we grew up in my mother's village and took care of my mother’s large family, especially my mother’s second brother who lived with us. My family didn’t have artists to make an impact, but my brother had the ability to draw a little. He made small pandals to celebrate the Vesak festival (Buddha Purnima) to commemorate special events in the life of the Supreme Buddha and during the school holidays he made beautiful kites.
I drew like almost every kid on the go but by the time I was in grade five, I was able to draw a little better than the other students in my class. My school friends didn’t believe I’d done the drawings myself and said that they were drawn by my brother. But in grade six my abilities began to stand out. This was the time when comic books and comic papers were gaining popularity in Sri Lanka. School children found the heroic characters very appealing. I began drawing as many of these characters as I could for my friends; they still remember them.
At that time studying one aesthetic subject was also compulsory in our school curriculum and a student could choose among dance, music or art as a subject. I chose music – I love music! As a child I would go small music parties which were held regularly in our village. My friends were surprised when I chose music over art as my aesthetic subject. But one of the weirdest things I said was that someday I will become an artist and I continued drawing. During the Vesak season, l made small pandals like my brother had been doing. I continued drawing pictures while I studied music until high school. But rather than attend music classes; I went to art classes every Saturday.
Once I accompanied Mr P Badugodahewa (our school art teacher) to an art workshop in Colombo organized by the Colombo National Art Gallery where I also drew pictures. I received a Certificate of Participation in Art, which was a first for me. There was also an art exhibition by veteran artists in the gallery, who also spoke and to whom I listened to intently. It was the first art exhibition I saw and some of the art on display inspired me.
I was selected to the Institute of Aesthetic Studies, University of Kelaniya (presently, University of Visual and Performing Arts) to study Oriental music. However, since it is mandatory for all students to attend a three-month accelerated English course before joining their main subject unit, I got the opportunity to interact with students of other disciplines. During this time, my friends who came to study art saw my special drawing ability. I vividly recall a pencil drawing of the image of Venus from Renaissance artist Botticelli's Birth of Venus I’d done then. A Sister in the art course who saw it requested it from me, which enhanced my desire to do an art course. I submitted a letter to the university registrar requesting my desire to study art; though he said he was not empowered to take a decision, he accepted my letter and agreed to submit it to the higher authorities. At the end of the English course, I was invited to the Head Office in Colombo to meet the Head of the Department of painting and sculpture. A special examination was conducted for me and I was selected as a student in the Department of Painting and Sculpture (presently known as Faculty of Visual Arts), which made me very happy. This was the turning point in my wonderful life in art.
After a short break at the end of the English course, I went straight to the art course. I was happy. We had a group of talented teachers, some of whom came to Horana (the place where we had to study two years) from Colombo. I was able to solve many of my problems with their advice. My teacher Dr RM Dharmasena's lessons and his method of teaching fascinated me. He greatly appreciated my presentation for the first activity at the end of the first lesson he taught me. After four years of study l successfully completed my art degree course in painting and graduated with Honours in 1987. The university appointed me as a visiting lecturer and later confirmed my appointment as a probationary lecturer attached to the department of painting and sculpture in 1991.
My beloved teacher Dr RM Dharmasena has been my role model, whose guidance has helped me, both in my career as a lecturer as well as an artist.
2. What art project(s) are you working on currently? What is your inspiration or motivation for this?
SGP: So far all my paintings have been conceptualized around the theme of "In Search of Freedom". It took me a lot of time before I could conceive of such a concept. Together with some contemporary friends, I participated in a unique art exhibition titled Sensation in 1992. The theme of the exhibition was the political crisis that claimed the lives of 60,000 people in Sri Lanka during 1987-1991. Many educated and intelligent university youth lost their lives in this crisis. The loss of a close friend of mine left me shell-shocked and I could not trace him after these events. Coming from a very poor family he was very valuable to his village but no one could change his fate. His poor parents died untimely due to this unbearable incident. It was unusual at the time to present all ten of my paintings for the Sensation exhibition around the same theme. The catalogue of that loss was unique to that exhibition. Previously, I used abstracted human figures for most of my paintings while I was studying at the department of painting and sculpture, but I found these studies inadequate to recreate the above incident and was motivated to do more studies. As a result, I gradually lost the human form that I loved the most in my paintings. All the paintings for this exhibition were exhibited again at the VM Art Gallery in Karachi, Pakistan, where I’d the opportunity to exhibit my paintings with my school teacher Mr P Badugodahewa and another veteran artist Seevali Ilangasinghe.
It was a great blessing to receive an ICCR scholarship in 1993 to pursue a postgraduate degree in Fine Arts at the Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi, India. Disappointed with the political situation in Sri Lanka at the time, I spent about two-and-a-half years at the university, which helped me to take my art to an altogether new level. I was able to associate with many of my contemporary Indian artist friends as well as students of other subjects from other countries who were also residing in the same international hostel I was in.
Many of my experiences in India have given the impetus to my innovations in art. Professor RS Dheer's advice, guidance of Prof. Anjan Chakraborty and the kindness received from other professors early on was valuable support. Although at first I was guided to paint the Ganga river, which flows alongside the city of Varanasi, I was not captivated by its physical appearance. Although I did some watercolours of the river and the city, I did not like them at all. Somewhat arbitrarily, I re-visited my art in the abstracted manner. My professors also allowed me the freedom to experiment.
My dissertation revolved around exploring my passion for the ancient art traditions, such as the Mughal and Rajput miniature paintings and Sri Lankan art traditions, in search of a new approach. However, Prof. Anjan Chakraborty explained that its scope is wider and directed me to further study the works of modern and contemporary artists. Many artists, including SH Raza, caught my attention. I continued to study the creations of the Progressive Group of Artists, especially their works after Indian Independence. I was also fascinated by the extraordinary Indian personalities such as Mahatma Gandhi, who gave life to the freedom struggle, and Rabindranath Tagore.
The philosophies of Buddhism and Hinduism, the sermons of Jain teachers, as well as readings on existentialism helped me to understand the futility of our bodies and to understand oneself meaningfully through the process of creation.
All the creations I did at BHU were abstracted landscapes and I didn’t really try to incorporate a great deal of knowledge I was reading about in them, However, I did a few works around the theme of humans and nature. After completing my MFA degree in BHU I returned back to Sri Lanka. I planned to exhibit these paintings in 1999, but my university administration did not provide me a healthy environment to hold it. Over time, as I became the head of the Department of Painting and Sculpture in 2004 and had the opportunity to exhibit my paintings at the exhibition called FOACUS that also featured the works of our beloved mentor Dr RM Dharmasena and several artists belonging to the Sensation group of artists.
After that I studied many things more quietly, including themes related to nature.The Trip-tych exhibition in 2013 (along with two other artists) was my turning point. I submitted 24 untitled paintings for this exhibition, which were much appreciated and l was invited by a private gallery, "Paradise Road", to re-display the paintings, which I did with the title In Search of Freedom in agreement with the curator. The exhibition was a huge success for me as an artist who was looking for a new path.
In Search of Freedom, various works of the same title over the years
(Swipe to view the different works)
I soon got ready for my first solo exhibition titled In Search of Freedom to celebrate my 50th birthday anniversary which was exhibited at the renowned JDA Perera Gallery, Colombo, in 2014. Thereafter, I held several solo exhibitions in Sri Lanka and participated in several group exhibitions in my country and overseas, happily continuing with the same concepts.
3. Contemporary art has become very diverse and multidisciplinary in the last few decades. Do you welcome this trend? Is this trend part of your art practice?
SGP: I’m more concerned with how we can learn from contemporary art, especially in my responsibility as a university lecturer. We could reject this flow and draw the boundaries, limiting ourselves to past art traditions, but contemporary art gives us the wonderful freedom and space for creation and discourse. However, I’ve not yet applied contemporary art practices to my art, though I do discuss this extensively with my students to identify their hidden talents.
I draw great pleasure to study and understand again and again what the East has bequeathed us both in art and philosophy. I remember one of my teachers who said, "Before you make a realistic creation, you have to understand what reality is." It took me a while to realize that this was not such a simple idea as it sounded.
It is my belief that people who have been associated with different heterogeneities over time are gaining some understanding of different ideologies and traditions are now enjoying enhanced spiritual thinking that is oriented towards the East. The ancient sages of the East have explained the understanding of the Absolute Truth simply, while we have experienced the emotions that come with dealing with images. Through my creations I try to gain an insight into myself and life in general.
I enjoy using soft colours and amorphous shapes, while contemporary thoughts are distilled in the art I do. People need to understand that the conceptual background in my art is based on contemporary experience.
In Search of Freedom v, oil on canvas, 60 inches x 54 inches
In Search of Freedom xv, oil on canvas, 30 inches x 21.5 inches
In Search of Freedom xvi, oil on canvas, 62 inches x 24 inches
In Search of Freedom xii, oil on canvas, 47.5 inches x 54 inches
In Search of Freedom iii, oil on canvas, 59 inches x 49 inches
In Search of Freedom iv, oil on canvas, 50 inches x 48 inches
In Search of Freedom vi, oil on canvas, 59 inches x 49 inches
4. Does art have a social purpose or is it more about self-expression?
SGP: Social goals as well as self-expression are unique to art. We know that art has been used in many different ways over a long period of time to create a diverse socio-political, religious and cultural environment. Many examples of this can be found in Eastern and Western cultures. Many discussions on this matter have been going on for different times. The great revolutions and world wars that have taken place in the history of the world and political ideologies that have evolved have constantly been addressed to the people through works of art. Artists who have sought the independence and complete self-sufficiency in art in their subject matter have conceptually waged great struggles, transcending traditional boundaries and advocated for their right to self-expression. The situation has also been exacerbated by the various atrocities that have taken place in the lives of human beings in society.
Artists often end up focusing on their spiritual well-being, sometimes out of frustration with society or perhaps because they are not satisfied with certain social responses. Eastern sages have explained that for one's own spiritual happiness one should not be a follower but should understand things through self-realization. Many contemporary art ideas, as well as existentialist thinking that emanated from Germany and France, espouse the idea of this self-expression. It is my personal belief, however, that both of the above – spiritual goals and social realities – are needed for the well-being of society. In this Covid era, society is experiencing the “untouchable” reality of such matters. It is vital to understand the necessity of self-discipline.
5. Where do you create your art (workplace / studio)? What is your process?
SGP: I create my artwork from my small gallery, where I’ve provided most of the basic facilities needed for my creative work. In the early days I had a lot of basic studies for my paintings. These are things that are common to me as well as to many other artists. At that time I had a great desire to draw human figures for landscapes, but later that desire changed and I started to approach all of this in a more realistic way (the paintings I presented at the FOACUS Group Art Exhibition in 2004). Over the time the natural features of the paintings gradually began to diminish. Almost all my paintings at the Trip-tych three-person art exhibition in 2013 were the result of these studies.
At work in the studio
Working space in the artist's studio
View of the artist's gallery with his paintings displayed on the walls
Many of the experiences I have gained over time have been a treasure trove for me. I have been experimenting for a while to release my art from the usual colour-line-shape paradigm on the canvas with free brush strokes to more subtly address the minds and hearts of my viewers through a simpler rule, recognizing the volatility of physicality. I see In Search of Freedom the ultimate result. Further, the real world I seek to identify and release on the canvas is not for individual suffering but for the sake of the conscious happiness of all.
Artist in his studio
6. To what extent will the world of art change in the post-Covid period – both in terms of what is created as also the business of art?
SGP: Whichever way you look at world history, it is clear that Covid is just another epidemic, a historic milestone. Such catastrophes have been recorded throughout the history of the world. Disasters such as wars, epidemics, floods, earthquakes, landslides, hurricanes, etc. have occurred with different intensities, at different times. Today, we have answers in relation to those times. The multiple forms of Covid-19 are still in the process of being explored and one day a clear solution to this will surely be found. Human existence did not stop at the time of the great historical disasters; we have faced them and are better prepared. As far as I can see, it's one of the most unique experiences we'll ever have, especially in the art world.
These days, art galleries as well as art museum spaces are a somewhat deserted, but there seems to be no shortage of interest in exhibitions and art. Artists are contributing qualitatively to many exhibitions and discussions online, both locally and internationally, with the help of digital technology. According to current information, there is a good demand for artworks in the world's most prestigious art auction houses these days. Most artists have been working on their creations regardless of the obstacles. Scientists are still working to overcome this menace and while we as artists cannot do scientific research for human survival, the role we can play for our spiritual well-being is immense. The Covid epidemic will teach us many lessons; most likely the world will be an even better place in time to come.
7. Tell us about any other interest you may have besides your art practice. Does it get reflected
in your art?
SGP: I love nature; I’ve taken a lot from nature for my creations. But as I mentioned earlier, I was more passionate about music in relation to art in my early days, but because of financial constraints I could not purchase all the musical instruments I wanted. I had a great desire to play the tabla and when I got the opportunity to play it to some extent that was not enough for me. Since I studied music up to high school, I was able to play the violin and some other musical instruments.
However, I decided to enter the Institute of Aesthetic Studies (presently known as University of Visual and Performing Arts). For the selection test, I sang as well as played the violin. But things changed for the worse when I expressed my desire to study art. My commitment to music gradually waned though I continued to make use of my musical skills and abilities on special occasions at university. Later, working in the field of fine arts, as I came to understand and analyse the subject more and more, I was delighted to discover the commonality of music with art and discussed this further with my music friends. Artists like Wassily Kandinsky had also interpreted the similar unique qualities of art and music. During my MFA from Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, I made many close friends in the dormitory who were studying classical music. I was fortunate to work with them often and visited classical music concerts in Varanasi. It is noteworthy that many Indian artists have gained knowledge by associating with classical music. Music has thus been a great support for me to further confirm the uniqueness of the amorphous language of painting.
Born in Sri Lanka, Sarath Gunasiri Perera did his BFA in Painting from the University of Kelaniya (presently University of the Visual and Performing Arts), Sri Lanka, in 1983-1987 and completed his MFA in 1993-1995 from Banaras Hindu University, India. He has held several solo exhibitions and participated in many group exhibitions both national and international workshops, and organized several national exhibitions in Sri Lanka. He has formerly served as the Head of the Department of Painting, and was the first Dean of the Faculty of Visual Arts. He was also the Chairman of the Art and Sculpture Panel, Arts Council of Sri Lanka. His works are in private collections in both Sri Lanka and abroad. He currently serves as a senior lecturer at the Department of Painting and resides and works in his home-cum-studio in Kadawatha, Sri Lanka.
(All images are courtesy of the artist, Sarath Gunasiri Perera.)
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