Sri Lankan contemporary art is still a niche specialism in the western art markets. In the last few years there have been more exhibitions of Sri Lankan contemporary art outside the country due to collaborations between commercial art gallerists in Sri Lanka and art venues and commercial gallerists based overseas. The last quarter of 2014 saw the Brunei Gallery in London staging the largest Sri Lankan contemporary art exhibition, which was curated by Annoushka Hempel. Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne met her during the exhibition in London.

This exhibition features over 120 works from fourteen artists. I believe this is the largest portfolio of work of contemporary art by Sri Lankan artists to be exhibited in London. Besides the scale of it, what are the other attributes which you think will mark this as a milestone in the years to come?

Yes, this is the largest exhibition of Sri Lankan art in the UK to date. Serendipity Revealed marks a time in history. It is a post war perspective through the eyes of the artists. Unlike literature and journalism, visual art is not censored. Therefore these are 'real' accounts of an incredible country that has been directly exposed to so much. Each artist has been given the opportunity to exhibit a number of works rather than just one or two if space constraints had been a limiting factor. The opportunity to present a small portfolio gives the viewer an idea of the body of their work. This creates a narrative within a narrative. Each artist has their story to tell within the entire narrative.

The exhibition hangs well and seems to be coordinated as many of the pieces are both visually striking and rich in narrative. Although many of the works clearly comment on socio-political issues in Sri Lanka, many of the questions and anxieties posed by them are universal. What were the challenges you faced as a curator in putting together a mix that is diverse but has a cohesive thread?

As a curator I would say this was 'heaven on a stick' rather than a challenge. It was an absolute honour to work with such diverse and talented artists' works that all play their own narrative instruments within a harmonious orchestra.

What was the genesis of this exhibition and what sort of gestation has it undergone from idea to implementation?

The seeds of this exhibition were planted in 2010 after the first Colombo Art Biennale with Anoli Perera & Jagath Weeresinghe (who came up with the title). The mix of participating artists has expanded to include a good balance of senior, mid career as well as emerging artists. The mediums also varied from painting, installation to photography. We also included diasporic artists who may not have been included three years ago. As far as the gestation of the content is concerned, the additional time has of course given the artists the opportunity to be more retrospective and it has given younger artists a chance to be part of the show.

Some of the material used in the works is obviously of Sri Lankan origin. But in our conversation at the exhibition you mentioned that the intellectual and artistic thought process also makes them different to other South Asian contemporary art. To a less experienced viewer are there any 'navigational features' that lend themselves as visual waypoints to help see the difference?

I am assuming you are asking what sets Sri Lankan artists apart from other South Asian artists? The larger international art scene as with so many aspects of life, influences the rest of the art world. Various art movements have been carried over. Countries such as Sri Lanka who have been dominated and in some cases isolated by their national and political events, have to a certain extent been less influenced by external movements. Serendipity Revealed looks to unveil the stories of Sri Lanka’s recent history through the eyes of individuals who have had personal and in many cases direct experiences of its history. The subject matters and narrative of these works are very much fueled by these experiences. This is evident when looking at the works.

This exhibition shows that Sri Lankan contemporary art is a home grown expression, mature and confident. It has left the early romanticism and is not merely embracing western forms, although there is a convergence in the willingness to explore many media. What do you think needs to be done more to deepen the appreciation of Sri Lankan contemporary art in Sri Lanka itself?

More importance to be placed on art and artistic endeavours. Government cultural funding needs to be allocated for exhibitions not only for Sri Lankan artists but also for bringing international exhibitions to Sri Lanka for the benefit of the Sri Lankan audiences. Funding needs to be made available for Sri Lankan exhibitions abroad to build the Sri Lanka brand as well as to create awareness of its art. Reciprocal dialogues need to be encouraged and more media exposure is needed. We need to look to the rest of Asia to see what is happening. Within Sri Lanka the perception of art is still largely unsophisticated and viewed as simply art for art’s sake, as opposed to having important social roles.

What advice would you give an aspiring contemporary artist who wants to achieve commercial success?

Find a gallerist or dealer to work with whom you can imagine yourself working with for at least 7 years. The relationship between artist and gallerist should be a reciprocal working relationship. For a gallerist to represent and promote artists to their best, there must be a sense of mutual trust. Keep working and keep working from a place of courage and authenticity. The viewer can sense it.

The Artists

The curator selected artists, most of whom are living and actively working in Sri Lanka, as well as some diasporic artists.

  1. Anoli Perera – Installation & Photo Performance
  2. Pala Pothupitiye – Mixed Media
  3. Cora de Lang – Painting & Mixed Media
  4. Jananda Laksiri – Video and Digital Medium
  5. Mahen Perera – Installation
  6. Liz Fernando – Photography
  7. Reginald Aloysius – Painting
  8. Kingsley Gunetillike – Book Art & Mixed Media
  9. Dhanushka Amarasinghe – Video
  10. Koregalana Pushpakumara – Installation
  11. Nina Mangalanayagam– Photography
  12. Vimukthi Jayasundera – Video
  13. Umasangary Ratnalingam - Painting
  14. Thujiba Vijayalan – Painting