Sri Lanka has long been represented as a paradise on earth. The notion of the island as paradisiacal dates back at least to Horace Walpole’s 1754 letter coining the term ‘serendipity’, from Serendib, an old word for this tropical island. Thus, Sri Lanka became associated with good fortune and the making of chance acquaintances or discoveries. In classic Orientalist texts, Ceylon or Sri Lanka tended to be seen as an exotic, magical zone, sometimes known as the ‘Pearl of the Orient’. This sort of language lives on today in tourist brochures and in popular imagining of an island studded with deserted beaches, elephants, tea plantations, and languid games of cricket.
However, ethnic conflict of course scars this paradise and, even since the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War in 2009, there remain stark divisions between the main groups: Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, and the almost entirely exiled Burgher population. Having lived his early years in an apparently peaceful Sri Lanka, and then witnessing the eruption of the conflict from 1983 onwards, has crucially shaped Dr Priyantha Udagedara’s artistic practice. Through his paintings, he subtly puts forward a simultaneously humanist and a nonspeciesist message. By integrating Sri Lanka’s flora and fauna into his works, with the plastic flowers often used to commemorate the dead or the disappeared, and with human figures whose skin is flayed, Udagedara creates work of a Yeatsian terrible beauty.
Sri Lanka and its inhabitants are often viewed as amongst the world’s most beautiful, peaceful places and peoples, but civil unrest and war has created just the opposite: violence, bloodshed and ugliness. It is unsurprising, then, that one of Udagedara’s previous painting series was entitled Paradise Lost. Yet in his new series, Udagedara moves on to explore Sri Lankan society’s attempts to heal while still being cast in terms of a romantic island. He also explores the palimpsestic layers of religions, languages, cultures, and Western/Eastern influences that co-exist uneasily in Sri Lanka.
In so doing, his art becomes a call to action in creating a new society in which difference is accepted, reconciliation may be achieved, and various faiths and worldviews are tolerated. In addition to his early works of mixed medium, Udagedara also here introduces recent incursions into watercolour, a medium often derided for its twee, ‘chocolate-box’ tendencies. Yet even in this most gentle and mannered of paints, Udagedara again creates an almost collage-like layering of disparate objects, with fronds, mythical animals and teardrop-like smudges rubbing up against each other. His colour palette may be more muted than the earlier works, but the subject matter is equally as uncompromising and haunting as before.
After passing his PhD in Fine Art Practice with no corrections from Leeds Metropolitan University earlier this year, Udagedara is likely to move back to post-conflict Sri Lanka in the autumn. Take the opportunity to come and see this brilliant exhibition while you still can.
Dr Claire Chambers
Department of English and Related Literature
University of York