Art Blossoms in Colombo

Anoli Perera’s huge dress takes up half the room. It’s bright red and full of holes and looks like a giant bird taking to flight. When I first saw it from a distance I thought it was a fishing net.

I’m at the J.D.A. Perera Gallery which is showcasing some of the artwork of Colombo Art Biennale. Four years ago, which was when I last visited this part of Colombo, there was no art gallery here: just the modest buildings of the Faculty of Visual Arts. Finally these talented students seem to have got a place to hang their paintings.Colombo Art Biennale 2012Photo credits: Achala De Silva

As I walk past the displayed works, the brilliant and the meh, the blogger in me regrets not bringing a camera. I don’t, for they look much better in plain sight than through a viewfinder.

Anoli’s dress, titled ‘Elastic Dress II’ is part of ‘Second Skin’, a combined artwork that refers to ‘the female experience of dealing with the anxieties of change that their bodies are subject to’. Shirmal Silva’s photographs under the art direction of Dilki Perera explore this through a series of images where a woman ‘wearing’ this red dress is seen almost trying to hide from us within its many folds.

Dwarfed by the Second Skin, sitting in a corner, are Vaidehi Raja’s four beautiful woodcut and mixed media prints titled ‘Time for Reflection’. It’s a depiction of how one has little time for personal reflection in a world that is in a race to accumulate ‘things and titles’: an apt reminder to a generation that has more Facebook friends than real ones.The Patient and The Cause of Illness by Jagath Weerasinghe‘The Patient’ makes you sad.Photo credits: Colombo Art Biennale

My favourite paintings at the Perera Gallery are by Jagath Weerasinghe, who also happens to be a Co-Founder of the event. ‘The Patient’ and ‘The Cause of Illness’, two concertina painted books, reminded me of some people close to my heart who depend on pills to maintain the proper functioning of their bodily systems. It was a beautiful and sad and at times sarcastic exploration of the interaction between the germ and the man.A painting of a sleeping man on a matA painting on a mat by Pradeep ThalwattaPhoto credits: Anjana Marasinghe

More works are on display at the National Art Gallery, and I walk past the new Nelum Pokuna Theatre, giant and imposing and clearly beyond the budget for most local artists, to this old bastion of Sri Lankan visual art.

In the middle of the gallery is the Indian artist Vibha Galhotra’s ‘Neo Monster’, although at the moment its all deflated and quite confusing. Apparently it’s a totally different experience when the air blower is working, for then that huge pile of nylon cloth turns into a giant backhoe loader, toy-like yet dramatic and formidable.

Menika Van Der Poorten – her name betrays her mixed roots – investigates the disappearing eurasian (Burgher!) presence in Sri Lanka through a series of portraits. The first thing that occurred to me as I saw them was The Jam Fruit Tree i.e. fictional characters, not real people. That probably tells what kind of an endangered species the Burghers are.

After the J.D.A. Perera, the National Art Gallery feels small, for after several minutes I have come full circle. Perhaps it’s the Neo Monster’s non-showing that causes me to leave early. As I step out on to the Nelum Pokuna Road, there’s a different kind of exhibition, familiar and expected.

Many aspiring artists sell their paintings by this road on the weekends, and one particular collection captures my attention today.

“Are these yours, Sir?” I ask from the thin old man sitting on a plastic chair next to them.
He smiles. “No, they’re my son’s.”
“I like his style,” I say, and his face brightens up.
There’s a set of three abstract paintings that attract me with their red earthy hues.
“How much are these?” I ask.
“Six thousand rupees.”
“What, all three of them?”

That’s less than 50 dollars.

I ask him about his son and his art. This proud father brings those paintings every day of the week to sell by the road side, and he tells me that on weekdays I am to look for him on that spot over there on the other end of the road.

Inside the galleries, and outside, art is blossoming in Colombo. At galleries I go window shopping; out here by the road, I’m a connoisseur.