Since the end of a 26-year civil war between the government and Tamil separatists in May 2009, Sri Lanka has had one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, with significant development in tourism in particular. Governmental support for the arts is slowly improving—in November, at a children’s art festival organized by the Ministry of Culture and the Arts, first lady Shiranthi Rajapaksa declared, “The young generation who areto take over the country’s future should be well-versed in the arts.”
Despite such official lip service, Sri Lanka’s visual-arts scene is supported primarily by private organizations. In the capital Colombo, the government-run National Art Gallery (NAG), which houses a permanent collection of traditional Sri Lankan paintings, does occasionally hold temporary exhibitions of more contemporary art, including one display of more than 100 paintings and sculptures by local artists (2/28–3/4).
Among the leading private organizations is the George Keyt Foundation, a patron of contemporary art, music and dance. This year’s edition of “Kala Pola” (1/29), an annual open-air festival held in Colombo, featured works by more than 300 emerging artists.
The Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund runs a visual and performing arts venue in Colombo, the Lionel Wendt Memorial Art Centre (LWMAC). There, the “WMC Women’s Photography Exhibition” (3/24–25), co-organized by the Women and Media Collective, spotlighted 33 female photographers. The center also organized a solo exhibition of 50 paintings by Pakistani artist Jimmy Engineer (11/14–18).
Another important nonprofit in Colombo is the Theertha International Artists’ Collective. It was established in 2000, is part of the international NGO network Triangle Arts Trust, and works closely with other Triangle members, including Pakistan’s Vasl, India’s Khoj International Artists’ Association and Bangladesh’s Britto Arts Trust. Theertha organizes workshops and residencies and operates Red Dot Gallery, which mounted the group exhibition “Cross Border Constellation” (9/28–10/5). The Theertha International Artists Residency 2012 exhibition (11/3–10) featured mixed-media works by Susanta Mandal and Thisath Thoradeniya.
Founded by Mieke Kooistra in 2007, kOOii: Art & Artist Support is an independent foundation that operates kOOii Art Space, which is rented to artists and arts groups for workshops, exhibitions and other events.
The Goethe-Institut in Colombo holds regular film screenings, exhibitions and performances. In 2011, the institute, along with Colombo Art Biennale, initiated the Collective of Contemporary Artists (CoCA), which holds weekly public meetings and runs collaborative projects focusing on creating and showing art in alternative spaces. In February, CoCA members organized a group exhibition of sculptures, video and installations at the Warehouse Project community center in Maradana (2/15–19).
Founded in 1993 by painter Chandragupta Thenuwara, the independent nonprofit Vibhavi Academy of Fine Arts (VAFA) is the only institution outside of the state system that provides tertiary-level education in the fine arts. VAFA operates a gallery, as well as the Association of Women Artists, which was established in 2001. This year, VAFA held its annual exhibition of works by current and past students at the LWMAC gallery (10/17–18).
The sole visual arts university in Sri Lanka, the University of the Visual & Performing Arts (UVPA) in Colombo, is home to the two-year-old JDA Perera Gallery, named after the nation’s pioneering figure in art education. There, “Islamic Monuments of India” (2/9–13) was an exhibition of photographs by Benoy K. Behl and Abhinav Atris, while “The Lord Buddha Through Contemporary Eyes” (8/21–26) showcased paintings by Sri Lankan artists selected from open-call submissions.
Sri Lanka’s commercial galleries are primarily located in Colombo. Barefoot Gallery showed “Tirth Yatra” (2/3–19), which featured watercolors by Druvinka Madawela, as well as a solo exhibition of abstract oil paintings by Preethi Hapuwatte (6/7–24). Saskia Fernando Gallery presented “Mediated” (8/25–9/15), an exhibition of work by four artists in collaboration with a researcher, an economist, a constitutional theorist and a novelist, as well as a display of drawings by Chandragupta Thenuwara and Jagath Weerasinghe (9/20–10/11). Sri Lanka-based Belgian artist Saskia Pintelon simultaneously exhibited a new series of cotton-canvas works at Saskia Fernando and an older series of works at Paradise Road Galleries (1/26–2/26). Similarly, the exhibition of Central St. Martin’s graduate, painter Anoma Wijewardene, was held at both spaces (6/12–7/18). Later, Paradise Road featured abstract paintings by Pakistani artist Noorjehan Bilgrami (7/19–8/19).
Located in Nugegoda, a suburb of Colombo, Art Way Gallery organized “Art Way Art” (3/28–31), a group show of over 200 drawings by schoolchildren, at the NAG. The two-year-old Hempel Galleries, founded by Colombo Art Biennale director Annoushka Hempel, hosts exhibitions featuring contemporary works by established and emerging Sri Lankan artists.
In February, the Colombo Art Biennale held its second edition, “Becoming” (2/15–19), with 41 local and international artists from 11 countries. Taking place across 15 venues, including the NAG, JDA Perera and LWMAC, the event included art talks, screenings and various satellite exhibitions throughout the city.
Abroad, Shalini Ganendra Fine Art (SGFA), run by Sri Lankan expatriate Shalini Ganendra in Selangor, Malaysia, exhibits Sri Lankan and Malaysian artists. This year, SGFA held a two-person exhibition of Sri Lankan painters Druvinka and Nelun Harasgama (1/12–3/15). In Cairo, painters Chandragupta Thenuwara and Sanjeewa Kumara exhibited in “Puducherry Blue” (6/14–27), a traveling group show of 28 artists from eight countries at the El Bab Gallery, Cairo Opera House.
London-based gallery Breese Little held “Drawings” (9/20–11/10), co-organized with Saskia Fernando Gallery, which featured works by Chandragupta Thenuwara and Jagath Weerasinghe. Elsewhere in Europe, “Don’t Measure Me: Contemporary Art from Sri Lanka” (3/18–11/18) was held at the Kuturhistorisk Museum in Oslo, showcasing political paintings, sculptures, photographs, videos and mixed-media works by 21 artists.
In the United States, Muhanned Cader’s paintings of seascapes were exhibited in “Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space” (1/21–4/1) at Cornell University’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art in Ithaca, New York. In Australia, Dominic Sansoni’s photographic works were part of the Asia Pacific Triennial (12/8–4/14/13) at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane.
Looking ahead, “Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space” will travel to North Carolina, where it will show at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in September 2013. In London, the Brunei Gallery at the School of Oriental and African Studies is organizing “Serendipity Revealed: Contemporary Sri Lankan Art,” scheduled for October 2014.