Image from the book launch courtesy the publisher.
Art is like magic. Sometimes it feels like a miracle, sometimes it feels like a trick. Art can be both elitist and populist, both boring and captivating, and you never know what you’re going to get. Or who’s going to get what. One of the main things fucking up art is peoples’ conceptions, curations and criticisms of it, but at the same time it is this artifice that sustains and communicates creativity. It’s a bit like religion and organized religion or politics and politicians. You can’t have one (on a mass scale) without the other, but sometimes the messenger kills the host.
Am I losing you here? This is a book review and it goes to show how hard it is to communicate anything about art, which is what The Power Of Sri Lankan Art: 1943 to 2012 tries to do. The electricity went out in Dehiwela last Friday and I had nothing to do but read this book, so I can honestly say that I’ve read most of it. And looked at all the pictures. It’s pretty good and doesn’t actively fuck up the scene or the enjoyment of the excellent work therein.
I must say that the prose verges on purple and you can get lost in elegiac phrases strung together with endless ‘and’s. There were certain lines that I read over and over again and still didn’t understand. I don’t think the grammar was quite logically strung. That said, the forewords and introductions (by Ellen Dissanayake, Sarath Chandrajeewa and Ruwan Laknath Jayakody) were excellent, and Jayakody’s proepiprologue (at the end) was perhaps the best – “by removing visual beauty he have managed to create an art that has successfully alienated all parties involved, resulting in only an elitist rapture”.
That said, most people reading the Rs. 5,000 book will have electricity and would probably experience it in a skim.
Jaguar by Prageeth Manohansa (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The square book is full of pictures, most of them pretty, some amazing. The focus, however, is on the artist. Each ‘chapter’ of two or three pages is devoted to a particular artist and their work. Thus when you see a picture you like you’ll get a brief title, but the bulk of the text is about the artist, not the featured art. Sometimes the text will reference awesome stuff (I read something about ninjas) which isn’t featured. You have to organize a book in some way, so there will always be gaps like this, not to mention the artists that weren’t featured.
That said, the book is long and comprehensive. It covers 52 artists over 70 years in good depth. Honestly, however, I think the sections would have been more interesting as interviews. As mentioned, the prose can run on and on, making somewhat idiosyncratic sense. The conversational quotes from the artists are the best part. Like this paraphrase from Prageeth Manohansa – “As today the art scene in Sri Lanka is like an elitist Cosa Nostra, a rich bourgeois Colombo coven, gobbling the spoils having formed their own cerebrally Machiavellian internal power structures through institutions like art universities and galleries’. Note that I’m grabbing the quotes that interest me (usually critical), which aren’t necessarily representative of the book.
If you’re skimming, it’s nice, a lot of the work is excellent to just glance through and some of the descriptions (especially of performance art) are interesting. If you go too deep, however, the reading is a bit tough, which I’ll get into.
Battle of Mulleriya wela by Prasanna Weerakkody (email@example.com)
So, no electricity, so I actually sat down and read. It’s not easy. The work has been done, but the prose gets purple. Here’s an example, at random, regarding Susiman Nirmalavasan:
All the said artists and his visits to their houses and studios allowed him to get an art education through reading books lent to him by them and he picked up many deep sensibilities regarding artistry, like being happy about the painting first before the fickle world of fame and also more fundamentally he learnt what to paint and what not to paint and he subsequently was inspired to join an activist organisation called Third Eye – Local Knowledge and Skill Activist Group. (pg 205)
There’s four transitional ands, at least two of which could’ve better been periods. There’s a lot of this and it gets hard holding somewhat complicated ideas in the head, at least this one. However, while I don’t much like the style, there is a depth of content in the pieces which goes beyond artist hagiography to giving a sense of context and deeper appreciation of the work. Art writing is hard, and this remains more comprehensible than most.
Soldier Moving series by Sanath Kalubadana (firstname.lastname@example.org)
So what is the scene that this book covers? Is there a Sri Lankan art scene worth mentioning, and is it powerful? One trope this book thankfully avoids is the curator, panel discussion hack of making art political or social or fitting it into other ends, ie justifying in terms of some other value besides the inherent. There is a diversity of voices and there is never such a dictatorial presumption made. Hence the book is not artificially divided into pre-war or war or post-war, it actually contains the diverse motivations of many different artists, not the social burden they’re supposed to bear.
That said, since the book is alphabetically, you don’t get a sense of the progression of Sri Lankan art either. Numerous artists reference Jagath Weerasinghe as an influence but (being a W) he only appears late in the book. You do get a sense from the intros and extros, but the meat of the book is somewhat disconnected in that sense. That is simply a choice you have to make due to the medium, however, and I dunno how you can do it differently. I mean, each artists work spans decades and one painting alone (Ashley Halpe’s) took 35 years.
After reading the book, I would say there is a scene, the breadth and creativity of which surprised me. It was both borne of and struggled to escape colonial/western influences and find a voice of its own, or even a coherent identity. After the end of the seminal 43 Group (Lionel Wendt and all) no particular movement has really defined the scene and individual artists are influenced by and influencing trends that are beyond Sri Lanka’s physical shores.
So, is it a good book? Yes, the depth and quality of work is incredible. Is it easy or even especially pleasant to read, not really, but it’s still rewarding. Do I recommend picking it up? Well, yeah, I guess I do. It’s a bit steep at Rs. 5,000, but it does cover almost a century of work by some really incredible people and I for one feel like my head is full of cool stuff that could germinate in many rewarding ways.
The Power Of Sri Lankan Art is available at ODEL, Barefoot, and most bookshops