Two Sri Lankan artists explore their roots through vastly different narratives.
Reginald S. Aloysius and Gihan Karunaratne are two contemporary artists who spent their formative years living outside of Sri Lanka. Art Radar spoke with Aloysius and Karunaratne to learn more about their work, and how living in the United Kingdom informed their techniques whilst their native country remained in their consciousness.
Reginald S. Aloysius (b. 1970) was born in London. The artist graduated with a BFA from the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford and received his MA in Drawing from Kingston University, London. Aloysius has participated recently in the Colombo Art Biennale 2014 and the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition (by invitation). His work has been widely exhibited in London and in several group shows in the United States.
Gihan Karunaratne was born in Sri Lanka in 1973. He holds a BA (Hons) in Architecture: First Class from University of Greenwich, and an MA in Architecture and Interiors from the Royal College of Arts, London. Karunaratne has exhibited his work at the Colombo Art Biennale 2014, the Rotterdam Architectural Biennale (2009) and four times at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. He is a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects and won The Bovis and Architect Journal Award for Architecture (1999). He became a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts for Architecture, Design and Education in 2012. After twenty-eight years abroad, Karunaratne returned to Colombo in 2012 to set up an architecture and design company and is currently a Visiting Lecturer in Urban Design and Architecture at the University of Moratuwa.
Art Radar spoke to both artists about their practice and influences.
Does your Sri Lankan heritage show up your artwork? How?
Reginald S. Aloysius (RSA): I am a British Tamil Sri Lankan born in London, but as a child I would travel back to Sri Lanka for visits on a fairly regular basis. Initially, I studied economics and politics at university. Having left this path, I went on to study my BFA at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford University. Whilst [working] on my Postgraduate Degree at Kingston, I travelled to South India and Sri Lanka and the basis of my work began to develop. It was the fact and the experiences of being born in the United Kingdom of Sri Lankan heritage that led me to investigate cultural change and diaspora.
Gihan Karunaratne (GK): I was born in Sri Lanka. My family and I immigrated to London when I was eleven. From an early age, I was interested in art, especially ancient Sri Lankan temple paintings. I recall early memories of visiting religious buildings throughout Sri Lanka and was fascinated by the painted narratives, parables and symbolism on the temple walls.
As an artist who lives and works outside of Sri Lanka, what traditional motifs or narratives from Sri Lanka (if any) are present in your artwork? Is your artwork a blend of both East and West? How?
RSA: There aren’t any particular motifs present in the work, but I would say that the work has been influenced conceptually by Sri Lanka and South India. The content obviously has an ‘Eastern’ theme and is physically and conceptually related to the construction of temples, in particular, Dravidian architecture. The execution lends itself much more to Western practices, [such as] early photography or the late Baroque works of Claude Lorrain and Salvatore Rosa and their romantic and fantastical depictions of ruins. If there is any narrative depicted, it perhaps comes in the form of the architecture itself, and the cultural background and meaning of the temples themselves.
Is there a particular artist or traditional technique from Sri Lanka that inspires you and your artwork?
RSA: Much of the drawing that makes up the background of the work has been influenced by paintings in South India and Sri Lanka from the ninth and tenth centuries, with bold colours and repetitive foliage. The frescoes of Sigiriya and Dambulla have also been images or techniques that have always stayed with me. The plastering on the walls was painted white before the frescos were completed. This is also along the lines of the Hindu temple gopuras, where numerous small sculptures are painted in bright colours after having been painted white.
In the same way, I coat the support (primed MDF wood) with twenty to thirty layers of white paint before sanding down the surface to create a ultra smooth surface to work on. Influences have come from different sources and mainly from observations of the everyday from the gold embroidery on the borders of saris (gold leaf) to the colourful floors of temples covered with petals (oil paint).
Reginald, you have mentioned globalisation, emigration and destruction of tradition in reference to narratives found in your artwork. Is there a tension between East and West, modernity and tradition in your artwork? Please give an example.
RSA: The drawings are made with graphite pencils, erasers and tortillions (tightly rolled up paper with a point). The nature of the subject matter and the choice of materials means the work is extremely labour intensive and can take up to two months to complete.
If these works are structured according to tradition, then modernity enters through vector-like routes. Over the top of the images, I have inscribed – etched into the surface of the wooden support – a series of precise lines. These lines are, in fact, based on airline flight paths. They are mapped onto the works and, in the process, I radically scar them – an act that cannot be undone – using a scalpel, before finally painting into the grooves using enamel paint, thus melding together two quite different iconographic registers.
Commercial flight paths are, of course, also migratory routes. The “paintings” are maps that pick out the routes of contemporary culture. Originally maps were intuitive and symbolic rather than cartographic: they were drawings that expressed an idea of place rather than a definition of space. There is a conceptual continuity in the work between the idea of drawing and the concept of making one’s mark, of recording and inscribing one’s subjectivity. They may also be seen as lines that threaten to turn the surety of national identity into the shifting, nomadic identity of transnational cultures.
Drawing relates to other processes of cultural mark-making, including the introduction of an international style of modern architecture that inscribes itself on age-old landscapes and cultures. I reference such structures in the paintings through a series of thin lines that suggest a tension between the old and the new, between the architecture of ancient temples and modern skyscrapers, offices and apartments. These vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines (scaffolding of new buildings) have the quality of an invasion.
Reginald, your work reminds me of images from explorers such as M. Henri Mouhot and Samuel Byrne. Do you think there is a sort of romanticism behind these types of images harkening back to colonial times, or is it something else more modern perhaps?
RSA: The work resembles the imagery from that time, [specifically the] temples and foliage surrounding them. I hope there is a little irony with respect to any similarities between my work and the early photography of such explorers. The foliage suffocating the temples are separate images that I have taken from the jungle near the temples – a metaphor for an ancient culture being engulfed by the new.
Gihan, as a practicing architect, does your education and experience in this particular discipline carry over into your artwork? How?
GK: In London, I studied architecture at the Royal College of Art. As a student, I was always immersed in the initial stages of the architecture project, especially site analysis. When I visit any particular site, I always research its existing physical structure or forms, as well as its history, not only at one specific time but what happened there five minutes ago, five years ago, and fifty years ago as a continuous narrative. The “occupation” of the site also fascinates me, and the impact it has on its surroundings and on the psychology of its users and viewers. In the end, the research is presented through maps and diagrams, as well as physical models.
My general philosophy and interest lies in urban conditions within cities, especially London and Colombo, which are undergoing constant physical, economic and social changes in patterns of urban living. In many of my projects, I have researched and explored the underbelly of the city in great detail, specifically the peripheries and incidences where people hide from social normality and explore illicit activities.
Some of your work explores gathering data and mapping movements of people. What exactly is “kettling”?
GK: In the last five years, I have been interested in mapping the constantly changing techno-cultural phenomena, service and communication networks and socio-political events taking place within our city structures and its inhabitants. I believe maps can be a compilation of hidden data not bound to a fixed time, scale or grid and can evoke exploration into the ethereal world.
My maps are drawn with a combination of observation, investigation and data analysis. These maps identify movement, socio-economic patterns, and current local and global political conditions. By exposing these alternative realities, the maps are then open to interrogation.
Most of my work is based in London and exploring issues such as democracy, state surveillance, sexuality, crowd control (“kettling” techniques) and how technology can be used as social networking to track a person or aircraft in real time. However, [this is] a subject matter [that] can be explored anywhere in the world.
Gihan, how does social media, and what some would call the “mass surveillance state”, factor into your artwork?
GK: At the Colombo Art Biennale 2014, I exhibited a series of maps, diagrams and a short animated film mapping, portraying the G20 protesters outside St. Paul’s cathedral in 2011, throwing light on police kettling techniques, questioning the use of social media, smartphone tracking techniques and the banality of infrastructure maps.
Currently, there are debates worldwide about the rise of private surveillance, and how personal data is being used in social media by companies and the state for the purpose of security and commercialism. Companies and government bodies such as Wikileaks, [Government Communications Headquarters] GCHQ and the [Central Intelligence Agency] CIA are being interrogated about their involvement in private information. Data ownership is another current issue, which I’m interested in exploring through my maps.
I am researching the police and military observation towers that have spread around Colombo. These are common structures, seen all around Sri Lanka due to the country’s recent political conflict. Such a structure allows viewing the apparent disturbances of a political manifestation or of a military nature, without putting one in harm’s way. Such installations can make us question the implications of surveillance and its impersonality even when viewing everyday activities. These types of physical structures are directing or impeding certain disposition or activities within a given space – as ‘architecture of control’.
Users are often unaware of the psychological effects of this type of architecture, and for this reason, are often successful at shaping the behaviour of others. By concealing itself in the shadows, the structure can intensify its effect on the behavioural patterns of the surrounding neighbourhood. This type of confined territorial enforcement can also outline private spaces from semi-public and public areas. Outsiders and intruders can be established when there is a sense of ownership within a space.
My aim would be to exhibit a replica of this type of tower or structure in a gallery or space and map its impact on the surroundings by collecting data regarding the behaviour of its viewers and users. The “tower” would be constructed and transported in a series of components to the potential site and erected at the given location. The visitors to the structure will be able to climb and observe the surroundings from the air. As one climbs up, visitors observe the various view points of the city, infrastructure, and circulation patterns and experience the psychological effect of surveillance. I am also currently researching Colombo slums and researching how inhabitants occupy space and what construction methodology they use to construct their homes.
Any upcoming shows, exhibitions or biennales that you’ll be participating in the next six months or so?
RSA: I’m presently working towards two shows. In September, I will be exhibiting alongside Yiannis Christakos in a two-person show entitled “Flyways” at the C & C Gallery in South London. Following this, in October I will be presenting a number of new pieces at “Serendipity Revealed”, a group show bringing together work by Sri Lankan contemporary artists at the Brunei Gallery, London (School of Oriental and African Studies).
Next year, following the London Art Fair in January 2015, I will have my first solo show at Hempel Galleries, Colombo, Sri Lanka in March.
GK: At present, I’m in discussion with a number of independent galleries and institutions in Sri Lanka and Shanghai to exhibit my work.
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