With the toll that 2020 and the pandemic have taken on art and artists, it is truly exciting to see platforms that promote local artists adapting to the new normal and prevailing, despite the challenges of the pandemic. The Arcade Independence Square played host on 10 April to the first-ever “Kala Pola Pop-Up”, a showcase of 25 of Kala Pola’s most senior artists. The event was graced by John Keells Group Chairman Krishan Balendra and George Keyt Foundation Chairman Mike Anthonisz.
Kala Pola, Sri Lanka’s annual open art fair, which has showcased and promoted local visual art and artists for nearly 30 years, has worked tirelessly to keep their platform. Since its launch in 1993, Kala Pola has provided unique opportunities for painters and sculptors to showcase and market their creations to an ever-growing and appreciative audience each year.
Presented by the George Keyt Foundation in association with the unbroken patronage of John Keells Group, over the years, Kala Pola has grown to become a major cultural and tourist attraction in Colombo’s annual cultural calendar, taking over Green Path for one glorious day each year.
Kala Pola and the pandemic
The pandemic saw Kala Pola – with the John Keells Foundation (JKF), the CSR (corporate social responsibility) entity of the John Keells Group – evolving to host its first virtual Kala Pola, a month-long virtual event that took place from 21 February to 21 March 2021.
The virtual Kala Pola 2021 was hosted by the JKF’s Sri Lankan Art Gallery, an online gallery that was launched in 2017 to provide an opportunity for Sri Lankan artists to display their work throughout the year to a global clientele. Extensive upgrades were undertaken and funded by JKF to host the first online edition of Kala Pola.
Unlike previous iterations of the Kala Pola, this virtual Kala Pola took place over the course of a month, giving audiences plenty of time to browse the site and pick out work they would like to purchase. Its virtual nature also took Kala Pola’s artist base to a wider audience, as it was no longer limited to physical audiences and buyers residing in or visiting Sri Lanka.
The virtual Kala Pola 2021 also included fringe events like panel discussions and workshops that were streamed through the Kala Pola Facebook page.
Driving the Kala Pola platform further in 2021
Following the success of this virtual Kala Pola, the George Keyt Foundation with JKF introduced the first-ever Kala Pola Pop-Up Sale as the second phase of Kala Pola 2021. This physical pop-up, which was a curated selection of 25 of the most senior Kala Pola artists (some of whom have showcased at Kala Pola since its inception), was held while adhering to all health guidelines and included the traditional features of Kala Pola such as live portrait sketching, food, and live performances. The Kala Pola Pop-Up featured live performances by volunteer staff and singers from the John Keells Group.
JKF Communications and Project Officer Yashara Nathaniel explained that all artists involved in the Kala Pola Pop-Up have been a part of Kala Pola for more than 15 years, if not since its inception.
“We decided not to do the traditional event this year because of the Covid-19 restrictions. Hopefully next year, we might be able to do it again. We are continuing to show artists’ work online, which has been going very well with over 200 paintings being marked as sold during the virtual Kala Pola period. We have been able to expand markets by going online, with artists getting buyers from places like Pakistan and the UK,” Nathaniel said.
Selling art during the pandemic
Kala Pola is home to some of Sri Lanka’s master artists. Painter and sculptor Kalabooshana Nihal Sangabo Dias, who has been a part of Kala Pola since 1996, shared that Kala Pola as a platform has helped many artists grow. “Those days, we didn’t have a lot of customers,” Dias recounted, thinking back to selling art in the 1990s. “Now, because of Kala Pola, we have a lot of people recognising our work.”
Dias also commended the virtual Kala Pola platform, sharing that he himself had sold five paintings online.
One of the other renowned senior artists showcasing at the Kala Pola Pop-Up, renowned master portrait artist Kalabooshana Brindley Jayatunga, who has been a part of Kala Pola since 1993, shared with Brunch that while the Kala Pola Pop-Up 2021 has been flawlessly organised by JKF, the amount of interest from potential buyers has been less than normal years, something Jayatunga attributed to the pandemic.
“In the midst of Covid, and just before the New Year, art is not something that is important in people’s lives, especially when getting ready for the New Year with lockdown and travel restrictions. The fact that this was a much smaller version of the normal Kala Pola may also have played a part in the pop-up not receiving the same reception as the larger Kala Pola.”
Speaking on the virtual Kala Pola, Jayatunga shared that while he personally hadn’t sold any of his work during the month-long virtual event, several of his fellow artists had done quite well. “The online Kala Pola seems to have reached a large audience. However, that said, this is not like the real thing. Art must be tangible. When you buy art online, you don’t always know what you’re getting. It’s not like coming to the physical Kala Pola,” Jayatunga explained.
All moves to foster and promote art are to be commended, especially in trying times when art and creativity are so often swept under the rug in favour of more “practical” pursuits, even though when times were darkest and we were locked in our homes, we all turned to entertainment and the arts to see us through. In Jayatunga’s words, “we must appreciate what John Keells and Kala Pola are doing for the sake of art”.