- Aluwihare Heritage Centre exhibits the artist’s work at the Barefoot Loft Gallery
By Shailendree Wickrama Adittiya
Sri Lankan textiles have a uniqueness and diversity to them that has been cultivated over time by a number of iconic artists and practitioners, who each bring their own personality and talent to the table.
Ena de Silva is one such artist, and the Aluwihare Heritage Centre’s exhibition titled “Ena de Silva and the Making of a Sri Lankan Modern” was a vibrant celebration of the unprecedented textile arts practice in Sri Lanka by the iconic Ena de Silva.
Opening on 22 October, the exhibition was initially to be held until 3 November, but was extended until yesterday (6) due to demand. De Silva’s work was displayed at the Barefoot Loft Gallery as part of the artist’s 100th birth anniversary celebrations.
Ena de Silva’s work
Ena de Silva was born on 23 October 1922, and the Aluwihare Heritage Centre traces the beginning of her career to 1961 when a “pavement sale” was held under the porch of de Silva’s house on Alfred Place, Colombo.
“She designed many of the fabrics along with her son Anil Gamini Jayasuriya and Laki Senanayake working from the courtyard and studio of her house. Overwhelming demand allowed Ena de Silva to open a shop in Colpetty, selling cloth, clothing, and soft furnishings with workshops in Kotte and the suburbs,” wrote Channa Daswatte about de Silva’s craft.
She handled several projects and commissions locally and overseas and carried out some of her work in her father’s house in Matale, where she later established the Matale Heritage Centre, a craft co-operative. Through the Matale Heritage Centre, efforts were made to revive the traditional skills of wood carving and brass-casting, in addition to batik and embroidery. They also constantly collaborated with architects and designers.
Daswatte states that a key feature of the various establishments run by Ena de Silva was that they mostly employed women from the neighbourhood. This empowered the women and made them self-reliant.
Ena de Silva passed away in 2015, after which the workshop was renamed Aluwihare Heritage Centre to honour her family and village name.
Revolutionising Sri Lankan textiles
When talking about Ena de Silva’s work, it cannot be denied that the artist revolutionised Sri Lankan textiles. While banners have been an integral part of Sri Lankan culture, de Silva gave them modern interpretations. These were part of the Sri Lankan pavilion designed by architect Geoffrey Bawa in 1969 for Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan.
While these banners inspired later commissions as well, de Silva and her collaborators designed such flags and banners for the lobby of the Hotel Lanka Oberoi in 1974. The Aluwihare Heritage Centre states that a series of 12 provincial flags commissioned by Bawa in 1982 still adorn the forecourt of the Parliament building in Kotte and that more abstract versions of these banners were made for the Lowes Anatole Hotel in Dallas Texas in 1980 and for the new World Trade Centre in Colombo commissioned by Mildred Ong.
Versions of all these flags today hang at the Anantara Hotel in Kalutara as part of the reception and entry sequences to the hotel’s banquet halls.
A display of rare originals
The “Ena de Silva and the Making of a Sri Lankan Modern” exhibition really reflected how de Silva’s explorations of batik and embroidery over a decades-long career established a new artistic paradigm for Sri Lankan textiles. It displayed rare originals made by Ena de Silva and her collaborators in the two main categories of her work – batik and embroidery.
The exhibition highlighted the sources of their inspiration to better understand the work and its specific location in the art history of Sri Lanka. The Aluwihare Heritage Centre states that some of these objects are being seen for the first time, thanks to the unprecedented access given by de Silva’s daughter Anula Kusum Aluwihare Jayasuriya and other members of her family, the Geoffrey Bawa Trust, John Keells Holdings, Anantara Resort and Spas, Dominic Sansoni, and other friends and collaborators who worked with her.
Remembering Ena de Silva
Alongside Ena de Silva’s work that was displayed at the Barefoot Loft Gallery was a note by researcher Mirak Raheem, who shared that talking about Ena de Silva without using superlatives would be virtually impossible.
“Focusing on the fantastical figure that was ‘Aunty Ena’ however, risks neglecting her wider cultural contribution. Acclaimed for her signature batik fabric, she was also one among a set of icons who provided cultural momentum and direction to an island attempting to establish a distinct identity and culture in the post-colonial era,” Raheem writes, adding that de Silva’s ability to combine traditional and modern elements made her craft unique. He notes that she singlehandedly redefined the boundaries of batik using local floral and animal motifs along with abstract design, and a wide colour palette that ranged from vibrant to earthy hues.
“Ena had a passionate and abiding love for different facets of this country, but it was her hometown of Aluwihare that occupied a central place in her heart. The Aluwihare Heritage Centre, which she founded, was not a business venture so much as a labour of love, an effort to create a community of artisans from the surrounding areas. Her experiences, personality and relationships made this work possible,” Raheem writes.
He adds that de Silva was a self-made polymath with a deep interest in a range of subjects, including natural history, which found frequent expression in her designs. Her fascination with handicrafts was inspired by her family and other figures who challenged her to not just collect but to experiment with design. She embraced this challenge and went on to work with prominent figures of her time, in the fields of Sri Lankan visual arts, architecture, and handicrafts.
Raheem ends his note with the following: “To get a sense of who Ena was, just imagine her in the middle of a jungle, having a picnic. Seated on a hand-embroidered tablecloth, three hats perched atop her head, she instructs her faithful valet-cum-henchman Piyadasa to pull out crockery and numerous treats from large metal trunks. Dismissing the growing pile of dishes as ‘something simple’, she points with a multi-ringed finger to a tree in flower on the horizon, ‘A bit early, don’t you think?’”
Photos Pradeep Dambarage