Every now and then in art, you are lucky enough to bear witness to the birth of a new era, to see a turning point in art history play out. 2020 has been a turning point for the whole world for a multitude of reasons, with which we are all intimately familiar. For Sri Lankan art and art history, however, 2020 stands to become a turning point for a new chapter – a return to the appreciation and recognition of representational art, sometimes also known as “realism”, and this is due to the formation of the 2020 Group.
A (relatively) small group of like-minded artists, the 2020 Group includes veteran artist Kalabooshana Gunasiri Kolambage, renowned master portrait artist Kalabooshana Brindley Jayatunga, painter and sculptor Kalabooshana Nihal Sangabo Dias, champion portrait artist Dr. Shanaka Kulatunga, contemporary classical artist Dillai Joseph, realistic and impressionist artist Sunil Katugampola, hyperrealism artist Anupa Perera, contemporary representational artist Basil Cooray, representational and stylised figurative artist Charita Lay, portrait and figurative artist Senani Senanayake, watercolourist, illustrator, and cartoonist Wasantha Siriwardana, and versatile representational artist Sachith Graham De Silva.
These 12 illustrious artists, who have all trained for years under international and local masters and gained international recognition for their skill, have come together to create the 2020 Group, and in doing so foster a renaissance of sorts of representational art.
Brunch sat down with a few of the 2020 Group – Co-Founder Brindley Jayatunga, Curator/Co-Founder Sunil Katugampola, and Founder Members Dillai Joseph, Nihal Sangabo Dias, and Charita Lay – to find out more about the 2020 Group, what they’re trying to do, and how they came together.
A sense of history repeating itself anew
The last time a group of artists came together in this manner was with the formation of the famous ‘43 Group in 1943, when artist and photographer Lionel Wendt (after whom the famous theatre is named) grouped together several young artists who were influenced by the traditional and modern art forms of the West, aiming to drive a new movement in Sri Lankan art. The ‘43 Group originally included many renowned artists whose names are still known today, including Harry Pieris, Justin Daraniyagala, George Keyt, Geoffrey Beling, George Claessen, Aubrey Collette, L.T.P. Manjusri, Richard Gabriel, and Ivan Peries.
The ‘43 Group and their work inspired a whole movement embracing experimental art forms inspired by European modernism of the early 20th Century, with each of its artists interpreting art in their own respective style. It also ignited contemporary Sri Lankan art as we see it today.
The 2020 Group is a new group of like-minded artists to create a similar movement embracing representational art.
Speaking on how the 2020 Group came to be, Katugampola shared that the 2020 Group was the result of a discussion between him and Jayatunga taking inspiration from the formation of the ‘43 Group. “There have been no other significant groups like this where it has been a movement since the formation of the ‘43 Group 80 years ago. We feel that this is a historical move by our group. We have 12 members who are very senior artists and have very distinctive styles of their own,” Katugampola said.
Driving a renaissance for representational art
The 2020 Group’s vision is to drive international recognition and local appreciation for representational art and make it an undeniable force in Sri Lanka’s art scene. Explaining representational art and what that means, Dillai Joseph explained that representational art is what most people consider realism: Art that has no abstraction.
“Representational art has to represent something of reality, it has to be close to reality and represent objects or events in the real world in an easily recognisable way. The work by the 2020 Group and its artists is within the framework of representational art,” Joseph said.
“It can be different genres like landscape art, figurative art, portraits, still life, and so on and in different styles, be it stylised, realism, impressionism, idealism, or hyperrealism. But it will fit within the spectrum of representational art which describes artworks – particularly paintings and sculptures – that are clearly derived from real object sources, and therefore are by definition representing something with strong visual references to the real world,” she explained.
The 2020 Group comprises 12 artists including differently abled painter and sculptor Nihal Sangabo Dias. Katugampola shared that initially he and Jayatunga had considered making the 2020 Group of 20 artists, but later decided against it, as making an effective impact as such a large group might not be easy.
“A group of 12 in and of itself is relatively large. We discussed backgrounds, careers, the work they’ve been doing, and took so many other factors into consideration as well before extending invitations to the artists to join the group,” Katugampola said.
Katugampola, who functions as the Curator of the group, explained that even with a group of 12 artists, it can be challenging acting as curator, given that artists by nature can be sensitive. Jayatunga also noted that Sri Lankan artists in the larger sense are not always open to collaboration, preferring to work in isolation, another trend the 2020 Group hopes to break by working as a team and fostering collaborative spirit and creative exchange at a broader level among Sri Lanka’s artists.
Bringing representational art to the forefront of Sri Lankan art
While representational art is, in effect, realistic art, Joseph shared that representational art is not really recognised and appreciated in the local Sri Lankan art context. “There has been a lack of demand and a lack of understanding on representational art, purely because abstract and contemporary work has come to the forefront over the last few decades. One of the reasons we wanted representational art to come to the forefront, and that actually led us to form the 2020 Group, is because a lot of artists have stopped doing representational work and the limelight on such work is reducing.”
Jayatunga explained that globally, representational and non-representational/abstract art are equally recognised. However, in Sri Lanka, non-representational work has taken dominance to the point that younger artists who want to take on representational work opt not to do so because they may not be recognised. This is compounded by the fact that representational art is a skill and craft that needs to be learnt and practised a great deal. Unlike non-representational art which is more interpretative and therefore breeds less criticism, representational art is an art form where flaws in technique and execution are easily identifiable.
Even from a commercial standpoint, galleries and collectors also tend to support this demand for non-representational art which in turn reduces the demand further for representational art.
Part of the 2020 Group’s mission is to encourage support for representational art from galleries and collectors and create an ecosystem for representational art to grow and thrive.
“We are trying to create a platform with this movement,” Charita Lay said. “It is one little step towards a larger vision. We will have a calendared set of activities to do community building in an organised manner with workshops and training programmes, where masters like Gunasiri Kolambage, Brindley Jayatunga, and others can share their experience internationally with the rest of us.”
A lofty mandate
The 2020 Group shared that their key objectives are to build international recognition for representational art through international exhibitions, auctions, and art fairs; exchange programmes with artists around Sri Lanka and internationally; sell art online to the international market; and get published in international art magazines, becoming signature members of international art societies.
Another key aspect of the 2020 Group’s activities will be to encourage the conservation and restoration of past representational work done by key artists in various institutions. It would mean working with specialised sources, both international and local, who have expertise in the field and ensuring the representational work of the past is preserved and protected.
The 2020 Group will be carrying out this work with the support of sponsors and partners, and hope to formally commemorate their launch with their first group exhibition, “Odyssey”, in April 2021, a collection of past and previously unseen work from the 2020 Group. Initially planned for 27 March, this exhibition was postponed because of the Covid-19 health crisis.
The 2020 Group’s debut exhibition will also mark the opening of a new gallery, the Colombo Art Gallery at Stratford Avenue, one of the 2020 Group’s partners and incidentally where the 2020 Group had their inaugural meeting.
With 2020 having meant to be a new beginning and a decade of hope, which has taken a rather dramatic turn for the worse, there is hope yet for a whole new movement in Sri Lankan art to take root and bloom, and perhaps in the years to come, we will remember 2020 as being a pivotal point in Sri Lanka’s art history because of the efforts of the 2020 Group.