Art and design have always moved hand in hand. The two fields require an innate sense of creativity and taste, the ability to understand what can sell and cannot, and, for leaders in the field, the capacity to nurture talented creatives and help them achieve their full potential. Annika and Saskia Fernando are two sisters who have built eminent reputations for themselves in art and design over the past decade, albeit in very different ways.
Annika is the Owner, Curator, and Designer of PR, one of Colombo’s best-curated retail stores, featuring exclusivities, limited editions, established local and Indian designers, and new talent, combining modernity, originality, and quality to create a distinct spirit and style. Annika is also the Principal Interior Designer of her own design practice Annika Fernando Design.
Saskia is the Owner and Founder of Saskia Fernando Gallery. Over the past decade, she has worked to create a sustainable structure for the Sri Lankan gallery scene, forming deep-rooted relationships with the artists she represents, launching an online platform for Paradise Road Galleries (formerly known as Art Space Sri Lanka) and numerous talk platforms aimed at different sectors of the community.
Both businesses have operated out of the same property on Horton Place since 2013 – a painstakingly renovated older home that now reflects the spirit of both these unique individual businesses, with PR’s retail store occupying the ground floor and Saskia Fernando Gallery occupying the first floor.
The Morning Brunch caught up with the two sisters for a look at how they as creatives and creative leaders are adapting to the pandemic and how they see their respective fields potentially taking shape post-lockdown and in the short to medium terms.
Pre and mid-pandemic
Both Annika and Saskia believe that the pandemic is very much ongoing, although Sri Lanka does have a better handle on the situation than most other countries.
In the case of both PR and Saskia Fernando Gallery, there was preparation done in advance of lockdown to be able to keep things going. This was in part because of the potential for operations to be affected by Covid-19 as well as the fact that both PR and Saskia Fernando Gallery have maintained online presences and operations in how they both run their businesses.
In PR’s case, Annika shared that as a retail business, moving online and having an online presence is simply a natural step that needs to take place. The aftermath of the Easter attacks and the resulting dips in in-store footfall and tourism also highlighted the importance of online presence, in a way helping prepare for situations like the lockdown where the physical retail experience was not an option.
PR was also quick to implement health and safety procedures at the store based on the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, putting procedures into place even before the lockdown was declared to ensure customers would be safe while shopping. PR was also careful to highlight via their social media the changes they were making so customers knew what to expect.
Speaking on the gallery, Saskia explained that working online had been part of the Saskia Fernando Gallery’s style of working from its early days, and while the physical aspect of curating and exhibiting art is an important and essential part of how galleries work, the global art industry as a whole does a lot of interaction online as well. Prior to the lockdown, Saskia Fernando Gallery had just launched an entirely new website that enabled them to publish most of their content online. The most exciting feature of the new website was the Viewing Rooms, a virtual space that has allowed galleries worldwide to publish exhibitions online, not simply by posting images but by creating a space where you can add additional content to give viewers in-depth insights into the body of work being exhibited.
Engaging with communities and audiences online
Saskia Fernando Gallery connected with artists and collectors during the lockdown through its online platforms, using the Viewing Rooms to showcase artists’ work to collectors and enthusiasts.
“In addition to the Viewing Rooms, Saskia Fernando Gallery decided to run a series of Open Studio sessions via Instagram Live with the artists we represent and that was an exciting success with our followers; we have since continued the series on our YouTube channel where it is now pre-recorded and uploaded for public access,” shared Saskia.
The content collected during this time was so powerful that PR decided to launch its own blog (www.blogpr.info) which has become a channel for more information behind PR’s labels, transparency, and more communication about their efforts towards sustainability.
Annika shared that during the lockdown, communication for PR became more personal than it usually is. In general, Annika has always tried to maintain distance between herself and the PR brand’s presence to let people focus on the brand and allow its values to come through on their own merit. However, during the lockdown, she felt it was perhaps a time to connect more with the community. PR’s presence online very often reflected Annika’s own waves of emotions, actions, and support she felt connected to. It also gave PR an opportunity to communicate more of its principles – how merchandise is selected, the people behind the labels, and much more.
Speaking about sustainability on a personal level, Annika commented: “Sustainability is many times a gimmick used for marketing and it should be a basic responsibility and form the backbone of all the decisions we make. However, I learned that so many don’t actually know or appreciate our PR values. It seemed the perfect time to reveal all this and break down the walls.”
Visualising a post-Covid customer and landscape
The sisters shared that customers are more likely to be conscious of what they’re doing in the future and that this consciousness would affect how and what they invest in.
In terms of retail, Annika shared that change is inevitable and can be very positive. She hopes shoppers will become more conscious and supportive of one another as well as the amazing local offering of talent and capability. PR’s focus is on local at the moment as that is what is most accessible at this time and it is an opportunity for Sri Lanka to grow stronger from within, which is something PR is very committed to.
Saskia explained that the way Saskia Fernando Gallery works is much the same as how international galleries work, formally representing artists who work exclusively with them, managing their portfolios, and keeping them connected with collectors, curators, and institutions locally and internationally.
The artists Saskia Fernando Gallery work with have international projects that are in the pipeline, which also means the artists they work with are likely to increase in market value. Art is a safe alternative investment during times like these, and Saskia feels that collectors would be more conscious and appreciative, and also emphasised the role galleries play in creating a safe environment in which collectors can invest in art.
There are some passionate art collectors looking to invest in art, particularly because this is a sensitive time; speaking in a personal context, Saskia commented: “Personally as collectors, my husband and I have been working on our own collection during this time; we have had more time to engage and connect. I don’t doubt all collectors feel this way!”
Looking to the future
With the pandemic very much ongoing and not to be underestimated, both Annika and Saskia observed that it is very difficult to predict how things would unfold.
Both PR and Saskia Fernando Gallery found themselves reaching new audiences during the lockdown because of their strengthened online presences, which is promising as this may lead to more people becoming interested in collecting art or understanding and appreciating retail.
A common theme was that of adapting and persevering. The pandemic has brought about a time of reflection – of stopping and taking time to think. While this has many merits, it has also impacted many. It is important to be cautious both professionally and personally.
As leaders in their own creative fields, both Annika and Saskia feel a keen sense of responsibility to support the designers and artists they work with, many of whom depend on PR or Saskia Fernando Gallery for their livelihoods.
Saskia Fernando Gallery is in the process of instituting a production fund which younger artists can apply for and use to keep practising their craft. The gallery is also being renovated and hopes to open in late August or early September with a showcase by veteran artist Priyantha Udagedara.
PR has launched the latest collection of its in-house brand Maus earlier this month. During the lockdown, PR also held the first online launch of a “PR Rising Star” – emerging designer Navindri Ranatunga. Other collections PR launched virtually and post lockdown include collections by La Pard, L’aura, Sonali Dharmawardena, Maus, and TSS. PR also launched the PR Face Mask project, all proceeds (and not just profit) of which go to the non-profit organisation Women In Need.
A new service collaboration called Apé X PR, which allows customers to increase the lifespan of their clothes/purchases, has also been launched, actively promoting recycling and upcycling within the PR client base.
In terms of hopes for the future and bouncing back, Annika and Saskia are confident that Sri Lanka will bounce back quickly. Annika explained that as a people, Sri Lankans are very resilient and have had a lot thrown at them, from the long civil war to the tsunami to the Easter attacks. Through all this, Sri Lankans have kept batting on and this is one such obstacle that we will overcome.