Born in 1971 in Colombo, Sanjeewa Kumara is a well-known artist who began his artistic training at the University of Kelaniya in 1999, after completing his Master of Fine Arts at the Dutch Art Institute in the Netherlands in 2003. He is also a visiting lecturer at both the University of Kelaniya and the University of Visual and Performing Arts in Sri Lanka. In his many years in the industry, he has had work displayed internationally, from Austria and Germany, to New York and London.
As his latest venture, he is to showcase at the Paradise Road The Gallery Café from 11 February to 4 March. His newest exhibition, Talking Pictures, grapples with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. It tells the story of its immediate impact on our everyday lives, its revelations about inequalities that had escaped notice or been hidden away from the public eye, and the fear of the unknown that we have all become much too familiar with. With one look at the artist’s work, one is immediately able to see that the artist surrenders himself to the physical moment of painting, eschewing formulation, planning, and pre-sketching to mimic the upheaval and loss of orientation all of our communities are facing today. His alien dreamscapes are the product, not of his hand or mind, but of his unconscious state of being that even the most mediocre mind could comprehend and appreciate.
In 2020, the political and social landscape changed swiftly and decisively throughout the country and across the world, resulting in a sweeping struggle to adapt and an unresolved craving for any sense of normalcy. Sudden isolation, and the systemic inequalities thrown into harsh relief by the Covid-19 pandemic, Sri Lanka has undergone novel restructuring, and the uncertain path towards an endpoint has been steeped in uncertainty. In this difficult pause, many of us have turned toward cultural experiences to find shared comfort, community, and growth. Symbols, traditions, art and music are reconsidered and reinvigorated by the context of our troubled times. Kumara envisions to bring about peace and a sense of calm during these troubled times with his paintings.
Speaking to Kumara, he gave us insight into his painting styles, saying: “In the beginning of my career I dabbled in both eastern art and western art,” adding that he used a combination of both to create his very own art style unique to him. He further stated that mastering this art style was not easy and took many years to achieve. He only perfected his style in 2005, after years of wandering the art world deciding where to lay his mark. Even after he had decided on a rough idea on what he wanted to base his art style, over the years it twisted and evolved into what we see now.
He explained that his recent works are confronted by a troubled time period: “The past year came with its share of demanding experiences.” He views these pictures as his imaginary dreams and dreamscapes. Through these paintings, he wishes to share the view of the world through his eyes, not through the eyes of a painter but through the painting itself: “The unconscious is a never-ending source of imagery that is waiting to reveal itself in my paintings. This time where things are still jumbled together and have no specific intentions, providing material that the painter is allowed to configure at will.”
Describing the message behind his latest exhibition he stated: “Artists and musicians, or anyone in the creative field don’t deal well with isolation, especially since no work can be done during a lockdown, there is no such thing as ‘work from home’ for us.”
Kumara told us that he spent most of the lockdowns focusing on his paintings, and it was hardly ever that he wasn’t surrounded by his work. After pouring all his blood, sweat and tears into his work, he managed to encapture the feeling of isolation in his 25 paintings, which will be displayed at the exhibition.
He noted that most of the time, his paintings are not contemporary nor are they minimalistic: “They have a spiritual aspect to them, with a few grey shades here and there in order to achieve a rustic look to them.” He added that he draws inspirations from art history and whenever possible, inculcates a dialogue into his work, so they can be considered timeless and classical.
He added that when he paints, he does not think, instead he surrenders himself completely to his feelings and to what the canvas demands of him. “To me, this means bringing order, not to a mental space, but to the space of the unconscious. As a painter, I try to systematise the irrational, and to do that in painting after painting. This process is not easily reconciled with communication.”
This exhibition will be a walk down memory lane for Kumara, as his first ever painting exhibition held in 1999 was also featured at The Gallery Café. That was where it all started for him. “From then on, I began hosting exhibitions every two years or so at the café, and the tradition still continues,” he said, adding that he hopes he will be able to present his work there for many years to come.