The exhibition of paintings, Looking Back, Looking Forward by a group of artists namely, Sanjeewa Kumara, Vajira Gunawardena, Sujeewa Kumari, Susil Senanayake and Dileepa Jeewantha, questions the basics of contemporary art by revisiting its rich history and with no hesitation whatsoever, raising the basic question, ‘what is contemporary art?’

At what point do we define art as contemporary? When it is produced by artists who are still alive and are continually developing? When it involves the latest moment to differ from all previous moments?

The problem isn’t just that nobody can agree on what contemporary art is; it’s that nobody knows when the contemporary era begins. Some curators see a likely candidate in 1989: the year of the Berlin Wall’s fall, the Tiananmen Square protests, and the long-overdue anti-colonialism of the Magiciens de la terre exhibition in Paris. So is it simply a chronological question, no matter in what era the style may have originated?

The basic questions, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Where is here?’ are often integral to our works. ‘Where is here?’ is perhaps less perplexing than ‘Who am I?’

Our art is quite simply, why? And why now and why here?

Sanjeewa Kumara

Sanjeewa Kumara has developed a conspicuous style over his last 15 years as an artist. Having achieved his BA in Fine Arts in Colombo, Kumara pursued a Diploma and Master’s in The Netherlands.

His surreal and fantastical artworks are self-declared ‘pictures’. ‘An abstract painting is a painting because it dwells primarily on the material and the surface,’ says Sanjeewa, ‘but ‘picture’ implies a space one goes into.’ The eclectic, electric-hued compositions provide far more than purely aesthetic pleasure; instead, they delve into the heart of Sri Lanka’s colonial and post-colonial legacy, and questions what is meant by the ‘self’ in South Indian art and culture.

His aim is to synchronize diverse historical elements into a visual pastiche, creating a unique visual language that he terms ‘Non-western Western art.’ Sanjeewa traces his artistic influence to ancient cave painters, saying ‘I love the sense that I’m doing the same thing that people have always done.’

That is not to say his work is anything ordinary; his is the art of the unexpected. His pictures re-contextualize traditional myths and stories, placing them within a hybrid society of vibrant colours and ambiguous narratives. Cows, elephants, lions and deities act out mysterious new legends against bold acid-coloured backdrops and eccentric motifs, taking the viewer beyond the exotic and into the uncanny.

Sanjeewa has spoken of the many challenges facing post-colonial artists today, highlighting the difficulty of the attempt ‘both to resurrect their culture and to combat preconceptions about their cultural identity – against the confines posed by western discourse.’ His artwork tackles this thorny question with a youthful energy, blending social conscience with aesthetic playfulness to create artistic forums that call for artists and viewers to question existing identities.

Since graduating, he has exhibited internationally, largely in Sri Lanka and Europe. Kumara returned to the University of Kelaniya in 2005 as a visiting lecturer.

Vajira Gunawardena

Vajira Gunawardena is a Sri Lankan awards winner painter with a BFA degree from the state Art School in Colombo. He has 12 years experience, and has held numerous solo and group exhibitions locally and internationally. His works consist of many private and co-operate collections worldwide in the UK, USA, Australia and many other countries.

Vajira’s highly textural paintings have a sociological, sensuous and critical quality which evocatively capture the vibrancy and reflect on the development of Colombo in high-key, slightly blended palettes. He works in a range of styles to create large format, figurative semi abstract paintings, and uses bright colours. To some, his art expresses him within the outsider movement ... while others call it neo-expressionism with a cartoon influence. The subject of his work is mass consumerism and alienation to the critical quality of which images are autobiographical and sometimes of people. These characters are a mix of the thousands of images that leave pieces of impressions on our visual psyche as we race through the day.

Sujeewa Kumari Weerasinghe

Sujeewa Kumari Weerasinghe holds an MFA in Interdisciplinary Research Visual Arts and Media from the Dutch Art Institute (2004) and a BFA in Painting from the University of Kelaniya Sri Lanka (1998). Weerasinghe’s recent works come to terms with memories derived from history, tradition and daily life, formulating an artistic synthesis of new cultural images. She focuses on 18th and 19th century photographs of Sri Lanka, reusing them – transformed, juxtaposed, overlapped and superimposed throughout her work. The freedom to use images in such a way empowers her to re-lay history.

Early photography played an important role in documenting/exploring/appropriating and interpreting foreign lands. The photographs themselves are detailed and well placed, showing skill with the lens yet giving no indication of colonial stress or current cultural climate, silent to societal disturbance or changing lifestyles and cultural history. Weerasinghe also collected colonial-era photographs from magazines and newspapers.

Susil Senanayake

Susil Senanayake holds a BFA(hons) (specialization in painting) from the University of Visual and Performing Arts, Colombo, Sri Lanka. His childhood was spent in his village near Kegalle, where the natural scenic beauty of the land played a crucial role in his development. Susil explains how the vision,visual shapes, and colours are most influential in his work and what he hopes for the future of Sri Lankan Art.

His resources are both natural and manmade landscape, most of them being townscapes.

So, his contribution is the revelation of the abstract aesthetic values, available within our surroundings, with the techniques of using mix media, acrylic and paper to achieve texture and three dimensional effects.

One of his influential painter is Georgio Morandi (1890-1964). Susil says quoting Georgio Morandi, “nothing was more abstract than reality.” Similarly his objective is to show the abstraction that nature conceals. Extracting the essence in reality is vital to his abstract work. He sees his own shapes and compositions there.

He says ‘’Availability of the Internet has played a vital role in the visual impact of contemporary artists. Millions of different styles and concepts overflow the artist’s world daily. Equally the viability of new materials, the products of modern technology have contributed to changes in Sri Lankan Art.

Galleries, collectors, architects and even the public seem to be enthusiastic about art now, but there is always room for improvement. The Government also should work towards improving art and pay attention to funding Lankan Art. What we lack are art critics. However, I am happy that there is a positive progression in Sri Lankan Art’’

Dileepa Jeewantha

Dileepa Jeewantha who studied designing at the National Design School, obtained his academic education on Visual Art at the Vibavi Academy. From then on he has tried to realize the truth of life by filling the canvas with his own privacy, his own figure and portrait and the objects which he uses in life.

He perceives through the series of My Blue an effort made by the mass called Dileepa to bring forth on the canvas with which he is dealing , the concept called objects that are being used by him.

Although, the concepts that he builds are not on the objects which he uses or on the mass called Dileepa, he expects the same thing repeatedly which makes him realize that he is only getting tired.

He says “ I am trying to understand why I have different pleasures on an object “