“I should have taken a picture of George Keyt because I met him” - Rohan de Soysa | Sunday Observer

“I should have taken a picture of George Keyt because I met him” - Rohan de Soysa

The Galleries of Sapumal Foundation at Barnes Place is a testament to a bygone era – a time when things were simple and art in Sri Lanka was more about self expression. Moreover, it is the home of the late Harry Pieris – an artist in his own right. Enhancing this description Rohan says “These were three workman cottages that has been converted into a house. There are three hundred works of arts on display, and a few hundred in storage. There are roughly three thousand visitors a year. There’s a reference library that is accessible to the public”.

Rohan de Soysa is the chairman of Sapumal Foundation. He is one of the few remaining figures that can provide a reliable account of the famous 43 group. “I became trustee in 1981 along with another trustee Cyril Fernando. In 2011, when the former chairman stepped down, I became the chairman of the Foundation” he explained. In 1964, Rohan received a Diploma in Photography from the London School of Printing and Graphic Arts. Afterwards, he functioned as a photographer and teacher. He taught photography at St.Martin’s School of Art in London. When he returned to Sri Lanka in the 70s he continued teaching photography at the University of Kelaniya during weekends.

Similar to some of the members of the 43 group, Rohan is somewhat of a renegade himself. “I was always interested in photography. I entered the University of Cambridge and spent a year studying natural sciences. Then I realized it wasn’t for me” he confesses.

Contemplating about his artistic influence, Rohan recalls his own childhood. “My parents did have an interest in art. My home did have a lot of art. There were reproductions of western art, mainly Dutch”. However, it was only as an adult did he immerse himself in it. “My exposure to art really began at St. Martins while working with the students there. Also by visiting a lot of art exhibitions and museums there in London” he admits.

Rebelling against the conventional styles of art of that time, The 43 group became pioneers of the Sri Lankan modern art movement. The members of this elite band of brothers included Geoffrey Beling, George Claessen, Aubrey Collette, Justin Pieris Daraniyagala, Richard Gabriel, George Keyt, LTP Manjusiri, Ivan Pieris, Lionel Wendt and of course Harry Pieris himself.

Tracing his involvement with the troupe, Rohan clarifies “Ranjith Fernando was a cousin of my mother and he is the one who organized all the overseas 43 group exhibitions. There were exhibitions in Italy, France, England and most likely in Brazil. When I was studying photography in London, I used to visit his apartment. It had a lot of work of the 43 group”.

Reminiscing on it more, he indulges generously, “I particularly remember seeing Keyts’ painting of a beautiful woman and a crow. There was an Ivan Pieris – one of his paintings from the ‘Wave’ series”. Continuing the same trend of thought, Rohan goes on to speak about his close association with Harry Pieris. “He is my grandmother’s brother. When I returned to Sri Lanka, we used to meet and have discussions”. He adds with a smile “He tolerated me”.

Rohan provides more appealing details of Harry Pieris. “He was very interesting. He was a multi faceted person, interested in agriculture, philosophy, gardening and bee keeping. He even gave me a bee box once! ” Fostering their working partnership, Rohan and Harry have collaborated in a few projects. “He suggested that we create a small portfolio of black and white photographs of the selected works of the 43 group. I did take a few. I’ve also taken pictures of Richard Gabriel and Harry Pieris”.

 He says with a tinge of regret “I should have taken a picture of George Keyt because I met him. Harry used to take me to see George”.

Internationally acclaimed, Goerge Keyt is arguably the most famous artist the country has ever produced. Rohan casually divulges his memories of this great painter. “I visited George Keyt when he was living in Nugegoda. He was a colourful character”. Resuming with a smile, Rohan continues, “The early Keyts we have at Sapumal are basically of landscapes. This was when he was married to his first wife. They were married for many years and had children. Then I guess he fell in love with a village lass called Menike. When he married Menike his whole style changed. He started drawing voluptuous ladies in a geometric fashion”. This fascinating conclusion is based on the Keyts at the foundation.

The link Rohan has to this particular period of art in Sri Lanka is invaluable. He humbly disagrees, “I am not an artist. Even Lionel Wendt - I never met him, but I know of him through second-hand knowledge.”

Filling the chronological gap, he diverts back to the past. “When I returned in 1977 the art scene wasn’t that interesting. This was before the days of the commercial galleries. There was Laki Senanayake, Goeffrey Bawa… I think who kick-started the process. Bawa’s buildings had the wall hangings of Ina de Silva and drawings of Laki Senanayake. Subsequently, there was a gallery called Marie Poza which was run by Chloe de Soysa. They had exhibitions frequently until they closed. It’s one of the earliest galleries remember.”

Observing the present status of art in Sri Lanka, Rohan tactfully conveys “Now art is, for better or for worse more in line with western concepts of art, especially our contemporary art. It’s influenced by considerations other than an artist trying to express his inner feelings. It’s understandable though because the world is changing”. Art is a reflection of life. Life becomes complicated with changing circumstances. He reluctantly admits that art has become more commercialised. “But there are few exceptions to the rule” he hastily adds.

Making his bond with art clear, Rohan does not identify himself as a collector. “But, yes I do buy art occasionally. I don’t buy it considering what its value would be in 10 years. When I do buy a work it’s because I like it. I once bought a work of Harshana Kumarasiri which he had created using polythene because it suited the works I have.”

Art in this country is still a private monopoly. Public access to it is very limited. The formal documentation of it is nearly nonexistent. Commenting on this statement, Rohan realises “Well we have a National Art Gallery that has been closed for years. Clearly, the government has no interest in preserving art. I guess maybe in this case a generous private individual would be the only alternative? To restore the paintings here at Sapumal Foundation alone is estimated to cost around 40 million”. It’s undeniable that art is indeed a costly affair.

In addition to the aesthetic link he holds, Rohan de Soysa is passionate about conservation. His book Slow-Cooked Thoughts is an understanding of his work with the community and the environment.