Daya Hewapathirane

When I heard recently about the proposal to establish an Art Gallery and Museum at the Peradeniya University, I was delighted. I learnt that this project is to be designed and funded by the Alumni Association of the University. However, it was somewhat of a disappointment when I read details about this venture in the pamphlet published by the Alumni (undated) with a message by the Vice Chancellor of the university.

The Special Committee and the Steering Committees on this project, appointed by the Alumni and the University VC respectively include professionals such as Dr. Ashley Halpe, Mrs. Bridget Halpe, Dr. Neil Halpe, Mrs. Hema Gamage among others. The focus of this Gallery-Museum project is on Contemporary Art of artists such as George Keyt, Richard Gabriel, Stanley Kirinde and the like. Although as artistic products their works are well recognized, I am not sure whether most of their works could be considered as truly representative of the national culture, heritage and values of the country. After realizing the huge amount of money to be invested in this venture, I wonder whether this project is a priority, given the tragic socio-economic state of the country and especially the ever increasing economic necessities of the overwhelming majority of people in the country.

I tend to think that, if a Gallery-Museum complex is to be installed, as a priority, it is the overwhelming wealth of traditional art of the country that needs to be highlighted in a place like a national university. By this I do not mean that we should disregard contemporary art but highlighting them does not appear to be the priority of the times. What I mean is that the university should focus on art that explores the principles, themes, methodology, artistry, aesthetics and spirituality of indigenous art, especially Buddhist art which are inherent components of the island’s culture. These works of art are characterized by a wonderful integration of both aesthetics and spirituality. These art forms are expressions of inner tranquility and human spirituality. In fact some modern art such as those of George Keyt appear to be well presented in some art galleries in Colombo. I do not see the names of well known contemporary indigenous artists such as Somabandu Vidyapathy whose fabulous artistic creativity is seen in the Bellanwila viharaya, the international award-winner Upasena Gunawardena’s artistic creativity well evident especially in the Peace Viharaya in Japan and in the Annex of the Dalada Maligawa in Mahanuwara, and those of Dr. Albert Dharmasiri given any recognition in this proposed Gallery and Museum. The works of these artists are better reflective of the traditional art styles; approaches and their thematic content are also more reflective of the cultural norms of the country. For example, instead of emphasis on passion, desire, sensuality and lust in works of some contemporary artists such as George Keyt, the works of most Sinhela artists of contemporary times, adopt restraint of composition in keeping with local social values, and generate in people a sense of calm, peace, serenity, and subtle forms of aesthetic pleasure and satisfaction.

Canvass or photographic reproductions of contemporary painting masterpieces of Solius Mendis at the Kelaniya Rajamaha viharaya should necessarily receive recognition in a Gallery and Museum of Contemporary artists. S.P. Clarles, M. Sarlis, L.T.P. Manjusri, Stanley Abeysinghe, Justine Deraniyagala, Gauthamadasa, Motagedera Wanigaratne, H.A. karunaratne, and A.L. D. Sirisena are among other prominent contemporary artists whose works are of great value and should receive recognition.

Historic Paintings of the country found in thousands of historic sites throughout the country can be presented by means of photographic images or reproductions on canvas and other surfaces. Some exquisite canvass reproductions of such historic paintings are displayed in some of the national museums such as Colombo, and Anuradhapura. Most people have little access to this cultural wealth and a national university should take upon it as a responsibility and a national service, to provide leadership in highlighting and promoting the cultural wealth of the country to the world. These works of art characterize the rich visual cultural heritage of Sri Lanka. They include exquisite paintings which led some of these historic sites to be designated by the UNESCO as World Heritage Sites.

Inevitably, the range of art techniques and styles evident in the artistic masterpieces of Sri Lanka’s World Heritage Sites should be of particular interest to contemporary art enthusiasts and creative artists looking for inspiration for innovative artistic ventures.

In fact, Sri Lanka is one of those rare countries that can boast of most exquisite historic paintings of high artistic and aesthetic value. They represent a period which exceeds 2000 years, from the 3rd century BCE to the present century. They include murals and images found in ancient caves, temples, monasteries, and palaces, which were executed on varied surfaces such as rock, walls, ceilings, statues and related structures, doors and other wooden structures and surfaces such as doors, windows and wooden covers of ola palm leaf manuscripts, earthenware and cloth.

The overwhelming benefits that could be derived by establishing an Art Gallery and Museum highlighting the truly indigenous traditional artistic wealth of the country need to be considered seriously by the university. It should be a place where people, both national and international could see, appreciate and learn, as a place that stimulates a sense of pleasure, pride and discovery. It should be an experience which provides an aesthetic challenge resulting in a greater cultural awareness and discernment for people. It should provide the opportunity for intercultural dialogue and appreciation, thereby helping to generate greater interest in conserving and promoting these priceless art treasures, which essentially form the common inheritance of the entire human community of which we are the caretakers. A university art gallery and Museum should be a gateway to the timeless treasures of our country’s art which is our deep-spirited inheritance.

It should generate increased awareness of the richness of the cultural heritage of the country.



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