Don’t read this book!

Saturday, 30 June 2012 01:54 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

This book should not be read according to the publisher, so why produce it and risk everything in the process to do so? The Power of Sri Lankan Art: 1943-2012 published by Sri Serendipity Publishing launched in Colombo at the Leo Burnett Advertising agency on 28 June where they believe if you think big and use big pencils, big things happen and this event organised by the Galle Fort publishing house with Aitken Spence Printing and Packaging was no exception.

The book is big with 360 pages of full colour images charting the history, incorporating provocative text covering the present and the potential future of art in Sri Lanka from 1943 to 2012. Profiling around sixty artists using a variety of mediums, this superb anthology is not meant as a catalogue of the best of the best, rather a snapshot of art in this country, caught naked and unawares, exposed for public consumption for the readers to decide; is this art? What is art? Does it have any power? Can this book teach me anything beyond the fascinating historical academic introduction?

The book quickly hooks you and the foreword and introduction both offer an important intellectual contribution into this fascinating period of national history and the artist response to their work is the reason so many universities are putting it on their academic reading lists.

Ellen Dissanayke an affiliate professor of the University of Washington foreword’s the book concisely on the thematic changes that have sometimes ripped through Sri Lanka, the “impersonal yet insatiable behemoth of globalisation” and its effect on ritual and culture. “The communal violence that opened a gate to hell that has permanently altered the psyche of everyone in this country” and the path and role of artists who existed in the years covered by the Power of Sri Lankan Art. From 1943 to 2012, the artists therein communicate their responses to this world.

Professor Halpe who also attended the event talked openly about his most moving painting that was in creation for 35 years documenting the great injustices and the horror of inhumanity in the iconic and layered spanning work “Pasan – A Threnody for Lanka.”

The layers of paint and complexity of messages that unfolded during those tragic years is one that makes it a national treasure just waiting for a Tate Modern to be opened in Colombo so it can be hung in a place where everyone can appreciate the master piece.

These and many other controversial and stunning images are displayed proudly among the pages that not only contextualise the art, but also where you meet the artists, men with failed chilli farms, women balancing work, family, love, personal disasters and art.

Sculptors who quipped with the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the expat in residence Arthur C. Clarke’s ideas and questions about how a bullet can be a weapon during the war in Jaffna and also a piece of art for sale in Colombo, personal histories that are shocking and sad, the paint soaked overalls and the studios of tears and toil, where the team who put this book together have snuck into the corners to hear the opera at full ball, and the crackling of the kiln and watch paint splash across canvas, arak bottle tops and have found themselves asking can a plug point really be art?

The book’s accessible nature invites you into these worlds and gives one a better understanding of the works and the people who created them. Juliet Coombe the publisher admits, “It is a highly academic textbook, dressed up as a readable coffee table book.”

Its square design perhaps being the give-away, it opens to beautifully illustrative pages filled with provocative quotes created by Australian designer of the year Monica Lawrie and confronting lines of poetry. That makes one question the very essence of our being.

Will the next movement of art continue to intrigue the Sri Serendipity Publishing House, where in the book Juliet’s bio states that it ‘left her bankrupt financially, emotionally and mentally,’ she likens the production of this book with its enormous team of Sri Lankans to the way you forget the agony of childbirth, and now with distance she’s thinking of producing another one covering all the exciting new street art, but only when she has covered the costs of the first one.

If only she can find the clandestine street artist in Colombo who created Man as Weapon. “I want that image. It’s the next cover” and you can see this square book is only going to get more radical in designs.

Chandraguptha Thenuwara, a senior lecturer at the University of Visual and Performing Arts in Colombo said during an interview also for the book, “We are not a society in peace but a society in pieces.” Peace only comes after reconciliation. Maybe after reading this book, you will find your peace with art or be inspired to buy the pieces of art.

If not then, as the saying goes, destruction is a form of artistic creation, so destroy any preconceptions of art that you may have and create your own. As the book says, “This book is for those who believe the pen is mightier than the sword, or for that matter even the hand of the artist. Go on and make your own history, make our history and theirs too. Go seek your own. What is possible is the impossible. Let nothing or no-one stand in your way. This book has nothing to teach you.”

The Power of Sri Lankan Art 1943 – 2012 can be bought for Rs. 5,000 at Barefoot, Odel and all leading bookshops. It can also be purchased from Sri Serendipity Publishing House direct – call Juliet Coombe on 0776838659 or mail to