Serendipity Revealed will be a milestone in the acceptance of Sri Lankan art in the international art buying arena. It is an exhibition of magnificent proportion exhibiting over 120 works from 14 artists. What comes across is the confidence, maturity and independence of a home-grown contemporary art form. I use the term home-grown to imply a Sri Lankan connection as some of the artists are like nomads (as humankind has always been), and Sri Lanka has always been a home for nomads being at a junction of an important trade route. I am not a critical follower of art, but I am a frequent visitor to modern art exhibitions in London. Something that struck me was that this art still maintains a traditional Sri Lanka aesthete in that many of the works are visually striking and have an element of beauty or intrigue in themselves without the viewer needing to be aware of any underlying socio-political narrative. However the medium of presentation, whether it is in the form of ambiguous and at times disturbing sculptures, ingenuous and at times witty installations or the reworking of familiar objects, shows that Sri Lankan contemporary art has independently used the forms of expression which are typical of contemporary art found globally. But it does not ape art from elsewhere; it has been informed by the different forms of expression available in the palette of the contemporary artist.
Beginning with the 90s trend, Sri Lankan contemporary art moved away from the romanticism of the 43 Group and began to surface social issues. This exhibition is very powerful in this examination. One artist questions the venomous menace of religious fundamentalism coupled with the anxieties posed by the bar codisation of the digital age. Others raise questions on gender repression, state authoritarianism, loss of memories, anxieties over identity and belonging, the presence of the state – benefactor or an overpowering creature with Orwellian eyes. The work of each artist is profound, anxious, deep, unsettling questions veneered in rich colours, interesting artistic constructs, graphic and reworkings of the familiar. Every viewer will find cause for self reflection and see questions that relate to each of them. But to reiterate, what struck me most was that this is not a collection of art which is merely angry or anxious; it is also beautiful and intriguing. For someone like me who enjoys art but does not ‘follow art’, I found a resonance in art that is both thoughtful and engages the eye.
The show curated by Annoushka Hempel of Hempel Galleries runs from 9th October to 20th December 2014 at the Brunei Gallery in Central London’s Museum Mile. To have so much of coveted art gallery square footage would surely have any national collective of artists green with envy. The show is a remarkable effort to expose a facet of Sri Lanka to the sophisticated western art markets from a nation which in the medieval ages was a high-technology arms supplier to the world with its famed ‘Serendib Steel’. Today, the daggers have been turned into art. Key sponsors including Sri Lankan, the national airline, have supported it. I suspect they realise that their business depends on building a wider and stronger brand for the country: a country whose vibrant natural beauty and diverse cultures are complemented by a sense of aesthetic expression; be it in contemporary art or the design of small luxury hotels.