An exhibition of paintings by one of Sri Lanka’s best known, best loved and most accomplished artists, S.H. Sarath, was held at the Harold Peiris Gallery of the Lionel Wendt Art Centre over the weekend. The above-mentioned attributes do not always co-exist happily for an artist. Sarath has demonstrated an ability to achieve material success without losing his values or identity. The works on display at the preview on Friday reflected his characteristically ironic interpretations, hints of satire, at times bordering on the surreal. His work is typically informed by a subtext of compassion for his fellow human beings.
‘Colour’ was the name of this exhibit, and colourful it was. Humans in various postures, female forms, faces, embracing couples, trees – both living and dying, were among the subjects. Less in evidence were the black and white line drawings, which are among his most interesting works. The few on display were however representative of his trademark style of satirical social commentary. Whether it was a Buddha sitting in meditation amidst tree stumps that were once a forest, a coffin surrounded by a variety of elements (open to interpretation by the viewer), or an assemblage of flag-waving men being herded along (or devoured) by monsters – Sarath’s line drawings always offer food for thought. If some of the paintings were weighted in favour of a colour palette that gripped the eye rather than the soul, it would be fair to say this was more a reflection of the context in which the artist works in contemporary society – which Sarath is keenly aware of – rather than any diminishing of his artistic integrity.
Having completed his early education at Weligama Siddhartha Maha Vidyalaya and Weligama Sri Sumangala Maha Vidyalaya, Sarath started his artistic training at the Government College of Fine Arts, Colombo in 1968. He is in that sense a very ‘home-grown’ artist. He then honed his skills with a UNESCO fellowship on painting research at Silpakorn University of Fine Arts in Bangkok and later a print-making course at the University of South Australia School of Art, Adelaide. Over the years he has held many honorary positions in institutions relating to education and the arts, including that of Vice President of the Ceylon Society of Arts (Sri Lanka) and member of the Arts Panel of the Sri Lanka Ministry of Cultural Affairs. He has also lent his talents in an honorary capacity to a number of community projects, such as the four-storey mural at the National Library Services Board, Colombo.
Sarath has won numerous awards and displayed his work in solo and group exhibitions (too many to list), in a formidable list of countries: Canada, Norway, UK, Germany, Cuba, Brazil, France, Yugoslavia, Switzerland, Nepal, Korea, Japan, Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Malaysia and Australia. Notable among them are solo exhibitions at the Adelaide Fringe Festival, at the Aud Slingnes Gallery in Stavanger – Norway, and at the United Nations, Palais de Nations in Geneva.
It is perhaps testimony to his non-partisan attitude that Sarath has had patronage from diverse political personalities. He recalls with some pride how the late Nalini Wickremesinghe, mother of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was chief guest at one of his first exhibitions held at the Hotel Lanka Oberoi (as it was then called). Former president Chandrika Kumaratunga too had assisted him at one point. Among the literary figures whose encouragement he remembers with gratitude are the late Prof. Ashley Halpe and Martin Wickremesinghe – the latter having been chief guest at his first solo exhibition at the Lionel Wendt, Colombo. Sarala Fernando and Jayantha Dhanapala were among the diplomats whose names came up in the course of conversation with Sarath, as people who supported him in his chosen vocation.
Relating how a ‘scribble’ he had produced in the 1970s had been bought by a patron for Rs.500 and had been resold in the 1990s for Rs. 500,000, Sarath observed that there is a market for art in Sri Lanka. He regretted however, that art appreciation is lacking and lamented the absence of a national gallery that could house a permanent display of the best Sri Lankan art.