Who is the fool on the hill? That’s a question that never came up in any A/L English Literature exam paper in all the years that the Beatles’ song, ‘The fool on the hill’ was on the syllabus. It’s a question I realized should have been discussed and that realization came when I saw a ceramic sculpture with the song-title about a month ago.
I knew of Kuveni but I never thought of her as a feeling or more precisely ‘an effusively enthusiastic or ecstatic expression of feeling’ or as an epic poem.
Ophelia was tragic, but I had never seen her. Nor Kuveni. I’ve seen artistic depictions of Theri Sangamitta carrying a sampling of the Sacred Bo Tree in a begging bowl, but somehow they all seem embellished or distorted now. An added dimension, strangely and unexpectedly, had ‘shelled’ the Arahat Sangamitta and yet given her in more wholesome form. I saw them all the same day I discovered the question regarding the fool on the hill.
Pandora was about a box, about curiosity, flight and the horrors of life and the world. It wasn’t about escape, it wasn’t about embracing reality and dealing with it. Now it is.
There was a conqueror and he came with a note: ‘The ascetic Siddhartha Gauthama conquering the three temptations: greed, anger and lust. The necessary struggle that preceded enlightenment could not have been easy.
Torment was written on the face.
How can one capture anything of the notion called ‘anitya’ or impermanence? To cast it would divest it of meaning. But then again, if approximation (of capture) is useful for reflection, then I found something useful that day.
The full moon is for those in the northern hemisphere a ‘man’ and for us in the south, a rabbit. The full moon is also a moment historically designated for reflection of the eternal verities for Buddhists. The full moon can be depicted as the Buddha, this I hadn’t known.
- Asela Oshadhi Gunasekara
Unfortunately the teacher wasn’t too encouraging, but I used to look at stuff, like pictures, and draw. I was always a solitary person, so I had a lot of time. When I was not studying it was all about reading and drawing
The true worth of this artist is best assessed by those who have a deep understanding of art and especially sculpture and within that field, the medium, ceramic. But something about the works mentioned above made the images remain within or, put another way, held me within them.
The exhibition, held at the Lionel Wendt Art Gallery about a month ago was titled, simply, ‘i’. The full title: i: imperfect, impermanent, incomplete. As titles go it could have been an easy excuse for sloth and lack of skill. Untrained though I am in art and art appreciation, I realized quickly that there was nothing trivial, flippant or mischievous about ’i’.
The above is context relevant to what follows, which is not a review but a sketch of one of the artists featured in that exhibition, Asela Oshadhi Gunasekara. The other, Akshana Abeywardene, her son, whose photographs were on display is a talent in his own right and deserves a separate feature. Later. Now, Asela Oshadhi Gunasekara.
Asela was born in 1973, and had been left-handed, but taught to eat and write with the right hand. She had, as a child, struggled with writing.
The Sinhala characters had come out as mirror images. She laughs about it. Apparently her husband believes that this forced switch from left to right is why she is confused.
It hadn’t been funny back when she was a child. She was chided at school for poor handwriting. She got a B for Art and a C for Handwork when she was in the second grade. She was told to ‘try to draw colorful pictures’ and to ‘practice folding paper.’ Today she says ‘Art should never be a graded subject in school,’ for reasons that obviously have nothing to do with those silly grades.
Asela had always been interested in art. “I used to draw everywhere. And I also appreciated. I was fascinated by the pictures on the back of Readers’ Digest magazines. I loved Sybil Wettasinghe’s books. That was art and those were stories.
“I remember my grandmother showing me birds sitting on a wire. I must have been two or three then. This was in Malabe, which was at the time a place where there was enough and more wildlife. The natural world fascinated me. I collected things like feathers and seashells My father bought me books. He also had a decent collection of books. I tried to read everything, including the ‘adult’ books, which my parents had to hide from me!
By the time she was around 14, Asela remembers, she had become very passionate about art. She had taken the subject in Grade 6 when she moved from Musaeus College to Sirimavo Bandaranaike Vidyalaya.
“Unfortunately the teacher wasn’t too encouraging, but I used to look at stuff, like pictures, and draw. I was always a solitary person, so I had a lot of time. When I was not studying it was all about reading and drawing. I did write poetry, first in Sinhala and later in English, but art was what interested me most.”
Asela got 5 Distinctions and a single Credit at the O/L exam, which meant she could pick the stream of her choice for the A/L. It had been another left-hand and right-hand moment in her life. Like most of her friends, she had wanted to study arts and languages,but had been pushed into biology.
“I was disoriented. I remember the first term; I knew it wasn’t my thing. I convinced my mother to talk to the teachers so I could switch to the arts stream. The teachers were not willing.”
“So they robbed two years of your life?” I asked.
“No, they robbed my whole life. Things could have been drastically different.”
She hadn’t done too well. She had wanted to switch and do arts the following year, but her father had suggested she join a bank. So she joined Standard Chartered Bank, Colombo (1992-97) and in Dubai from 1997 to 1999. She quit when Akshana was born and it was only after he started preschool that Asela began to think of a different career. She enrolled in a two-year degree program in liberal arts at the American College of Dubai, affiliated to the Southern New Hampshire University.
“My professors were good. I discovered different subjects like psychology, sociology, philosophy and literature, which opened my eyes to different spheres and helped me see things deeper even though they were just introductory courses.”
The tsunami brought her back to Sri Lanka in 2004. She had gone to Sumitrayo, the well-known program on drug demand reduction, in search of work. Ms Nalini Ellawala had taken her in, first as an intern and later as an administrative director.
“I wanted to study, so I got into an online MSc program in HRD at the University of Leicester. I worked with a HRD consultant for a while and later in the UN’s VOICE Project as a Project Coordinator. Then I decided that working for someone was not going to work for me.”
“Art was always my refuge. At the time I didn’t know what conceptual art was. I had no formal training. So I decided that I should study art seriously. At a creative writing workshop conducted by Ashok Ferry in 2010, I happened to sit next to a foreign lady who gave me the number of Prof Chandrajeewa when I told her I am interested in art.
“He knew how to teach technique. He taught me to think like an artist and encouraged me to express myself. When we returned to Dubai in 2011, I enrolled in a painting class at the Dubai International Art Centre, but after studying under Prof Chandrajeewa, it was a disappointment. It was too rigid and boring. So I decided to do something else. Ceramics.
“I had two Ceramic teachers, Michael Rice from Northern Ireland who taught me pottery on the wheel and Katerina Smoldyreva from Russia who taught sculpture. It was from Michael that I learnt the conceptual element related to pottery on the wheel. I worked with Katerina for about two years. She taught technique as well as the relevance of learning art history. These two teachers helped me discover that ceramics was my medium. I set up my studio. and in 2014 started classes for kids.”
Asela’s first exhibition was ‘Dream Catchers,’ held at the Lionel Wendt in July 2012. It was a group exhibition featuring two painters and a sculptor, all students of Prof Chandrajeewa. In 2016 October, she was one of several online artists (from ‘Art Space Sri Lanka’) featured at another group exhibition, this time at the Saskia Fernando Gallery.
Asela Gunasekara has wandered along paths cut and ordered for her and when the way ahead although clear seemed meaningless she left it. Thereafter, by a mix of choice and chance, she discovered a happy creative space, a medium that she feels belonged to and one she moulds even as it moulds her. Now she searches for herself through her work and ‘i’ is exactly what it claims to be. It is imperfect because perfection is a brag that’s more often than not a lie. The Zen masters of Japan, Asela points out, were master ceramicists and they would often pick out the most imperfect work as the masterpiece.
Her work is impermanent and that’s a concept that comes from Buddhism, which she claims has inspired her.
“I come from a very traditional Buddhist background. Something of what I heard must have registered into my head. Some of it I questioned and some I discarded. When I studied Buddhism for the O/L it made sense, it was logical. So it’s there in me as a foundational philosophy. Both my teachers in Dubai were very receptive to Buddhism. We had good conversations about Zen Buddhism. Michael introduced me to traditional Japanese aesthetics, Wabi-sabi, which is a world view about accepting imperfection, impermanence and the incomplete.”
Some of the titles for her sculptures are drawn from stories and this is not surprising. Apart from the natural world, the stories she’s read and heard and even those which she makes in her own mind inspire Asela, she explained.
“I gave up my banking exams even though I had just two more subjects to complete. I went to Aquinas and found out about an external arts degrees at Kelaniya. Fr Herman Fernando taught me literature. He introduced me to contemporary poets and the ballads of John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Paul Simon. It was a wonderful experience.”
She went on to explain why her exhibits came with titles and explanatory captions. “The exhibition in 2012 didn’t have any titles or descriptions. Of course art is a language but maybe it is a language for the artists and not for everyone. People were intrigued, they had lots of questions. It made me realize that when you are catering to a general audience it helps to guide them a little. I do take away their right to independent appreciation of the work itself, but I felt that for this audience, I should offer some basic guideline.” Her work is incomplete, naturally. There’s exploration ahead of her.
“People ask if I have a style and I say ‘no’ because I don’t want to be in a box, be captured by a label. For now, I am a ceramicist, but I want to experiment with glass, mixing the two mediums and using them for sculpture. Conceptually, however, I am a bit lost. I need to find my way again. I am not sure where I would go. I will take it as it comes.”
Asela Gunasekara is an artist who will immediately say ‘not yet’ given her philosophical predilections or even say ‘never will be’ as per the three dimensions of ‘i’ (imperfect, impermanent, incomplete). She layers her work with herself and the work and the artist do intrigue. That’s another ‘i’ and not paradoxically. It all flows from the ‘left hand,’ now. And it is all about the exploration of ‘i’. Simple i. Simply, i.