BRANDING SRI LANKA IN LONDON’S ART WORLD
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2011). Branding Sri Lanka in London’s art world. The Sunday Times Plus. Sunday 10 April 2011. Features. Page ?
On the first major exhibition of Sri Lankan contemporary art in London curated by Saskia Fernando and Josephine Breese and how working together creates a more powerful result.
Asia House in Central London is an unlikely place for a meeting of wolves. But this is what had brought me here to meet Saskia Fernando and Josephine Breese, the curators of the first international exposition of Sri Lankan contemporary art. I enjoy art and art spaces. But I would not consider myself even remotely as an art critic or writer on art. What had motivated me to meet the two curators was the buzz that one gets from meeting people who are making a big story. As someone who enjoys the museum and art galley circuit in Europe, I am acutely aware of how difficult it is to break into this circuit. Asia House is an established venue with a significant following and is on the golden circuit for access to the British and international media. Being on their event programme with the attendant print and electronic listings is a significant milestone for Sri Lankan art.
I had received some pre-publicity for the event and I realised that one of the curators, Saskia Fernando, was running like a wolf. I mean this as a compliment. The strength of the wolf runs in the pack and the strength of the pack runs in the wolf. In eco-tourism and bio-diversity, I had seen how running with the pack generates massive momentum. I could see that Fernando was operating to a similar principle. She was not just promoting her own gallery or just the artists she represents, but placing Sri Lanka first. A sentiment which had won the support of many sponsors.
I view the exhibition, which is hung intelligently and I am struck by the boldness and confidence exuding from them. But I am not going to dwell on the art. The reader can consult the tastefully designed and elegantly written exhibition catalogue which is available as a pdf on the web. I prefer to explore the business and country branding angle. Saskia Fernando looks the part of the cover girl, but shuns the fashionista image and prefers to be seen as an art curator with a sharp commercial brain. This also fitted better with my medium of writing although much of the pressure to meet her had come from a society magazine in Colombo who needed an interview. I wondered whether she herself understood what a significant break through this exhibition is for Sri Lanka and its artists. Being exhibited, in London in a leading venue is not just about being a good artist. It is also about connectivity and having a champion. Sri Lanka and its artists have found two champions in Breese and Fernando who had now propelled them into the international art circuit. As quietly as sunlight, a new confidence will illuminate the Sri Lankan art scene. A psychological barrier has been passed and it will be easier for others to build upon this success.
Breese is an art professional in London, curating many exhibitions. Her parents have a house in Sri Lanka, which led to her meeting Saskia Fernando who runs her own art gallery. An idea developed to bring an exhibition to London. Fernando who had grown up in Australia and had worked in London was confident that Sri Lankan contemporary art was ready. But they both acknowledge graciously that they were following a path blazed by others. In London, this includes Jana Manuelpillai (Noble Sage Gallery) and Sharmini Pereira (Raking Leaves) and in Colombo Shanth Fernando (Paradise Road) and Nazreen Sansoni (Barefoot Gallery). The willingness to generously acknowledge the work done by others is a sign of confidence and bodes well for Sri Lanka to have two young, confident curators. The country’s brand needs champions like them to push out the positive stories from the arts rather than the country driving with its rear view mirrors by dealing with negative press from its recent past. The exhibition too, was not pre-occupied with the war, although some of the work did reflect an emotional response to politics and war.
Fernando presents the curators motivations in terms of their efforts for art being underpinned by a commercial framework. She abandons patriot speak, in favour of a commercially savvy voice for the arts. But I am curious to learn more about the beast which lurks within and with questions as my scalpel, I peel off the outer layer of commercial cool. Deep inside is the emotional commitment, which is the harder one to wear in public. Whether it is Bill Gates working in his parent’s garage or Steve Jobs with Apple, successful champions are deep down people who love their product. Fernando says she has benefited from having Shanth Fernando her father, a successful entrepreneur as mentor, to strike a balance between passion and commercial objectivity. Does she want to be seen as a pivotal figure in propelling Sri Lankan contemporary art to the international art scene? She deflects the question gently. But I knew the answer anyway. All wolves are wired the same.