Review by Subhra Mazumdar
January 31, 2018


Mystical Moments
Recent Works by Senaka Senanayake
January 11-24, 2018
Saffron Art and Grosvenor Gallery
Saffronart, New Delhi

By Subhra Mazumdar

Indian art viewers are familiar with art matters around Indian practices. Even with increased participation by Indian artists in international bienalle events for decades, the limelight has still beamed on art of Indian origin. But this situation has seen a change with the showing of artists such as Senaka Senanayeke, a Sri Lankan master of international repute whose exhibition has been brought here in collaboration with London-based Grosvenor Gallery and Saffronart, at The Claridges, New Delhi, from January 12-24, 2018, ?titled ‘Mystical Moments: Recent Works by Senaka Senanayake’ Comprising a stunning collective of large frames depicting the rainforests of his country, this environmentalist has turned international and local attention to the depletion of these forests and its consequences. According to him, “About twenty years ago my cousin, an environmentalist living in Ecuador visited us in Colombo and inspired me to paint images of Sri Lankan fauna and flora. I opted to paint the positive aspects of the rainforest rather than the destruction of it. As an artist I felt I could use my medium to highlight the need to preserve the remaining rainforests of Sri Lanka where we have lost about 70 per cent of this spectacular and irreplaceable environment.”

Thus began a journey of not just depicting a cause but also a way of furthering art practices through an innovative technique of painting. While most artists concentrate their energies on either the background or the foreground of the work, for artistic innovation, this Sri Lankan art creator has conjured a striking balance between the twain through his depiction of giving equal and balanced emphasis on both aspects. Thus his works are unique displays of his iconic artistic style.

For the first-time viewer, facing a Senaka creation, it is the vivid and true-to-life impressions of his subject that grip one’s consciousness. One can feel the tangled wilderness of the vines amidst the trees as a first hand experience, without it being foreboding or saddening, for his trees are not mangled masses but stretch skywards. From their leafy thickness emerge the occasional cricket or humming bird, its breast feathers sporting a luminous textural feel that is almost tactile to the sensibilities. Elsewhere, the sharp outline of the toucan’s beak, makes a dramatic statement amidst the foliage so that the artistic perspective dissipates an atmosphere rather than a screeching message. The lines are graphic without being overly accentuated as there is no mistiness or haziness blurring the contours of the leafy veins and branches, making the artwork an environmental message rather than a lesson in geology and botany. In short, it is not the topography of a rain forest that is the artist’s concern but rather, the virtual experience that is Seneka’s hallmark.

As to how long the artist has been immersed in this theme, the answer reveals some starting findings. Born in 1951, Senaka had held his first international exhibition at the age of ten in New York. A graduate from the University of Yale, he claims that for several years he had toyed with the idea of studying medicine and of becoming a doctor but it was the persuasion of his wife that had influenced his choice of becoming an artist instead. Fame had come to him early in life as he was hailed as a prodigy at an exhibition of his works in Colombo. Today, Senaka has held over a hundred exhibitions around the world. His work has been commissioned for the White House in Washington, DC, and the United Nations in New York.

Besides their pictorial appeal and social significance, each of his works stand witness to his painstaking process of producing art with a striking finesse. As the works are created with the application of layers of thin paint to create a luminous surface, each of his canvases take two to three weeks of intense work to complete. Then as they are hung on gallery walls, they are picked up like hotcakes, forcing the artist to showcase fresh works at each of his exhibitions. Thus the next big exhibition of his art slated for New York later in the year will have another representative lot of never-seen-before works specially set aside for it.

Today, Senaka prefers a large format canvas, painting his much-loved ‘forestscapes’ from memory, where the branches of his ancient trees stand tall, their leaves and twigs forming origami patterns in the infinite skies. There is seemingly a constant interplay between canvas and vista in his art and if you are at his studio, according to noted art writer Ina Puri, it is fascinating to watch this unfold. The morning could begin with a composition of butterflies but by noon, the arched wings would take on resplendent hues and out of nowhere a grasshopper would make an appearance, perched delicately on the leaf of a plant. You step out into the garden and it is almost like you are in one of Senaka’s paintings, surrounded by flowering trees, birds and fishes.

These snippets of his life and work, which are seamlessly intertwined breaks down walls between art and life, between country and concern and spread the universal message of art being a true reflection of life around.