Deliverance: Anoma Wijewardene
This exhibit is the culmination of years of anxiety over our disappearing world; a concern which has expressed itself in many ways, either overtly or covertly, through my paintings. Our planet is being irreversibly damaged due to climate change. The main culprit of this is us – humans. We extract and convert the earth’s natural resources into a myriad of goods and services at a faster rate than the earth can absorb or replenish and this disturbs the fine balance of the earth’s ability to clean up after us. Crucially, climate change impacts on the hydrological cycles of this planet – the water available for our use.
Water is one of the Earth’s most precious resources. It sustains life. It generates power, produces food, absorbs pollutants and is a raw material in many industries.
In Sri Lanka water plays an integral role in our heritage and culture. It is a purifier, a life giver, a symbol of fertility and transference; a part and parcel of our rituals and forms of worship, an essential part of our cultural heritage. In the 12th Century King Parakramabahu, who said ‘let not even a drop of rain water reach the sea without it being useful to man’ constructed and repaired several thousand reservoirs, dams and canals, including the Sea of Parakrama; the crowning achievement of a hydraulic civilization.
This June world leaders will gather at the UN Earth Summit during the Winter Solstice in Rio de Janeiro. Can they deliver? Are they really listening? Can they hear? Will they dare to make the changes that will save our earth? We do not have another one to go to after we have destroyed this one.
Can we act now to protect our beautiful and fragile planet?
Q. What led you towards becoming an artist?
I have never wanted to be anything else but an artist since I was little. Apparently even as a baby I would trace the embroidery on the pillowslips with my fingers, so that may have been my very first act of drawing. Now I am drawing with my finger again, on the iPad!
Drawing is a compulsion and a habit that I cannot remember not having. Nothing really led me, it just kept popping out. If I am not being creative I almost feel I am not breathing correctly, I don’t feel fully alive.
Q. For how long have you been a practicing artist?
I have been practicing professionally from the age of 18. I sold work even during art college in London for over 5 years and my MA designs were the first work I ever sold to a fashion designer and it was photographed by David Bailey and was featured on the cover of Vogue. For about twenty years after I graduated I worked as a freelance designer selling in Europe, the US and Japan while also being a visiting lecturer at several art colleges in the UK.
While I was also selling paintings then it is only in the last 20 years that I have concentrated solely on my paintings and shown work at over 40 exhibitions in that time.
Q. What are the main influences on your work?
Since I have been working for a very long time, influences have varied vastly throughout my life.
In my youth, the fact that my father painted and that I had very inspiring teachers focused my burgeoning interest. Poetry and literature, classical music, drama and film, as well as nature itself, were great influences in my teens and they continue to inform my work, even now, in a very pervasive and powerful way.
In my teens, I was influenced by the Renaissance, the Impressionists, the Expressionists and Pop Art, as well as Chinese and Mughal Art and design.
Much later, while living in London I had access to the opera, which I love; post modern, conceptual art, and various forms of multimedia art, sculpture and installations have influenced me. I love the work of Bill Viola, Elafur ELiasson, Andy Goldsworthy, Cindy Sherman and Cai Guoqiang.
Returning to live in Sri Lanka after 30 years in Europe my first shows in Kuala Lumpur, Colombo and Delhi explored our culture through our faiths Buddhism and Islam. Later, shows in Sydney and Colombo looked at mans relationship with the world, with himself, and his existential anxieties and concerns.
More recently the works have questioned issues of war and peace, division and unity, and what is meant by reconciliation and harmony.
Q. What is your message as an artist? Do you have a message to communicate?
I am not sure I am interested in messages as much as I am in questions.
My art is my way of dealing with my own queries and anxieties and it is more an expression of my seeking and questing rather than anything to do with proclaiming messages. I don’t presume to have any answers to the great questions that trouble me, but I need to explore them visually as well as intellectually. If anything it is a complex and internal dialogue externalized and shared through the paintings or installations. If there is any message at all it may be it is that there are endless open-ended questions and many interpretations, and as many answers. The layers and complexities of life and living is what fascinates me.
Q.What are the greatest challenges in being an artist?
The challenge for me personally is to never allow myself to become comfortable in my oeuvre, either in the form of my inspiration, style or technique. To endlessly seek truth in all its forms and to tell it in a variety of ways. To forever push the boundaries, to break one’s own rules and expand one’s horizons, and never be satisfied. The challenge is to keep challenging oneself.
To accept that to create I have to be a solitary creature, simply because I personally cannot see or think deeply and meditatively, in a crowd. Sometimes that very aloneness which I desire creates separateness from society that I regret. One becomes the lone wolf and the outsider, even if one is longing to be part of society, and to fit in. Frankly, I struggle with that dilemma.
Q. As a woman what are the greatest challenges in being a contemporary artist?
While artists have traditionally been male, it is shocking that it is still very much a man’s world. 13% of women have won The Turner Prize. Only 20% women are shown at the Tate Modern and it is a relief that at least at the 2009 Venice Biennale 40% were women. The art market is also largely run by men in the roles of agents, gallerists, collectors, museums and auction houses.
I can find no actual names of women amongst the ancient art of the Japanese Indian or Chinese; and the Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentillischi is the only female artist I have read about from that period. I suppose in the last century it improved somewhat with Frida Kahlo, Gwen John, Georgia O Keefe, etc making some headway often due to their relationships with male artists. Later still, in the last few decades, we have some very prominent women such as Tracey Emin, Marina Abramovich, et al, making waves , but still they stand out as the minority.
In traditional society it is the woman who relates to the community and social life and action, and socio cultural perceptions make it hard to live the solitary life that is somewhat necessary for the artist. The roles of wife and mother are also ones that requires a huge expenditure of time and selfless giving, and the fact that one cannot easily specify work time frames may also make it difficult to give it the all consuming focus the process of art making needs.
One may need to make the unpleasant choice of leading the solitary life for the art or as a caregiver at the expense of art. The fact that I am no longer a wife has certainly made it easier for me to give my work the time it requires. However, I regret, in hindsight, my decision not to have children so that I could work full time, because I lived in the UK where I had no family to help and could not have hired help either; and I wish now that I had not had to make that choice.
The painting process is often extremely strenuous physically as well as intellectually and emotionally demanding. The fact is that it is manual labour, and a dirty, messy, unclean job often using toxic materials that are not only harmful to the skin, but also one’s lungs, makes it difficult for the physically weaker sex.
Really, it is very unsatisfactory that women are still the minority in our vocation, and perhaps still often seen as indulging a hobby; and sometimes not taken seriously as professional artists. But the good news is that attitudes are changing.
Q. How do you see yourself in the context of contemporary Sri Lankan art?
I am not sure I can answer that one. Perhaps this is a question you need to ask of others, or preferably to really judge, only once I am dead.
Q. How does your family play a role in your work as an artist?
Well, I live alone and I do not have immediate family and the support structure that that provides on a daily basis is something I miss. On the other hand, not having to see to a family’s needs gives me the time to focus fully on art. However, my stepsons, nieces and nephews are all interested in some form of the arts, or are working in the creative fields and I am touched that they turn to me for advice, and vice versa, so that is rewarding.
The fact that my father painted, the fact that my parents, and grandparents were very interested in cultural pursuits, and that my aunt took us to the movies; and my parents consented to send me to art college much against their desire, means that they have played a very vital and supportive role. My ex husband was a photographer and that meant that we could discuss visual ideas and co criticize each other.
Not only my family, but my close friends are very supportive in a myriad ways, and not least in understanding the fact that I need a certain space to create, and that I am also rather odd and perhaps in their view, eccentric. Some of my friends, who are like family, have collaborated closely, criticized and supported me emotionally and intellectually, and one of them is also in some inexplicable way, a muse.
Q. How has nature inspired ‘Deliverance’?
I will quote from my article for ‘The India Habitat Centre Journal’, written in 2002 as it still holds good. ‘But even more vital, deeply nurturing and inspiring are the wild spaces I have visited. I am from a country of staggering natural beauty and diversity. I had a childhood spent in the water and sky, as well as the countryside. A single but unforgettable night in the Moroccan Sahara in mid-winter listening to a silence never heard before or since, riding across canyons in Kazakhstan with hunters and their golden eagles, swimming in the atolls with Pilot Whales and Manta Rays. These magical playgrounds inform my paintings in a way that cannot be identified, analysed(spelling is wrong???) or even dissected.’
Q. How do you view your responsibility to the environment, as an artist, in this regard?
The Pure Arts, as in Art, Music, Poetry are unusual professions in that artists, composers and poets have no responsibilities to anyone or anything except to their own truth and integrity. It is an extraordinary freedom, and like all freedoms, has to be carefully tendered. The artist is the outsider in society and can express his own truths as he sees fit. So I don’t know about responsibility. Its just more to do with what I am passionate about. As I outlined earlier, my paintings are the outward expression of my inner concerns and questions. Climate Change consumes my interest, because of my love for nature, and I simply cannot understand why so little is being done about it. So these are my questions taking the form of paintings.
Q. What are the views you are expression(ing?) on nature, the environment and the world in this exhibition?
Simply that our beautiful and fragile planet is clearly hurting, we are indivisibly a part of it, it is us, not outside us. Can we put aside our greed for growth and slow down to her pace and her needs so that we your grandchildren, the flora and fauna, can all survive? The earth has been generous to us. Can we stop raping her and now give back to her?