Orientalism by Priyantha Udagedara, is a body of work that traverses between beauty and ugliness while simultaneously questioning the formation of the lenses that construct the two.
Priyantha’s work features paradisiacal dreamscapes filled with lush adornments of tropical flora, leaping mythic fauna, and nostalgic brick ruins overcome with vines. When I first encounter the large canvases, I am taken by what a resplendent treat they are for the eyes. The paintings come as quite a pleasant surprise. An admittedly unusual feeling in contemporary art; of seeing a simple, familiar, easy-on-the-eyes kind of beauty. It is a breath of fresh air. Accessible, but in a contemporary context? Hoorah! These works are the comfort food of contemporary painting.
But, once past this stellar first impression, the works tempt sustained looking and I am compelled to move forward and study them closely. With every step, the works no longer produce that sense of comfort in the beholder. They leave me somewhere in between curious to see this entropy through, and grasping at what’s left of my initial wonderment. I take one step: The harmonious whole begins to reveal deviances. Step two: What I thought were carefully rounded edges now revealed jagged points. Step three: Splashes of paint where they should not be. Step four: This is not a painting in its entirety, there are printed cutouts embedded onto the canvas. A collage? Step six: Little humanoid, limb-snapping, blue creatures crawl and scuttle around thorny thickets. Step seven: The fauna grow furry tails and sharp teeth, birds become vermin and the body of a dotted creature, snakes through the flowers dripping liquid on their petals. Step nine: This is dirty. Yet here I am, enjoying it.
This body of work gains an added measure of significance when considered in contrast with Priyantha’s last two exhibitions. His 2012 exhibition ‘Paradise Lost’ tackled themes of violence stemming from Sri Lanka’s brutal civil conflict. Three years later ‘Herbal Gardens’ embarked on an investigative look into the Sri Lankan massage parlors that hosted the underground sex trade. Both ‘Paradise Lost’ and ‘Herbal Gardens’ shared stylistic similarities. Both used floral veneers to entice, and subsequently reveal an insidious underbelly lurking beneath. They played with distance and close-ness in observation as a technology that was utilized to expose to the viewer, something hidden. This technology is repeated once more in “Orientalism”. Perhaps one could chalk this repetition up to a formulaic practice. However it would be remiss of me to suggest that after over 5 years of stringent commitment to this form the artist has found for himself, a kind of perfect formula that allows him to churn out swaths of meaningless works. No, for Priyantha Udagedara, evolution is paramount. While stylistically the differences between his bodies of work may seem minuscule, the conceptual leap made from the last two shows is nothing short of tremendous.
Before, the viewer was brought in only to be revealed a dark and painful realty, prompting either an instinctual avoidance or a type of political awareness. In the case of Orientalism however, things get murky. Tempted by the promise of tropical exoticism I am brought in, only to be seduced with a darker more attractive form of barbaric exoticism.
I sat down with Priyantha to talk about the work. He explained that much of the research involved in producing these works was based on Edward Said’s seminal book “Orientalism”. Originally seen as the study of the East by western academia, Said reinterpreted orientalism critiquing and framing it as a patronizing “way of seeing” that exaggerated and distorted Arab Culture as exotic, mythic, uncivilized and dangerous. This distortion in turn ordained the intervention of the civilizing technologies of superior westerners. In his paintings Priyantha attempts to co-opt this idea of “orientalism” into a Sri Lankan context.
Coincidentally when seeing Priyantha’s work I was reminded of Jamaican-born cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s essay, The West and the Rest: Discourse and Power to which Edward Said’s book acted as a theoretical foundation. In his chapter titled Idealization, Hall identifies five key themes for orientalism to take root, and for the perfect colonial fantasy to be constructed. It begins with the turning of the western gaze: The unfortunate privilege of being looked upon as a new “Golden World; an Earthly Paradise.” Following which, the land and its people come to be seen as “simple” and living an “innocent life.” Then the land is perceived as having a “lack of developed social organization and civil society” where “people live in a pure set of nature”. Finally the focus falls on the need to control sexuality, its loose reigns and nakedness.(1)
The experience of walking up to Priyantha’s paintings to mirrors the progression of Stuart Hall’s analysis. At first, I am filled with joy as I look at the painting from a distance. It is the colonial projection of a distant “Earthly paradise.” Then the discovery of certain ugliness. As I step closer to look at the works, the crawling blue figures, and the animalistic deviances offer an enticing mystical barbarism that beg to be ordered, civilized, sexualized, clothed and controlled. This is the same narrative of mystical barbarism that fueled the cannon of stories about tropical danger, adventure and discovery that in turn served to justify colonial empires. Perhaps the most illuminating moment in looking at these paintings was the realization of my complicity in replicating this narrative as a post-colonial native. Orientalism by Priyantha Udagedara involves the viewer in a type of performative exchange “to unearth -and concurrently interpret- what is beneath the deception of the exoticism in brazen display.”(2)
While full of historical implications, these pieces also possess an insidious contemporary relevance. Consider this image: Hovering above the crashing waves of the Indian ocean, a sweeping, aerial drone video, circles back towards the Galle Fort Lighthouse. A man leans out the side of the train to Ella; the camera pans and we see the rolling hills of the countryside shrouded in mist. A woman posts an Instagram of her enjoying the sun on the east coast tagged, #islandlife. A time-lapse shot of the growing Colombo skyline from one of its new apartment cities. The travel video comes to an end and on the screen, appears white letters:
S E R E N D I P I T Y.
There must exist at least a few hundred similar videos, all repeatedly shared with equal pride and enthusiasm by Sri Lankans and non-Sri Lankan visitors. If these videos were paintings, at first glance they would be Priyantha Udagedara’s. They are designed to entice and invite, but insidiously contribute to the building of an exotic gaze. It begs the question: For who is this gaze being developed and what are the terms of engagement? Perhaps the travel videos and “island life” hash tag culture are utilized as contemporary cultural capital through which Sri Lankans attempt to locate and negotiate a place in an increasingly demanding globalized world. Which begs the question: For what purpose does the broader world demand this kind of voluntary cognitive imperialism (3) turned means of representation? Evidently it is a rooted habit of oriental posturing that simplifies, ignores and thereby controls the inconvenient narratives of the ‘paradise island’. However can a history of colonialism take all the blame for this? Or is this more a conversation on power, and its many forms. Whether it be a carefully crafted “way of seeing”, domination over nature, or control of human behavior.
In the piece titled “Where is Hanuman?” Priyantha plays on the famous South Asian epic Ramayana. Intended as a reward for his heroic rescue of princess Sita from the demon king Ravana, Hanuman is said to have refused the gift of jewels from the divine prince Rama. In “Where is Hanuman?” Priyantha imagines a future in which Hanuman, ignoring his higher calling, decides to accept his reward. Only in this case, multiple monkeys crawl around the painting, all adorned with crowns and jewels. Furthermore, given the strong presence of East Asian motifs and styles in the works, Priyantha seems to be questioning the potential of a new double orientalism. One, being unmistakably Sri Lankan. The other allegorically tied to the Chinese aesthetics and Hanuman-esk figures in the paintings. They conjure up reflections on the potential increase in East and South Asian immigration and trade deals to and with Sri Lanka.
While his previous works held a more overtly political message, in this body of work Priyantha plays mediator. He connects symbols, behaviors, and motifs to prophetically generate critical conversation. These works are political, but exist outside of the usual political discourse. By doubling down as the mediator of symbols that evoke the past (colonial), present (post-colonial), and future (new-trade exchanges), Priyantha charts a sobering oriental pathology. How are we to respond? While the answer to this question may seem a murky impossibility, Priyantha is successful in compelling us to ask.
I offer you the poem “Garments” by Khalil Gibran to accompany you in your questioning.
Upon a day Beauty and Ugliness met on the shore of a sea. And they said to one another, “Let us bathe in the sea.”
Then they disrobed and swam in the waters. And after a while Ugliness came back to shore and garmented himself with the garments of Beauty and walked away.
And Beauty too came out of the sea, and found not her raiment, and she was too shy to be naked, therefore she dressed herself with the raiment of Ugliness. And Beauty walked her way.
And to this very day men and women mistake the one for the other.
Yet some there are who have beheld the face of Beauty, and they know her notwithstanding her garments. And some there be who know the face of Ugliness, and the cloth conceals him not from their eyes.”
– Khalil Gibran
Hall, Stuart, and Bram Gieben. Formations of Modernity. Polity in Association with Open University, 1992.
Rashid, Shaahima. “IN CONVERSATION WITH PRIYANTHA UDAGEDARA.”Artspacesrilanka.com, 30 Nov. 2017, artspace.benww.com/kalaakathaa/2017/11/30/in-conversation-with-priyantha-udagedara/.
Battiste, Marie. (2016). Cognitive Imperialism. 1-6. 10.1007/978-981-287-532-7_501-1.
Thanks to TF, AHA and MPN for the edits.
– Essay by Sandev Handy