‘Tasteful and understated elegance…..’
A Cursory Glance at Tilak Samarawickrema’s Ink of Lanka

By its simplicity and tasteful understated elegance, Tilak Samarawickrema’s Ink of Lanka captures immediately the attention of a book lover even before he or she has begun to turn its pages. It is a quality production that makes one want to touch and savour the feel of the book long before one begins to read and digest its contents. As the blurb on its dust jacket notes, ‘ Ink of Lanka expressively captures the early [life and career] of Tilak Samarawickrama, artist, architect and designer who has established his unique presence in each of these fields’. It seeks to provide ‘a retrospective overview’ of Samarawickrema’s artistic output between the years 1969 and 1984.

This autobiographical volume centres around Samarawickrema’s recollections of his sojourns in Italy and the United States (as narrated by him to his daughter Nethra) and also includes many drawings and lithographic etchings interweaved with reviews of Samarawickrema’s work by critics familiar with his creative endeavours. The volume also contains some of his black and white photographs of certain cultural landscapes which have served to inspire the artist.

In a small island like Sri Lanka, everyone knows most everyone else and, in our world of arts and letters, the sense of inbreeding is even greater! Hence it should come as no surprise when I record here and now that Tilak Samarawickrema and his family, extended no less than the immediate, have been known to me for years. I first met Tilak and family during their Sakviti Lane days in Colombo 5 in the 1970s when I was a frequent visitor to the neighbourhood. I was a close friend of one of his neighbours that Samarawickrema mentions in his narrative who is likely to form a considerable part of mine if it ever gets written. But that’s another story and let it rest where it may for the present.

My first professional encounter with Tilak Samarawickrema was in 1981 when we hosted a screening of Andare and held an exhibition of the drawings from the film at The American Centre in Kandy. Our friendship, with its inevitable ups and downs of course, deepened as a result of a mutual and enriching friendship we both shared with the late Ian Goonetileke, one of Peradeniya’s very great men.

Tilak is, like most sensitive and talented artists, a complex human being. ‘Voluble, impatient and impassioned…. Sometimes more Italian [good for him I’d say] than Sri Lankan’ observes Sinharaja Tammita - Delgoda magisterially if accurately in his brief introduction to the volume. Samarawickrema is indeed a composite of the characteristics identified above by Tammita - Delgoda. Anyone who has been at the receiving end, as indeed I have, of his political views will recongise immediately the passion and the impatience that are Samarawickrema’s general personality traits. However, the aspect of his I relate to most is Samarawickrema’s restlessness of spirit that Tammita - Delgoda has also noted. It is a personal quality that is reflected in his drawings. Samarawickrema comes across as a person restlessly in search of new experience both in his art and in his life outside that sphere. For example, he decides early in his career to forsake Engineering for Architecture and he observes that this move changed his life (Ink of Lanka p.15). He appears to have benefited from the Civil Engineering genes he has doubtless inherited form his father and the non-technical ones he says he inherited from his ‘socially - conscious’ mother. This parental background may well be responsible for the fine blend of precision and passion we notice in Samarawickrema’s work.

The precision of a cerebral technician and the imagination of a poet are beautifully and sensitively juxtaposed in the Ink of Lanka.

The fusion of modern with tradition that is a salient feature of all of Samarawickrema’s work is also illustrative of the energy and the restless quest for form that his work reflects. Here it is useful to let Samarawickrema speak for himself.

The vernacular design idiom that [Geoffrey] Bawa was evolving was important and appropriate to Ceylon and the region at large. Yet, as I discovered the extension of innovation possible in contemporary architecture, I didn’t want to limit myself to any form of regionalism. I left Bawa’s office and joined the State Engineering Corporation where A.N.S. Kulasinghe was working with pre-fabricated and pre-stress structures(p.16)

I feel it is this innovative spirit which begets his restlessness that makes it exceedingly difficult for us to place Samarawickrema’s style within a specific idiom. Like all good, well-rounded and effective human beings, Samarawickrema reaches out to the universal while anchoring himself securely in the [Sri Lankan] particular. Ian Goonetileke(1982), Jose Antonio Pratt Mayons and Sinharaja Tammita – Delgoda have elaborated on this feature of Samarawickrema’s work as reflected in his drawings in particular. ‘In their texture and emotion,’ notes Goonetileke, ‘Tilak’s drawings offer more than a hint of the quality and style, the concentration and originality, the variety and intensity of a Sri Lankan artist, blessed with the authentic flavor of his traditional culture and sustained by deeply-rooted national feelings, who has succeeded in evolving a uniquely contemporary idiom to reveal the unchanging image of ourselves in the glass of his creative alchemy’ (p.79).

Writing in Catalogue XII Bienal de Sao Paulo, October/November 1973, Mayans asserts –

Tilak is Ceylon [Sri Lanka]. The traditionalism of his work is not picturesque. It is transcendent, it is true, and keeps with skillfulness its people identity, not as an adorned corpse, but as a form of life. In Tilak’s work one may sometimes perceive some aesthetical solution, quite near to Picasso, or Klee, or Tiffany, and by chance, don’t we find Africa in Picasso’s work, East in Klee’s and Egypt in Tiffany’s? Originality – or better modernism is a crutch to reach space. Tilak’s work is selfish in its universality (p.167).

And here’s Tammita – Delgoda’s take –

Like Kenzo Tange, Tilak Samarawickrema seems to distill the essence of the modern spirit, fusing it with a deep understanding and feeling for his own culture. The fusion of modernism with tradition embodies Samarawickrema’s approach to his own work. The result is startling and subversive, surreal and sometimes sublime (p.9).

As Samarawickrema himself observes in his narration (p.16) he deliberately sought an ‘awareness of international art and architecture’. He read voraciously and familiarised himself with such artists as Picasso, Van Gogh and Matisse. He was fascinated by the work of Antonio Gaudi, Kenzo Tange and Le Corbusier. This conscious avoidance of provincialism is good for him and good for us. He has moved around from Sri Lanka to Italy, to the United States and back again to Sri Lanka. I doubt though that his artistic journey has also come a full circle as his physical wanderings. Given his personality, my own feeling is that Tilak Samarawickrema is bound to surprise us further with his professional meandering and artistic innovation before he puts his pen and pencil down. I suspect, therefore, that he still has some miles to go before he sleeps or allows himself to fade into the sunset.



INTRODUCTION by SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgoda

Voluble, impatient and impassioned, Tilak Samarawickrema is sometimes more Italian than Sri Lankan. He spent his most formative years in Italy and this has left an indelible impression on his work. However, a glance at his drawing reveals a man deeply grounded in the art and culture of his own country, Sri Lanka. The limpid curves of Samarawickrema’s lines echo the vaka deka, the classic double curve which had characterized Sinhala art for almost two thousand years.

In Italy Samarawickrema immersed himself in Italian life. Whilst pursuing his architectural studies, he plunged head first into a colourful, bohemian world of art, design and politics. The Italian experience liberated Samarawickrema and he began to draw, discovering within himself an almost effortless mastery of the curve. It was the beginning of a career which would see him exhibit his line drawings all over the world, from Rome and Milan to New York and Sao Paulo.

Ink of Lanka provides a retrospective view of his art. In over 100 drawings and etchings interspersed with photographs, it tells the story of Tilak Samarawickrema, the man and the artist. Each drawing has a life of its own. Restless and never still, like the man himself they reverberate with energy and movement. Touches of colour here and there add a striking depth, bringing out the nuances of his line. At the core of almost every drawing is a sense of space. Expressing the artist’s minimalist instincts, this emptiness enhances the simplicity of his art.

Redefining the line, Samarawickrema creates something new out of the ancient past, bringing the rhythms, patterns and stories of Lanka to life in swift and flowing curves. The Japanese architect Kenzo Tange once compared tradition with a chemical reaction "The role of tradition is that of a catalyst, which furthers a chemical reaction but is no longer detectable in the end result." (Jonathan Glancy, The Guardian, 23rd March 2005). Like Kenzo Tange, Tilak Samarawickrema seems to distill the essence of the modern spirit, fusing it with a deep understanding and feeling for his own culture. This fusion of modernism with tradition embodies Samarawickrema’s approach to his own work. The result is startling and subversive, surreal and sometimes sublime.

As an architect, a designer and an artist, Samarawickrema has made his own distinctive mark. Even now, he is always experimenting and exploring new horizons. Translating his lines into towering sculptures in wire, he just added yet another dimension to his work. As you enter his house, the threads dance upon the wall like living things.

Ink of Lanka is a journey through the world of Tilak Samarawickrema and it is full of his personality, his feelings and his lust for life. It is a story which begins in Sri Lanka and moves to Italy and America and then Italy again, before finally coming back to Sri Lanka. Like his curves, his artistic journey seems to have come a full circle.

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