Sri Lankan Textile Artists
(Post-Independence to the Present)
Unravelling The Past, the exhibition which brings together for perhaps the first time the work of an exceptional group of gifted and original textile artists can still be viewed. The exhibition, which is being held at the American Centre, 44 Galle Road, Col-3, will close on the 31st December. Hours: Tues-Thurs 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and Fri & Sat 9 a.m.-noon.
The aim of the exhibition is to provide insight into the creative, technical and historical aspects of the work of each artist, so that viewers come away with a deepened appreciation of their individual skills and the artistry of contemporary Sri Lankan textile design. The exhibition can be viewed in many ways, including as a purely visual experience, within a historical framework, as an introduction into the interesting personalities represented in the exhibition, and/or technically. Text panels throughout the exhibit provide guidance to the gallery viewer, providing details about the background of each artist and descriptions and analyses of each artwork. Already, a large number of university design students and art lovers have viewed the exhibition, which was unveiled at the beginning of the month.
The exhibition is curated by Jennifer Moragoda, Fulbright Commission Board Member and former Managing Director of Bureau Veritas CPS Lanka (Pvt) Ltd., and is sponsored by the American Embassy. Phoenix Ogilvy and architect/photographer Waruna Gomis have produced the high quality artwork and photography which accompanies the exhibition.
For further information, call Emelda: 011 458090 or Aruni: 0772-992141.
The below information is excerpted from the exhibition catalogue:
UNDERSTANDING TEXTILE ART
Individually, the works in the exhibition can be appreciated and understood in many ways, including: 1) design composition, 2) colour composition, 3) the artists’ mastery of technique and materials, 4) the roots of inspiration, and 5) the design/construction process. The geographical and social origins, time (era), and the background and personal experiences of the artist lend further insight to the context of a work.
BRIEFLY ABOUT THE ARTISTS
Each of the eight artists presented here are pioneers of the craft, and have left their unique imprint on contemporary Sri Lanka textile design. This was achieved through their mastery of technique, materials, colour, pattern and/or composition. Many have used traditional craft forms, designs and motifs as their starting point for inspiration. Others approach design from a more abstracted modernist viewpoint. Each in their individual way celebrates their Sri Lankan identity. All but two were born under British rule. These artists serve as a bridge from the past to the present; between the village and the city, between traditional craftsmen and women – the keepers of Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage and the next generation of Sri Lankan textile artists:
Minnette de Silva (1915–1998)
Asia’s first woman architect and Member of the RIBA, and an unconventional woman ahead of her time. Her lifetime work reflects her deep respect and attachment to Sri Lankan traditions and art forms and a commitment to integrating them into modern architecture. She was also the first modern artist to recognize the value of Dumbara hand-woven fabrics, and set up a weaving atelier in her own home in Kandy incorporating them into fashionable clothing and household furnishings.
Ena de Silva (b. 1922)
Pioneer artist from an elite Kandyan family and a well-loved cultural icon, who introduced the art of batik to Sri Lanka in the early 1960s. She remains the undisputed master of batik and Kandyan embroidery, and of Sri Lankan traditional design. Her unsurpassable batik designs are inspired by ancient Sinhalese flags and traditional motifs but are instilled with originality. Her finest work is carried out on a monumental scale. Her exquisite appliqué and embroidered patchwork quilts and wall hangings are a dizzying confusion of colour and stitching that only de Silva can carry off with aplomb.
Barbara Sansoni (b. 1928)
Another cultural icon, prolific and multi-gifted colourist, artist, writer, and designer, she is arguably the designer who has had the most widespread influence on contemporary Sri Lanka tastes in fashion, furnishings and lifestyle through her pioneering Barefoot brand. Her twin passions for colour and architecture are reflected in her fabrics, wall-hangings and fashions. Her modernist reconceptualization of the traditional sarong – several decades ago – has won widespread popularity and has become a genre much imitated, but rarely equalled.
Swanee Jayawardene (b. 1930)
Artist, art teacher, batik and tie-dye designer and one of the few women artists exhibiting with the Group of ‘43 artists. In the 60s and 70s, she perfected her own unique style of batik and tie-dye in fabrics and clothing, characterized by bursts of vivid colour, which conveys a refined aesthetic sense and a painter’s command of colour and composition.
Chandramani Thenuwara (b. 1934)
A rare combination of artist and textile technologist; she was the first Sri Lankan woman to qualify abroad as a Chartered Textile Technologist. As a child, she was a student of Cora Abraham, and exhibited with the ’43 Group in later years. From 1973-1989, she served under the Department of Small Industries as Textile Designer where she was responsible for lifting the standards and innovation in hand-weaving design of the entire government handloom industry, and as a teacher, educating the new generation of textile/fashion designers.
Tilak Samarawickrema (b. 1943)
Milan-trained architect, artist and designer, who has done much to raise the standards of product design and the technical proficiency of Sri Lankan traditional artisans, and raising the stature of Sri Lankan decorative arts. His main contribution to textile design has been his collaboration with the traditional cloth weavers from the oldest surviving village of Talagune, Uda Dumbara, which began in 1990.
Rehana Jayewardene de Soysa (b. 1948)
Pioneer hand-block printing designer holding British diplomas in Textile Art and Design, and Textile Technology. In 1989, she set up a small block-printing unit at the Design Centre, at the Government Department of Textiles in Moratuwa. Though it was subsequently closed down, the designs she created demonstrate how a solid grounding in technique and the sure eye of the artist can combine to create strikingly beautiful and skillfully executed designs, even when improvising with limited materials and skill-base in this specialized medium.
Marie Gnanaraj (b. 1950)
Protégé of Barbara Sansoni, and principal textile designer for Barefoot. She has had over 30 years of hands-on experience working closely with hand-weavers and dyers. She is probably the only designer here who has experimented with using natural dyes such as indigo in her fabrics. Her designs revel in the creation of texture by any means and in breaking the established rules of traditional weaving.
THE TRADITIONAL ARTS & CONTEMPORARY SRI LANKAN TEXTILE DESIGN
Before the modern era, weaving as an occupation was carried out by specific community groups – as were all the traditional crafts. However, with the fall of the Kandyan Kingdom in 1815, feudal society and its carefully ordered way of life that had existed for centuries began to unravel. The rituals, ceremony and religious rites connected with the Kandyan Court - so central to feudal society and the decorative arts – began to lose their relevance, as a new colonial government imposed its values, tastes and imperatives. Appreciation and connoisseurship of the traditional arts began to flag. The traditional craftsperson no longer held an assured place in a closed, close-knit feudal society, but had to find new relevance in the modern era which was ruled by the market and the modern city with hybrid values, needs and tastes quite alien to village society.
Over 90 years later, in 1903, when Ananda K. Coomaraswamy and his English wife Ethel Partridge (later Mairet), travelled throughout the Kandyan countryside and surveyed the traditional arts, they found them in a steep decline. The indigenous weaving traditions that had flourished in the Kingdom were slowly becoming lost. Rush-mat and cotton-cloth weaving were being carried out by only a handful of families in the villages surrounding Kandy in the Uda Dumbara valley and a few isolated spots elsewhere. Any signs of a surviving cloth-printing tradition were not to be found (though some old printed flags and textiles could still be found). Coomaraswamy stated that he saw appliquéd flags which were "not often well made" which he thought were substitutes for the satisfactorily dyed flags formerly used)."
This experience touched both Coomaraswamys and would change the course of their intellectual lives and resulted in the publication of that indispensible and authoritative source on the traditional arts and folklore, Medieval Sinhalese Art (1908). Some Sri Lankans may be familiar with Ananda K. Coomaraswamy’s great contribution to Sri Lankan traditional arts (and national heritage), originally published a little over one hundred years ago. However, few know that his first wife, Ethel, assisted him in this work. It is probably to Ethel that we owe at least an equal debt of gratitude in bringing to light the weaving and embroidery traditions that existed in the Kandyan Kingdom. Her research on traditional Kandyan embroidery was first published in monograph form and later included as a chapter in her husband’s book. Tellingly, Ethel, became a weaver and influential member of the British Arts and Crafts Movement, shortly after their return to England, subsequently publishing a book on vegetable dyes (1916) and weaving (1939).
Sri Lanka’s Independence in 1948, was an event which released a great creative impulse, engendering a new sense of optimism and a search for a modern Sri Lankan identity. It was around this time that Minnette de Silva (1915–1998) began to collaborate with traditional artisans and to innovate with Dumbara weaving. Traditionally, the Dumbara cloth weavers used handspun cotton yarn, dyed in blue obtained from indigo and red from madder – and rare cases green (Coomaraswamy, 1908). From this they wove simple and unpretentious (usually) white handspun cotton cloth with geometric bands and sections of pattern and intermittent animal design motifs in blue and red. These patterns were intricately woven into the ground fabric by the use of a special weaving technique employing coconut ekels to help pick up the extra weft yarns used to create these raised patterns in the fabric. These fabrics were used mostly woven into etirili (bed coverings), and diya kacci (a type of loin cloth). However, to update them to meet modern needs and tastes, Minnette used them as curtaining, clothing, and furnishing fabrics and made them economically feasible to produce by introducing small changes to the loom. She also introduced a wider range of fashionable colours – made possible by synthetic dyes.
Ena de Silva (b. 1922), also found inspiration in the traditional arts. Interestingly, both she and Minnette were born and lived most of their lives in the Kandyan region – the latter in Kandy and the former in Aluvihare, her ancestral home in Matale. Though they came from completely different social backgrounds, both recognized the value of the traditional arts and these played a central role in the forging of their own identities and work. Both were clearly motivated by their empathy with the plight of the craftsperson. The two had spent part of their early years and adult lives in Colombo and could move equally at ease between these two worlds. However, as sensitive artists, and having been brought up during colonial times, they both must have felt the cultural chasm that existed between modern Colombo, the centre of colonial power, and the traditional society of the Kandyan provinces.
By the early 1960s, over a decade after Independence, the prominence of Colombo in the country’s national life continued to grow as the plantation economy slowly began to change gear. Thus, it is no surprise that the succeeding generations of artists represented here had their origins in the capital city. Changing political policies would impact upon the development of textiles in many ways. In the mid 1960s until the late 1970s, artists and urbanites alike were forced to rely on their ingenuity to bring a dash of excitement to life when the Socialist government of the time clamped down on imports into the country. In a way this bolstered a new wave of creativity and innovation in painting, architecture and fashion. Limitations in local materials stirred up imagination and ingenuity.
This was also a time of a growing cosmopolitanism – and wider events such as the rise of the youth culture and the celebration of individual expression and experimentation, exemplified in the psychedelic tie-dye garb of the hippies. Tie-dye became more popular worldwide and easy to execute with the easy to apply cold solution dyes which were now readily available. These influences are apparent in the varied work of Ena de Silva, Barbara Sansoni and Swanee Jayawardene, all of whom came into prominence by the early to late 1960s, over a decade after Independence. Their textiles are bold and expressive, reflect an individual outlook, and a modernist eye – the work of de Silva has close ties to Sri Lankan folk art, while Sansoni’s is minimalist, and Jayawardeneis abstract expressionist.
The period also saw the beginnings of Sri Lanka’s tourism sector, which along with the rise of urbanization stimulated the growth of the decorative arts and architecture. Geoffrey Bawa, who spearheaded a new movement of Sri Lankan architecture, began to shake things up during this period, along with his hand-picked circle of talented architects and artists. He had a great influence on the thinking of the young Ena de Silva and Barbara Sansoni, and gave them their start through commissions for wall hangings and soft furnishings.
Another important figure during this period was the respected art teacher Cora Abraham. Many generations of Sri Lanka’s most talented artists of the contemporary period were taught by her in her Melbourne Art Classes for children or as students at Good Shepherd Convent where she taught earlier. Abraham had a humanistic approach to art and saw art’s mission as one to encourage individual expression and in the process, build character and a balanced personality. Both Swanee Jayawardene (b.1930) and Chandramani Thenuwara (b.1934) were outstanding students of Mrs. A. (as she was fondly known) and joined her Young Artists’ Group, becoming close associates of hers in the ensuing years. These two artists also went on to continue their studies under Harry Pieris, becoming two of the few women artists to exhibit with the ’43 Group. While Jayawardene approached her fabric tie-dyes and batiks in a similar fashion that she did her abstract expressionist canvases, a fortuitous study of textile technology in Britain set Thenuwara on a divergent path, and a long career dedicated to the weaving design medium followed in the late 1970s.
Over 80 years after Coomaraswamy, in the early 1990s, the collaboration between Tilak Samarawickrema and Dumbara cloth weavers trefrom Talagune began, followed by another important collaboration between another Talagune weaver, Somavansa, and the Barefoot group of designers. Both ventures have taken Dumbara weaving down different roads, taking full advantage of the exceptional skills of the traditional weavers and providing the weavers with a steady livelihood.
After the opening of the economy in the 1980s, government policy placed emphasis on raising the standards of textile manufacture and the garment industry began to emerge as an important export sector. It is in this setting that both Chandramani Thenuwara and Rehana Jayewardene de Soysa were given an environment to innovate and excel in the government sector as textile designers.
After over sixty years since Independence, and 100 years after the Coomaraswamys made the first in-depth assessment of the state of the decorative arts in Sri Lanka, the story of textile design lives on in new forms. We find innovations in the work of Marie Gnanaraj who has benefited from her long years as principal weaving designer for Barefoot, and established her own distinctive approach, with its roots in the Barefoot school of mininimalism and pure colour. We also find new interest from fashion design students in the work of the Dumbara weavers from Talagune. It will be left to see which directions the new generation will take and how deeply these artists draw from their rich cultural heritage found in the temples, villages and customs of the rural countryside. There are some signs that the new generation has become more interested in their national heritage and the environment. Let us hope that the wheel has finally come full circle.