30 August 2017

’i’ is also for ‘intrigue’


Who is the fool on the hill?  That’s a question that never came up in any A/L English Literature exam paper in all the years that the Beatles’ song ‘The fool on the hill’ was on the syllabus.  It’s a question I didn’t ask myself when I prepared for that exam.  It’s a question I realized should have been discussed and that realization came when I saw a ceramic sculpture with the song-title about a month ago.  

The fool on the hill

Kuveni, I’ve heard of and the story has disturbed me no end for many reasons.  I had not though of Kuveni as a feeling or more precisely ‘an effusively enthusiastic or ecstatic expression of feeling’ or as an epic poem, I had not. 

Ophelia, when I played Horatio in a Sinhala version of Hamlet almost thirty years ago, was as tragic as she was when I first read that play.  I had never seen Ophelia.  Nor Kuveni.  I’ve seen artistic depictions of Theri Sangamitta carrying a sampling of the Sacred Bo Tree in a begging bowl, but somehow they all seem embellished or distorted now.   An added dimension, strangely and unexpectedly, had ‘shelled’ the Arahat Sangamitta and yet given her in fuller form.  I saw them all the same day I discovered the question regarding the fool on the hill.  

Left to Right: Kuveni's Rhapsody, Sanghamitta, Ophelia and Pandora

Pandora was about a box, about curiosity, flight and the horrors of life and the world.  It wasn’t about escape, it wasn’t about embracing reality and dealing with it.  Now it is.  

There was a conqueror and he came with a note:  ‘The ascetic Siddhartha Gauthama conquering the three temptations: greed, anger and lust. The necessary struggle that preceded enlightenment could not have been easy.  Torment was written on the face.  

How can one capture anything of the notion called ‘anitya’ or impermanence?  To cast it would divest it of meaning.  But then again, if approximation (of capture) is useful for reflection, then I found something useful that day.  

The full moon is for those in the northern hemisphere a ‘man’ and for us in the south, a rabbit.  The full moon is also a moment historically designated for reflection of the eternal verities for Buddhists.  The full moon can be depicted as the Buddha, this I hadn’t known.  

There were other ‘pieces’ that probably spoke a language I understood less, but I ‘heard’ enough, anyway.  Like 'Atlas' who was 'unburdened.'  I had never thought of the idea and even if I did I wouldn't have imagined the crumpled, lost and defeated figure that was before me that day  

The true worth of the work of Asela Gunasekara, ceramicist, is best assessed by those who have a deep understanding of art and especially sculpture and within that field, the medium, ceramic.  What I can say is that there’s something about the works mentioned above that made the images remain within or, put another way, held me within them.  

The exhibition, held at the Lionel Wendt Art Gallery about a month ago was titled, simply, ‘i’.  Yes, ‘i’ as in the letter and in lower case.  It had a disclaimer of sorts: ‘imperfect, impermanent, incomplete’.  The title indicated a philosophical exploration but as titles go it could have been an easy excuse for sloth and lack of skill. Words, as is often said, are easy, and can be deployed to express honesty as well as deception.  Untrained though I am in art and art appreciation, I realized quickly that there was nothing trivial, flippant or mischievous about ’i’.    

The above is context relevant to what follows, which is not a review but a sketch of one of the artists featured in that exhibition, Asela Oshadhi Gunasekara.  The other, Akshana Abeywardene, her son, whose photographs were on display is a talent in his own right and deserves a separate feature. Later.  Now, Asela Oshadhi Gunasekara. 

Asela was born in 1973, and had been left-handed, but taught to eat and write with the right hand.  That ‘correction’ may contain a clue to the early part of her life.  She had, as a child, struggled with writing.  The Sinhala characters had come out as mirror images.  She laughs about it, saying that her husband teases her about all this, saying that this forced switch from left to right could be why she is confused.

It hadn’t been a laughing matter when she was a little girl, however.  She was chided at school for poor handwriting.  Whereas she got A’s for religion, language, arithmetic and singing, she got a B for Art and a C for Handwork when she was in the second grade.  The comments are interesting.  She was told to ‘try to draw colorful pictures’ and to ‘practice folding paper.’   Today she says ‘Art should never be a graded subject in school,’ for reasons that obviously have nothing to do with those silly grades.  

Asela had always been interested in art.  She liked it.  “I used to draw everywhere. And I also appreciated.  I was fascinated by the pictures on the back of Readers’ Digest magazines.”

Like almost everyone who was a child in this country over the past 5-6 decades Asela grew up with Sybil Wettasinghe.  That was art.  And stories.  She had been fascinated by two things as a child, nature and books.

“I remember my grandmother showing me birds sitting on a wire.  I must have been two or three then.  This was in Malabe, which was at the time a place where there was enough and more wildlife.  The natural world fascinated me. I collected things like feathers and seashells  My father bought me books.  If anyone asked me what I wanted I would say ‘books.’  My father, who worked in the People’s Bank, had a decent collection of books.  I tried to read everything, including the ‘adult’ books!  My parents had to hide some books from me.” 

By the time she was around 14, Asela remembers, she had become very passionate about art.  She had taken the subject in Grade 6 when she moved from Musaeus College to Sirimavo Bandaranaike Vidyalaya.

“Unfortunately the teacher wasn’t too encouraging, but I used to look at stuff, like pictures, and draw.  I was always a solitary person, so I had a lot of time.  When I was not studying it was all about reading and drawing.  I did write poetry, first in Sinhala and later in English, but art was what interested me most.”

She belonged to the one and only batch of students who had to take just 6 subjects for the O/L.  There were exams for these 6 subjects but the final grade for the other two would be determined through assessments. For two years she could paint and draw.  The political unrest of the late eighties persuaded the government to scrap the assessments so that particular batch of students had to settle for a 6 subject O/L.  Asela got 5 Distinctions and a single Credit which meant she could pick the stream of her choice for the A/L.   

It was another left-hand and right-hand moment in her life.  Most of her friends had decided to study arts and languages.  She had been good in literature but was pushed into biology.  

“I was disoriented.  I remember the first term; I knew it wasn’t my thing.  I convinced my mother to talk to the teachers so I could switch to the arts stream.  The teachers were not willing.” 

“So two years of your life were robbed?” I asked.

“No, my whole life was robbed. Things could have been drastically different.”

She hadn’t done too well, naturally.  She had wanted to switch and do arts the following year, but her father had discouraged and had suggested that she join a bank.  That’s how she ended up at Standard Chartered Bank, Colombo (1992-97) and in Dubai from 1997 to 1999.  She quit when Akshana was born and it was only after he started preschool that Asela began to think of a different career.  So she enrolled in a two-year degree program in liberal arts at the American College of Dubai, which was affiliated to the Southern New Hampshire University.  

The tsunami brought her back to Sri Lanka in 2004.  She walked into Mel Medura and became a part of Sumitrayo, the well-known program on drug demand reduction, working with Ms Nalini Ellawala, first as an intern and later as an administrative director.  

“I learnt so much there by getting involved in programs and community work.  But I wanted to study, so I got into an online MSc program in HRD at the University of Leicester.  I worked with a HRD consultant for a little while but didn’t really like that work. Then I applied for a vacancy in UN volunteers.    It was called the VOICE Project and was about streamlining voluntarism.  I was a Project Coordinator for nearly two years.  That’s when I finally concluded that working for someone is not going to work for me.”

And that’s how she got back on track, the point when she decided that if left-handed was how she was born then left-handed was how she should be and live, so to speak.  Art.

In fact through all these explorations with various careers, the one constant had been art.  Even while at the bank, Asela says, art had been her refuge.  

“I did something…anything…was always with it….It was not conceptual art….I didn’t know what conceptual art was…I had no formal education and had never really studied it.”

In Dubai she had learnt about stained glass. Her brief venture into liberal arts, although they were introductory courses, had been a fulfilling experience.  

“My professors were good.  I discovered different subjects like psychology, sociology, philosophy and literature, which opened my eyes to different spheres and helped me see things deeper even though they were just introductory courses.  That was in a way a turning point when it came to art as well.   In 2010 when I quit the UN project, I decided that I should study art seriously.  At a creative writing workshop conducted by Ashok Ferry in 2010, I happened to sit next to a foreign lady who gave me the number of Prof Chandrajeewa when I told her I am interested in art. 

“I went to him and that was it.  He knew how to teach technique but more than this he could read personality and guide accordingly.  He knew I wanted to express myself and he let me do just that.  He taught me to think like an artist.  He helped me find myself.  I missed that class when we returned to Dubai in 2011.  I enrolled in a painting class at the Dubai International Art Centre, but after studying under Prof Chandrajeewa, it was a disappointment.  It was too rigid and boring.  So I decided to something else.  Ceramics.

“I had two Ceramic teachers, Michael Rice  from Northern Ireland who taught me pottery on the wheel and Katerina Smoldyreva from Russia who taught sculpture.  It was from Michael that I learnt the conceptual element related to pottery on the wheel. Katerina gave another kind of outlook.  I got a wheel and worked on my own.  I worked with Katerina for about two years and it was from her that I learnt technique as well as the relevance of learning art history. Then I set up my studio.  I owe a lot to these two teachers who introduced me to ceramics.  I knew it was my medium.  I was home with it. In 2014 I started classes for kids and now I have around 20 students.”

Asela’s first exhibition was ‘Dream Catchers,’ held at the Lionel Wendt in July 2012.  It was a group exhibition featuring two painters and a sculptor, all students of Prof Chandrajeewa.  In 2016 October, she was one of several online artists featured at another group exhibition, this time at the Saskia Fernando Gallery.  All the artists were from the online platform ‘Art Space Sri Lanka’.  

“By then I was doing only ceramics. It was more of an exposure.”

Asela Gunasekara’s story is like a journey. She’s wandered along paths cut and ordered for her and when the way ahead although clear seemed meaningless she left it.  She’s wandered thereafter and by a mix of choice and chance discovered a happy creative space, a medium that she feels belonged to and one she moulds even as it moulds her.  Now she searches for herself through her work and ‘i’ is exactly what it claims to be.  It is imperfect because perfection is a brag that’s more often than not a lie.  The Zen masters of Japan, Asela points out, were master ceramicists and they would often pick out the most imperfect work as the masterpiece.  

Her work is about impermanence and that’s a concept that comes from Buddhism, which she claims has inspired her. 

“I come from a very traditional Buddhist background.  My mother was an only child whose mother died when I was small. Her father was a part of my growing up.  He was an ardent Buddhist.  I had no choice but to listen to the sermons.  Some of that must have gone into my head.  Of course some of it I questioned and some parts I discarded. When I studied Buddhism for the O/L it made sense, it was logical.   So it’s there in me as a foundational philosophy.  Not that I can claim to know it or that I understand fully, but whatever is there is part of me and it comes out.  Both my teachers in Dubai were very receptive to Buddhism. We had good conversations about Zen Buddhism.  Michael introduced me to traditional Japanese aesthetics, Wabi-sabi, which is a world view about accepting imperfection, impermanence and the incomplete.”

Wabi-sabi in fact is a concept obtained from the Buddhist teachings of anicca, dukkha and anatma (impermanence, suffering and the absence of self-nature).  Wabi-sabi aesthetics dwell, then, on “asymmetry, roughness, simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy, and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes”.

Some of the titles for her sculptures are drawn from stories and this is not surprising.  Apart from the natural world, the stories she’s read and heard and even those which she makes in her own mind inspire Asela, she explained.  

“There’s always a story, a story line; it could be short, but it comes in.  I am fascinated by stories and always have been.  I still remember one of the first books I loved, uda giya baba (the baby that went up).  I loved veda beri daasa (Dasa, the idiot) and the translations of Russian stories that I read as a child.  I loved books with good illustrations and colours.  

“Since I was in a bank, I did banking exams, but gave up at one point even though I had only two more subjects to complete.  I went to Aquinas and inquired about external arts degrees.  I wanted to do an external degree at Kelaniya and took English Literature, Philosophy and I think Economics.   Fr Herman Fernando taught us literature.  He introduced me to contemporary poets and the ballads of John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Paul Simon.  I had to leave because I got married and we went to Dubai, but that was a wonderful experience.”

Then she went on to explain why her exhibits came with titles and explanatory captions.  “The exhibition in 2012 didn’t have any titles or descriptions.  Of course art is a language but maybe it is a language for the artists and not for everyone.  Some or most of the recipients might find it a foreign language.  People were intrigued, they had lots of questions.  

"It made me realize that when you are catering to a general audience it helps to guide them a little.  If there were no titles or descriptions, ‘i’ would have been a different experience for the audience. So, yes, I do take away their right to independent appreciation of the work itself. Some artists argue that this is how it should be, that the viewer has to take whatever he/she wants out of it. I felt however, that for this audience, I should offer some basic guideline.”

Made sense. If not for the ‘note’ on ‘Conqueror’ I would have read it very differently, for example.  Such reading has its merits, no doubt, but in this instance I feel I would have been poorer without the nudge from the artist to read in a particular way.  

Her work is incomplete, naturally.  There’s exploration ahead of her.

“People ask if I have a style and I say ‘no’ because i don’t want to be in a box, be captured by a label.  For now, I am a ceramicist.  But I want to experiment with glass, mixing the two mediums and using them for sculpture.  Conceptually, however, I am a bit lost.  I need to find my way again.  I am not sure where I would go.  I will take it as it comes.”

Asela Gunasekara is an artist who will immediately say ‘not yet’ given her philosophical predilections or even say ‘never will be’ as per the three dimensions of ‘i’ (imperfect, impermanent, incomplete).  She layers her work with herself and the work and the artist do intrigue.  That’s another ‘i’ and not paradoxically.  It all flows from the 'left hand,' now.  And it is all about the exploration of ‘i’.  Simple i. Simply, i.