After years of hibernation Colombo’s art scene is waking up- this is YAMU’s beginners guide to the state of the artistic nation.
Where, not long ago, the idea of spending a full-day exploring Colombo’s art galleries would have seemed laughable, today you can quite easily spend a day, or two, hopping from one urban art-space to the next.
To help the city’s art-inclined but intimidated or time-scarce folk connect with Colombo’s still underground renaissance, YAMU has compiled a list of the city’s more prominent gallery spaces. Working your way through these scattered galleries should serve as an introduction to the island’s post-independence artistic evolution, and shed some light on the current direction of Sri Lankan art.
106 Nelum Pokuna Mawatha, Colombo 7
This must really be one of the most poorly maintained national-level galleries in Asia, if not the world.
It’s really a disgrace but it’s free, in an attractive area and even without labeling there are enough strong pieces to hold your attention for a few minutes. It’s not the Uffizi but for a 20 minute browse when you’re in the vicinity of Cinnamon Gardens it’s worth a stop.
While the permanent collection has deep issues with maintenance there are wings to the left and right that occasionally house far less musty temporary exhibitions.
Prices: The main collection isn’t for sale.
704 Galle Road, Colombo 3
The alpha and the omega of local galleries. Any tour of city’s art-spaces must begin or end at the Barefoot Gallery.
After almost 50 years bringing artists and their work into the limelight the space still remains on the cutting edge of the city’s art scene. That’s partly a facet of the sheer number of exhibitions held here.
What you’ll find: Everything. If it’s local and it’s art at some point it will be in Barefoot. From contemporary artists to paintings by respected figures from the 43 group – portraits, posters, photographs and visual installations. On our latest visit, we had a look at ‘Loot From the Loft’ which featured work by a number of contemporary Sri Lankan artists- including Mahen Chanmugam and Druvinka Madawela.
Prices: Ranging broadly from Rs. 50,000 – Rs. 250,000 at this exhibition with prints and posters for much less. Of course the prices vary considerably from exhibition to exhibition depending on the artist but you can often pick up work for less than Rs. 50,000 – which means that many of those who currently just pop into Barefoot to buy the lovely handloom material, or sip an iced-tea at the cafe should give some serious thought to making a purchase.
32/4 Barnes Place, Colombo 7
This is, by a rather wide margin, the best and most beautiful art-gallery in the city. The former residence and collection of the artist Harry Pieris ought to be one of Colombo’s major attractions, yet few Colombars have heard of it and even fewer have actually ventured inside.
Every conceivable space is filled with frames (over 200) but somehow it doesn’t feel cluttered . Perhaps that’s because the paintings and their repository, the faded old bungalow with its beautiful furnishings suit each other so perfectly. Wandering through the slightly dusty living rooms, studies and halls you have the immense privilege of seeing this, most picturesque of countries, refracted through the minds and expressive skill of its leading artists.
Prices: The work isn’t for sale though you’ll wish it was. They do occasionally host exhibitions by contemporary artists where paintings are available.
Opening hours: The Sapumal Foundation’s main, perhaps only, flaw is that they maintain some of the most bizarre and inconvenient opening hours conceivable- 10 am to 1 pm, Thursday to Sunday. So you have just three hours a day, four days a week to see the best gallery in the country- it’s still worth it.
30/3 Barnes Place, Colombo 7
Anoushka Hempel uses her space at the Galle Face Court apartments and her 30/3 Barnes place residence to display work from some of the country’s most promising emerging and mid-career artists. She represents Anoli Perera, Pala Pothupitiya, Pradeep Thalawatta, Koralegedara Pushpakumara and several other artists.
The large space at Barnes Place hosts frequent exhibitions and is a good place to drop-in to take the pulse of the local art scene while the apartment at Galle Face court is a beautiful space displaying a well-curated selection of art in the heart of the city. Both spaces are open to the public though it’s advisable to call Anoushka beforehand to organize a visit.
What we saw: We went to the gallery at 30/3 Barnes Place and caught the opening of Korelagedara Pushpakumara’s Good Will hard Ware exhibition ,- a contemporary selection of rather geometric pieces featuring household implements, a little stark but thought provoking and faintly hypnotic.
61 Dharmapala Mawatha, Colombo 7
At the forefront of Sri Lanka’s new wave of art and artists this is really the only dedicated, permanent gallery space in the city. It’s not attached to a cafe, they don’t run art classes- it’s a professional art gallery everyday of the week. Brought into existence by Saskia Fernando (daughter of Paradise Road’s Shanth Fernando) it serves primarily as a show case for the work of emerging Sri Lankan artists- Mika Tennakoon, Prageeth Monahansa, though you’ll also find exhibitions from more established Sri Lankan painters and sculptors- Anoma Wijewardene and Jagath Weerasinghe for example.
Saskia or her collaborator Harshi Hewage are usually on hand to explain the work which is invariably beautifully displayed and thoughtfully labelled. Even if you’re a complete art novice it’s really worth dropping in for the detailed explanations and to be genuinely surprised by the quality and creativity of young local artists.
What we saw: When we walked in we caught the first solo exhibition by rising young star Mika Tennakoon- an installation consisting of half a dozen brightly and painstakingly illustrated suitcases suspended from the ceiling.
Prices Though the work here is for sale, this is as much a display space and show case as it is a commercial gallery. At the bottom end you can pick up limited edition prints from Rs 2000 -3000 and original canvasses for as little as Rs 25,000.
2 Alfred House Road, Colombo 3
Shanth Fernando, the owner of the Paradise Road empire of design curates all the exhibitions himself and uses his space as a platform to promote artists he thinks are going places. He sets the bar fairly high so you always get a certain standard of work and work that complements the gallery’s beautiful space – formerly Geoffrey Bawa’s office. That excellent food and drink can be had on the premises means you get your art with a side of sweet or savoury satisfaction – which, in this very food-oriented city of ours, is as it should be.
What we saw: Anup Vega’s – kala chakra which features perhaps two dozen spectral renditions of that most Sri Lankan of plants – the coconut tree. Really while coconuts trees might abound across the tropics I believe there’s something particular about the ones on this island – the way they twist, and filter light, Anup seems to agree.
Prices: In line with those at other galleries ranging for a few tens of thousands of rupees to several lakhs depending on the exhibition. Anup Vega’s coconut tree seemed to start at about Rs 100 000.
Nelum Pokuna Mawatha, Colombo 7
The railing of a public park might not seem like the most promising gallery space but the green steel fence that surrounds the city’s only major public park is actually the most active and accessible art space in Colombo. This is the kala pola, literally art market where, primarily but not exclusively, young local art-students gather on Friday, Saturday and Sunday to try and make a living or earn some extra pocket from their art.
It’s basically just hundreds of canvasses attached to the fence with bits of string as you stroll along the pleasant shaded avenue and point to whatever takes your fancy, and begin negotiating.
Prices: its all for sale and its not expensive – Rs2000 for medium sized canvasses rising to Rs10,000 and 20,000 for the most ambitious works. There is considerable haggle room.
Opening hours: This began as a weekend art market but you now find artists there everyday of the week- there is no real shelter so they disappear when it’s raining.