The treasures of the new world, mythical or real, have always fascinated the old world and vice versa. But when the phrase ‘Sri Lankan Art’ is dropped amidst Americans, what are the connotations? What gets conjured? Prior to organising their new exhibition of Sri Lankan art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) did [...]


A visual saga of our history – in the US

For the first time a major exhibition on the art from Sri Lanka, from 3rd Century BC to the early 1950s is on at the Resnick Pavilion of LACMA in Los Angeles

Exhibits from ‘The Jeweled Isle: Art from Sri Lanka’: Temple art to jewels (right) that the country is famed for. © Museum Associates/LACMA

The treasures of the new world, mythical or real, have always fascinated the old world and vice versa. But when the phrase ‘Sri Lankan Art’ is dropped amidst Americans, what are the connotations? What gets conjured?

Prior to organising their new exhibition of Sri Lankan art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) did interviews with potential viewers. The resulting verdict: The average American knows precious little about Sri Lanka. Very few know even its location geographically.

‘The Jeweled Isle: Art from Sri Lanka’ which opened on December 9, 2018, and will continue up to June 23, 2019 at the Resnick Pavilion of LACMA, will be an eye-opener. It is the first major survey of the island’s art organised by a U.S. Museum. The word ‘jewelled’ is an age-old reference. From the earliest voyagers lost in the mists of antiquity, travel records never failed to speak of the precious stones which they evoked as positively studding our island.

Scowen & Co., Kandyan Chief, c. 1870, albumen silver print, 10 1/4 × 7 3/4 in. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, digital image © Museum Associates/LACMA

A few objects in the exhibition will actually come encrusted with gems, but they are all nonetheless ‘jewels’ in the sense of being exotic and paradisiacal. Even the most ubiquitous objects have that glamour. Take, for example, two roof tiles: With an elegant stylized lion and a perahera elephant sculpted in low relief and painted in tones of red ochre, they give off an ultimately endemic beauty.

The exhibition, the organisers caution, is not comprehensive. It does not cover everything from prehistory up to the present day — but it still embraces a grand sweep — the late centuries BCE up until the mid-20th century. At the heart of it is LACMA’s own collection. But this has been supplemented with loans from US museums and private collections and the Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum in London.

The first gallery begins with a display of 21 gems mined in Sri Lanka. It undulates with Buddhist artwork and shrine panels that show how Hindu gods were absorbed to make a new Buddhist pantheon. Impressive, brightly lacquered masks of demons and gods and earthenware used in festivals and healing rituals, stand about in this section.

The core body of the exhibition is divided into three period galleries, featuring the three artistically most efflorescent periods: Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy. It narrates a magnificently visual saga of the island story from the introduction of Buddhism in the 3rd Century BC up until Independence from colonial yoke — to the early 1950s.

The exhibition is composed of strands so dramatically different in colour, texture and character that the mind boggles when attempting to coalesce them into a single island tapestry. An ivory carving of the Buddha, flanked by gods and attendants, makes you think of Classical Greece. A tiny wood-and-ivory-veneer cabinet for jewellery and money could have fitted regally into Queen Mary’s dolls’ house. A bowl with a lid, painted in dark, earthy colours, used to trap evil spirits or demons in exorcism ceremonies, is embellished with hooded serpents and takes one back to a lost history of Yakshas and Nagas, demon-and-serpent-worshipping peoples.

You will also find large elaborate mythical animals, carved gracefully out of stone, which once formed ‘wingstones’ (balustrades) for royal or monastic stairways. Tiny exquisite stupas are dainty palm-held versions of the original colossuses. Intricately carved silver scroll cases and boxes are cluttered around like disinherited princesses and duchesses in a republic — forcing us to question the strongly-held view of Sri Lanka as a civilization that valued asceticism and austerity in all aspects of its life.

And this is merely the core collection. The art loaned from other American collections and particularly the V&A museum (whence a lot of loot would have gone to during Queen Victoria’s own reign) will of course add their own magnificence.

Unknown, Comb with Woman and Attendants, 18th–19th century, ivory with paint, 6 3/8 × 4 7/8 in., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of Corinne and Don Whitaker, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

But some of the most beautiful exhibits are products of that modern apparatus, the camera. These are not the instant pics of today. Nostalgic without dripping in treacle, these hauntingly beautiful albumen photographs from the 1880s to the ’90s required tremendous skills to master. Their sepia tones transport you to a picturesque world.

A train taking the curve at Sensation Rock; the ancient stone entrance to the Temple of the Tooth; a villager selling bananas against a backdrop of palms and teeming, dense tropical foliage: These photos signal more than a fin de siècle; they mark the beginning of an end — a world that would be lost due to the same flurry that gave birth to the camera.

In the final gallery sprawls a modern inflatable sculpture by Lewis deSoto, inspired by the reclining Buddha statue in the Gal Vihara, Polonnaruwa.

Marking the end of the exhibition is the photography of Reg van Cuylenburg. In counterpoint to the art done under the patronage of monarchs and the sepia-tinted colonial vistas, these are portraits of modern Ceylon by a Ceylonese.

They reflect the optimism of that sunny period from 1949 to 1958, when this young Burgher boy ignited by freedom would have shouldered his knapsack to explore what he may not have known was a rapidly dwindling world, snapping records of the places, people and festivals he witnessed.

The exhibition can go a long way from just quenching a thirst for the exotic or titillating appetites jaded with western art. To the American viewer it will open new doors — a new cultural world and new aesthetics — all the while delighting with its rich palimpsest of beauty, colour, craftsmanship, intricacy, history, tradition, lore and mythology. They will discover a spice laden, old world Eden with enough of it, hopefully, left to explore and cherish.


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