Inspired by everyday stories of everyday people

By Maura O’Connor

Saskia Pintelon loves newspapers. When this Belgian artist moved to Sri Lanka 28 years ago, she relished reading them every morning, absorbing the daily aspirations and struggles of a new and unfamiliar people.

Each page, whether it contained an article, advertisement, obituary or marriage proposal told a story and these stories became the muses of her art.

In the first monograph of Pintelon’s work, entitled “The Book of Faces,” the influence of Sri Lankan newspapers can be seen in almost every painting and collage. Headlines and excerpts float in the background or emblazon the borders of her canvases. “Buddhist mother seeks acceptable partner for her pretty daughter.” “Dogs stolen and sold by neighbours.” “Eight-year-old run over by bus.”

Much like American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat juxtaposed text and images, Pintelon places entire pages of the newspaper next to penetrating portraits of Sri Lankans drawn in smoky charcoal or jet-black ink on tea bags bought at the market.

As a whole, the new body of work aims to capture the elements of irony, tragedy and beauty that Pintelon said she observes while reading about the lives of Sri Lankans.

“The stories that I hear around me are a constant source of inspiration,” said Pintelon. “There isn’t a day that I don’t read some unbelievable story, sometimes sad and sometimes so incredible that it sometimes becomes a joke. For example, ‘Prison cook fell into cooking pot and was burnt alive’.”
“I can’t stop laughing at sad things sometimes,” said Pintelon.

"Nazreen Sansoni, director of the Barefoot Gallery, which is hosting a launch of the new book on October 21, believes that the artist's perspective as an outsider to Sri Lankan culture gives her art a unique power.".

“She has a liberty to observe more than Sri Lankans. It’s direct observation whereas we would make it more political. But as an outsider and one who loves the country so much, she can be more direct and more refreshing,” said Sansoni.

Pintelon was born in Courtrai, Belgium in 1945 and trained at the St. Lucas Art School in Ghent. Though she eventually became a professor at her alma mater, teaching was an occupation that she said she gladly gave up after moving to Sri Lanka with her husband and three children in 1981. “Either you teach or you do it yourself. When you are a professor, you give it away,” she said.

After a couple of months in Colombo, Pintelon began venturing into the markets and street life of the city, filling her sketchbook with the scenes of everyday existence that she witnessed. In 1996, however, she said she began to think about the nature of individuality after hearing the news of the first cloned sheep. Eventually, these musings led to a series of sketches focusing on the human face.

“The face reveals personality traits and spirit of a person,” Pintelon wrote on one of her collages, “but also his past, present, and future.” Pintelon’s first monograph is a culmination of this long-held fascination with portraiture. Printed by Clam Books in Paris, France, the book is a carefully crafted object d’art.

Designed like a musical accordion, the pages can be viewed one at a time like a regular book or extended on a table and seen in one go. “As a book lover, I’ve never seen a book designed so cleverly and beautifully,” said Sansoni.

Indeed, Pintelon noted with pride that it took exactly nine months to produce, from conception to finished product. “Like to make a baby,” she said.

The Book of Faces will be launched on October 21 and will be available thereafter at the Barefoot Bookshop.

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