Horton Place is a hive of activity at all times, from the bustle of morning traffic to the throngs of late-night patrons at the various eateries. Except these days, when the streets are all but deserted due to the ongoing curfew. And yet, behind closed doors and in the safety of their own homes, some [...]


Adding a bit of colour in these bleak times

Saskia Fernando Gallery and the PR Concept Store, run by two sisters go online giving artists and designers a chance to keep their passion alive in these days of lockdown

Part of the Yen exhibition: A painting by Kingsley Gunatillake

Horton Place is a hive of activity at all times, from the bustle of morning traffic to the throngs of late-night patrons at the various eateries. Except these days, when the streets are all but deserted due to the ongoing curfew. And yet, behind closed doors and in the safety of their own homes, some of these businesses still do their best to make it work and keep spirits high.

One such establishment is 41 Horton Place where you will find the Saskia Fernando Gallery and the PR Concept Store, run by sisters Saskia Fernando-Yatawara and Annika Fernando respectively. At a time where stress and tensions are high, taking comfort in arts and design is a practice that humankind has always turned to throughout the ages. By adapting to the unprecedented level of online interconnectivity, their works are accessible at any given time to those who need that escape.

Saskia Fernando Gallery

Located on the upper floor of No. 41 is the Saskia Fernando Gallery (SFG), home to some of the finest examples of Sri Lankan contemporary art. Established in 2009, the SFG represents leading and emerging artists working in Sri Lanka and/or of Sri Lankan descent, and their multidisciplinary representation of work is aimed at exposing the island’s maturity as a contemporary art scene. It also plays an important role in introducing an international audience to what Sri Lanka has to offer.

When the curfew was announced, the SFG team was well prepared to work from home aided by their existing cloud-based system.

“There was no question that we would not continue to function online during this time. We have a responsibility to the artists we work with to continue to support them and the industry as a whole,” says gallerist and curator Saskia Fernando- Yatawara. As such, the gallery is able to continue running their scheduled exhibitions through catalogues sent out to their mailing list, as well as their online Viewing Room system available on their website.

Saskia Fernando-Yatawara

Their end-March scheduled exhibition could not be physically installed given the circumstances. But through the Viewing Room, the public is invited to experience ‘Yen’, featuring works by leading abstract painter Kingsley Gunatillake. The exhibition runs from March 26 to April 16 and includes large canvas works as well as smaller watercolour and mixed media works from 2009 onwards.

Also featured on the Viewing Room is a series of works titled Art in Curfew, an online exhibition that Saskia describes as coming into existence by a very natural progression. “We have a WhatsApp group with all the artists we work with, and we chat about work and other subjects as well together in this space. We stay in touch continuously,” Saskia shares. “The works were streaming into my Whatsapp and it seemed almost selfish not to share them.”

The artists have more time than usual to work on projects without the usual disturbances, resulting in a “creative boom”. In addition to the Viewing Room experience, the continuous stream of works and glimpses into the artists’ studios are posted on their Instagram and Facebook Stories. The aim is to give the audience a personal and intimate peek into the lives of artists.

“I have always found an artist’s studio to be the most interesting and inspiring space, and through these works I wanted to highlight the positives of confinement in a sense,” Saskia explains.

SFG is not the only gallery going digital in these times. International art fairs like Art Basel and Art Dubai have also opted to go online in part, and viewing works online is now the only way of engaging with art for collectors and enthusiasts all over the world.

While Saskia acknowledges that you cannot experience the work the way one would in a gallery space standing feet away from the actual piece, sites are working towards replacing the experience as accurately as possible, knowing that this is the future of the art world.

“Art has the ability to connect with people emotionally, it is fulfilling for the soul and mind,” says Saskia, adding that what she has noticed is that many people are taking to art and expression of forms in this period of stillness, whether it is drawing, cooking, etc.

“At a time when we are flooded with negative and stressful news, art offers people an escape into worlds that interpret these situations or others on an entirely different platform.”

Annika Fernando

This week, SFG is planning to launch free art classes for their Instagram followers and encourage those who participate to donate to feeding the homeless. Those interested will get the opportunity to work with leading contemporary Sri Lankan artists who will give a short class on how to work with digital collage, photography, drawing and painting – all by logging onto their livestream (schedule TBA).

“If anything, this is a time to support our local communities, and in addition to working with our artists, we will continue to advise those interested in engaging and supporting the arts on how to do so,” Saskia says, adding that they aim to establish new initiatives to support the arts community during this time.

To access the Viewing Rooms or make inquiries, visit their website www.saskiafernandogallery.com

For more information and to stay in touch, follow their Facebook page facebook.com/SaskiaFernandoGallery and their Instagram page @saskiafernandogallery

PR Concept Store

Like most businesses in the country, the curfew has affected daily operations at the PR Concept Store in unprecedented ways. Striking a balance between household duties and working from home when managing a store has been tough, compounded with the hard year they have had following the Easter attacks. But it is a necessary step in flattening the COVID-19 curve, and one that the team is strictly adhering to.

“I’m fully supportive of the curfew and sincerely believe that the longer people don’t comply with social distancing, the longer we will have to do it for,” says owner and curator Annika Fernando.

As such they have shifted to solely managing their online store, a move that their customer base has been supportive of. As postal systems remain halted, customers have sent in reassuring messages and wishes for the team’s safety. “Most people are in lockdown worldwide, either government or self-imposed. So, there is a general feeling of solidarity, understanding about delays,” Annika tells us.

Young designer talent: Navyãti by Navindri

Despite the challenges, PR has pushed forward with their scheduled releases, including their PR Rising Star programme.

Through her work, Annika has had the opportunity to meet many enthusiastic designers who are excited about retailing, but have little understanding of what that means and the responsibility that comes with it. “I realised I had to do something different if I wanted to work with young talent and see growth,” Annika says, which led to the establishment of the PR Rising Star programme in 2019.

Once a young designer with potential has been selected, the programme offers them their first retail opportunity. Working from an existing collection, Annika collaborates with them on a small capsule for retail. This includes their own rail in the store and a dedicated window display for their own visual merchandising as an opportunity to express their identity. They are also expected to stay in touch with the team on feedback via the PR sales team and from customers for three months, with opportunities to move to the main rail.

“It offers our customers a chance to experience and purchase young Sri Lankan talent and by the new label being displayed separately, and also to forgive and appreciate some of the challenges, because the designer hasn’t retailed before,” Annika explains. “It’s a two-way action and something I’ve grown to be quite proud of.”

The launch of their third Rising Star Navindri Ranatunga also marks the first Rising Star collection launched directly online. The question of postponing the occasion had too much uncertainty tied to it, and Annika felt she owed it to her designers and their teams to hold up their end of the deal. “Since we’ve adapted our business, I thought why shouldn’t we adapt our programme, ” she says. “Was it a difficult decision? Every decision at the moment is difficult.”

“What we choose to do now in the present, is important because those who depend on us, need our strength and leadership. It’s about security.”

As an entrepreneur in these fragile times Annika believes in adapting where necessary and doing what she can for those who depend on her. “Design and art is a career for many, and I work with groups of passionate and talented people who depend on my small store,” she tells us, adding that the designers they retail are all part of the Slow Fashion movement that practises ethical manufacturing processes.

“People have to appreciate that sustainability is about spending more on less. Buying something of quality which is produced ethically, in small quantities and will stand the test of time and owning less as a result.”

Design, arts and culture are always the first categories to come under negative scrutiny in times of strife and consequent frugality. But for some, it remains their only means of survival. And as Annika recalls reading somewhere recently, ‘Remember, that in the darkest days when everything stopped, you turned to artists’.

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