By Azara Jaleel, Editor-in-Chief

Muhanned Cader, Yala III 2022, represented by Jhaveri Contemporary

Chandraguptha Thenuawara, Study for Executive 2018, represented by Saskia Fernando Gallery 

The works of Sri Lankan artists have been showcased overseas since the 1950's, of the better known and those documented. The '43 Group held their first international exhibition at the Imperial Institute, London in 1952 followed by another at the Petit Palas, Paris in 1953 and thereafter at the Heffer Gallery, Cambridge in 1954 trailed by many more Modern & Contemporary artists in a various festivals, museums and galleries over the years. The works of Muhanned Cader and Chandraguptha Thenuwara, two of Sri Lanka's foremost contemporary artists are being showcased at the ongoing Frieze London, taking place at The Regent's Park, that draws a diverse audience of influence from all over the world – which poses the question, what it means to have two Sri Lankan artists showcasing at an international art festival of repute, and its influence upon the character of our nation as we face our worst economic crisis? 

Muhanned Cader, Weheragala River 2022, represented by Jhaveri Contemporary

Chandraguptha Thenuawara, Body 2014, represented by Saskia Fernando Gallery

Quite profound. Art has always been a vehicle to understand and interpret the people, consciousness and the goings-on of a nation from personal standpoints, outside spheres of rigidity and control. Consequently, these works – especially when showcased overseas, take on multiple meanings in different contexts by diverse people, becoming a part of global conversations. The questions and portrayals these works of art provoke not only influence the art communities that patronize art festivals, but also those who visit and engage with these works from varied professions and countries, including opinion leaders, formers and even tourists. So, what of Sri Lanka have our artists chosen to reflect upon? 

Muhanned Cader's artworks at Freize London 2022, represented by Jhaveri Contemporary

Chandraguptha Thenuawara's artworks at Freize London 2022, represented by Saskia Fernando Gallery

Both Cader's work South Ceylon (2022), represented by Jhaveri Contemporary and Thenuwara's Covert Drawings, represented by Saskia Fernando Gallery are a part of the collection 'Indra's Net' curated by Sandhini Poddar at Frieze. Whilst the works of Cader present the whimsical and wonderment, with an underlying brokeness, the works of Thenuwara are seeped in polemic symbols and motifs vociferously bringing to light the rampant macabre. Evidently, both artists are reflecting upon diverse subject matters through different lens. Cader approaches his subject matter through experimentation, whilst Thenuwara uses both drawing and sculpture -  thereby contributing further to the layered process of meaning making and complexity with relation to their sentiments towards Sri Lanka. 

Muhanned Cader, Yala Starry Night 2022, represented by Jhaveri Contemporary

Chandraguptha Thenuawara, Covert 8 2022, represented by Saskia Fernando Gallery

'Playing with the relationship of part to whole, Cader's works are cinematic in nature. For Frieze London, Cader uses author Leonard Woolf's book, 'The Village in the Jungle' (1913), as a catalyst and situates his suite of artworks in the rocky, forested Yala National Park' states Poddar. Cader's work South Ceylon, in my opinion is most significant for its resilient spirit and its beauteous reflection. The luminous colors that vary from the glistening deep blues to plush and luscious greens, alluring shapes of oddities and the immortalization of evanescent moments shed light to the artist's mind that sees beyond dreary realities and delirious trials. The significance of Cader's visual appeal, I believe, lies in its rhythmic palette of few colors and its many hues. In his 'Kumana' series of works, his extractions of green and blue in its varied textures is poetic, in its layering - which is further enhanced by un-even edges. 

Muhanned Cader, Book of Shrines 2022, represented by Jhaveri Contemporary

Chandraguptha Thenuawara, 2021, represented by Saskia Fernando Gallery   

Cader simultaneously presents a broken landscape. Through his reconstruction of rectangles, he dislocates the landscape similar to that of being wounded, as a critique against deforestation. For his works, Cader used fragments of an old cupboard as his canvas to depict the mystical. This is not only novel, but allegorical to the authentic and arresting shapes of the landscapes, seas and trees. Thus, Cader's South Ceylon translates to a form of subversion to conventional modes of a canvas that in turn, relates to the uniqueness of the artist's mind which consequently, reflects in his portrayals of Kumana, Yala, Weheragala etc. This trinity, formed as a result of the interconnectedness between the sublime beauty of the spaces, authentic form of representation and the invigorated artist's mind present an ecstatic human experience that is both stimulating and spiritual, that doesn't cease to exist despite calamities. 

In stark contrast, Thenuwara's Covert Drawings is a profound vehemence towards the political reality of Sri Lanka. As Poddar states “His personal iconography includes the lotus flower (a symbol of the mind rising from murky waters in Buddhism, now turned into a nationalist trope as the end of a lion's tail).” Covert Drawings, and its political, social and economic interpretations are a part of Thenuwara's lineage of works that are both activist and radical in nature. Since 1997, the artist began presenting his self-curated, memorial exhibitions to commemorate 'Black July'. The artist's most recent, titled ECCE HOMO took place this year on the 23rd of July, that drew upon his discourse of 'Barrelism', while being seeped in motifs and symbols of violence, decay and deprivation - insinuating the pervading power struggle in varied representations, addressing the nation state, in all honesty.  

What I find most compelling of Covert Drawings is that it contributes to the lineage of the artist's and activist's stance on the political, social and economic states of the country. Thereby, a close inspection of Thenuwara's body of works across the years allows for an alternative reading to the states of flux and fervor, outside spheres of rigidity and control. His clever use of motifs and symbols across his works from the drawing of the barbed wire wrapped in a shape alluding to that of a human body to those of snakes and lotuses invoking the stimulation of the critical mind, along with his active artistic participation in the 'Aragalaya' mobilizes his work further to that of reverie.  

Whilst the subject matters of both artists are universally acknowledged of our isle, what I would also like to witness in the works of Sri Lankan artists, especially those showcased oversees, are thoughts or interpretations which the media choses not to speak about or does not highlight - that which is unknown or of a new culture. Cader & Thenuwara are both important artists of our times, who have collectively brought to light the sublime and the scandal. Their introspective approach, albeit different, have shared truths in all grandeur, and together have presented the good, bad and ugly.    


12th October, 2022 Visual Art | Paintings