'Boy in Paradise', Ajantha Ranaweera

Almost flowing across the canvas, the male figures painted are transparent, fusing and in a state of osmosis, wander and dance across this spiritual garden in which they exist. Ajantha’s ingenious use of colour and medium allow him to convey this sense of ethereal and spiritual state. ‘Boy in Paradise’, in its essence and at the centre of its focus evokes a greater, deeper sentiment allowing the onlooker to feel at peace. The paintings showcase these figures, in their disappearance having found a sanctuary and to the watching eye, reflects a quiet sense of harmony. Ajantha attempts to celebrate these figures in paradise, whilst seeking the answers to questions of the unexpected. In our conversation with Ajantha, he explored the themes that he addressed in his paintings and shared his experiences as an artist and architect.

Q | Can you tell us the creative process behind creating this collection?

A | There are three aspects to the exhibition. First is the boy, second is the garden where the boy is located and third is the overlapping nature of each painting which requires that they be exhibited and read together.

The boy is a stylized nude male figWhat exists between the now and the hereafter? There is often a recurring question of human existence and its purpose – the journey of the soul and what it seeks. Where do souls wander after transcending from the limitations of this physical world? We find, in Ajantha Ranaweera’s works of art, the exploration of these questions. Ajantha’s debut exhibition, ‘Boy in Paradise’ addresses the theme of loss and disappearance. His subject, ‘the boy’ takes form in several male figures throughout his collection, naked, languid and fluid; these figures exist in the gardens of bliss. The artist uses a combination of figurative works and abstract landscapes incorporating acrylic inks, coloured pens and pencils, markers, dip and inks to bring out the spiritual states of these boys, and their existence in a metaphysical, non-materialistic world.

Why I chose to consistently explore the theme I do not know. It could be because it is a motif that appeared in Sri Lankan art in the 1990s that symbolizes the violence, torture and disappearances that have characterised our society since the 1970s. It is a theme that many viewers can engage with and relate to loss by placing their loved one in a beautiful place. It can be viewed as a kind gesture towards both the disappeared and the ones suffering loss. I also find this to be an interesting and subtle way of relating to our troubled past without showing carnage.

My approach to stylization draws on traditional art forms commonly seen in temple murals. In this collection stylized bodies are shown relaxed and floating in gardens. The garden of paradise depicts a safe place, far from harm. The garden forms are stylized representations of native Sri Lankan garden design traditions that touch upon different garden types and designed landscapes such as the sand and boulder gardens of the giri monasteries, wewas, paddy fields and water channels. Since they are visualised as metaphysical forms they do not bear a direct correspondence of scales, types and sizes to real gardens. The overall exhibition is about a collective where different types of art work complement and complete each other to present a unified theme.

Q | How did you begin in the arts and what inspired this journey?

A | Like most people, I started drawing at a young age, but continued the habit in to the present. My interest in art was kindled when I chose art as a subject for the Ordinary Level examination. There I was introduced to Mr. K M A Bandara an art master. Instead of restricting ourselves to the school curriculum he introduced me to the world of Indian art as well as works done by members of the ‘43 Group. Studying Mughal and Rajput paintings became a weekly hobby. I had a strong support system of encouragement towards becoming inspired by such work, to copy these works and to explore the various styles with absolutely no artistic inhibitions. Some of Mr. Bandara’s famous words were juxtaposition and composition and their principles became lengthy discussion with us drawing on top of each other’s work, trying find out what these words really meant for us in practice. My father too would happily join the conversation. Later, I came to realize that these exercises and conversations refined my natural ability to draw and taught me things completely different to those contained in my school curriculum.

In retrospect, when studying under Mr. Bandara we looked at European work alongside regional art traditions, but the regional work always had a special place. The dominant knowledge which was given priority was regional knowledge. Something that I didn’t find parallels with when I started learning Architecture.

Q | You also have a background in architecture. How have the mediums of art and architecture influenced and contributed to your identity and perspective as an artist?

A | Even though I found parallels among art and architecture, at architecture school I was straight away exposed to a different kind of drawing, and was taught under Artist Vasantha Perera, Prof Jagath Weerasinghe, Architect Anjalendran and Architectural historian Dr. Shanti Jayewardene. Later on I managed to merge the two while working under Anjalendran doing measured drawings and taking photographs as an intern. The work space at Mr. Anjalendran’s Studio was like working at a gallery. Every week we would get a new book, a painting, hear about an artist or a piece of a raga.

Later on I was invited to work on the book ‘Geoffrey Manning Bawa – Decolonizing Architecture’ by Dr. Shanti Jayewardene in 2017. I was one of the principal photographers for the book alongside my friend Buddhini Kawshalya. While working on the book we visited numerous projects done by late Architect Geoffrey Bawa and through visits to Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Kandy etc. we noticed a certain aesthetic that is determined by a certain sense of scale and proportion that got me instantly fascinated. To date I’m still in search of the origins of such knowledge. These insights led me to realize that there was an imbalance in how architecture students were exposed to European design knowledge and regional design knowledge. In architecture school the emphasis placed on European knowledge far outweighs the importance given to regional knowledge. Looking back, happily I had discovered a more balanced approached to these different kinds of knowledge when learning art as a child.

Q | In creating 'Boy in Paradise', there is a unique colour palette used - can you tell us how you have used these gradients to bring out the concept of the collection and what it means.

A | When it comes to colour I’m cosmopolitan looking for regional as well as international inspiration. I was always fascinated by how colours individually as well as collectively associated with one another and how by doing so, changes how they are perceived in scale, tone and intensity. I realized these relationships through my multiple visits to temples with Dr. Jayewardene as well as with Architect Anjalendran.

Later on I would initiate my own colour exercises exploring these sophisticated but mostly overlooked colour combinations. I have benefited from the above throughout my work for this exhibition and have made connections that allow me to explore how disappearance and consolation can be expressed.

Many physical aspects of various garden types are highlighted through the use of intense colour. This process helped the stylizing and reimagining native gardens. Washed browns flowing on to backgrounds of plain paper relate to the bliss of nothingness. Splashes of blues and brown relate to varying explorations of colour in the creation of paradise gardens, which brought me great joy and comfort.

Ajantha Ranaweera is an artist, architect and a designer. The artist received his education from the City School of Architecture and proceeded to obtain his Bachelor’s from the University of West England in 2015. As an architect, Ajantha has worked under and alongside many esteemed individuals including OBE Cecil Balmond and C. Anjalendran. He has worked on many successful publications in the architectural space where he photographed and contributed sketches for the book, ‘Geoffrey Manning Bawa Decolonising Architecture’ and contributed sketches to the ‘The Architectural Heritage of Sri Lanka: Measured Drawings from the Anjalendran Studio (2015)’. ‘The Boy in Paradise’ was his first solo exhibition and took place at the esteemed Paradise Road Galleries.

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9th November, 2021 Visual Art | Paintings