In Conversation with Nuwan Nalaka

The concept of a lotus flower is unique to its growth, its birth and the space in which it exists as it grows in the mud yet persists as an exquisitely beautiful flower. Nuwan Nalaka, in his works, applies the ideologies of the lotus to present a narrative that subverts both political and human characteristics. Where in ‘Sutra’, Nuwan perceives soft, delicateness aligning its qualities to that of the female sensuality, while ‘Sansara’ is a distorted landscape that sees hope in the image of a flower amidst the chaos of broken lotus. As we explore the nuances of subverting flowers and discuss the larger context through which they could be understood, we find Nuwan Nalaka’s works of Sutra and Sansara potent representations of flowers and their symbolic connotations with the human body, mind and soul.

Nuwan Nalaka, born in Sri Lanka is represented by Saskia Fernando Gallery and and presented numerous solo exhibitions in Colombo, Galle and Kandy of his early watercolor paintings prior to his departure to India in 2003. The artist moved back after having completed his Masters in Fine Art at the Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata, India. These cross-boundary experiences have had a profound impact on his work. Over his series of exhibitions, the artist began exploring many techniques that he had come across in India while combining his own passion for Sri Lankan culture and religion as a subject through visual motif. His series 'Sutra' combines imagery of Buddhism, Hinduism and eroticism, a ponderous hybrid of cultural distinctions.

Q | What of flowers inspire you and how have they been used in your work?

A | The depiction of flora and fauna in paintings have continued to be a significant subject matter from the traditional paintings of olden ages to today’s contemporary art. I’m inspired by nature, and subjects of flowers and floral patterns are some of them. I begin my day plucking flowers and admiring their beauty and end by offering them. Flowers are representative of the cycle of life. Every flower has a distinct, individual character, masculine or feminine - they are emotionally evocative, some of them are symbols of love, sympathy, compassion, nirvana, sensuality and erotica. I use blooming flowers to present the concept of nudity. I have used the lotus flower strongly in Sansara and Sutra. In Sutra, I have painted a lotus pond with creatures to present a metaphorical image of the society we live in. Sansara presents an alternate depiction; following the time of the pandemic expressing pathos, agony and hope.

Q | You have used the lotus in both Sansara and Sutra series of work; can you talk about the difference between each series and what the lotus means?

A | The lotus pond is a metaphorical representation of society deeply analysed by Sutra, Lord of Buddha. Both the series Sutra and Sansara have similar and parallel meanings but have been expressed alternately. They narrate the complex systems of society, expressing Buddha’s teachings on how to evolve through my own pictorial language. When I was working with the Sutra series during the post-war period in Sri Lanka, life in general was smoother than that of which we experience today. This thought lead me to pursue my series; Sutra. The concept of Sansara is fundamental in Buddhism, it is an everlasting cycle of being – the cycle of becoming and passing away. The Sansara series is a reflection of the suffering caused by the global pandemic. Everywhere in the world, people have looked upon it in fear. The lotus pond with dried lotus, broken lotus stems and fallen lotus buds are juxtaposed against the blooming of a lotus that symbolizes the overcoming of this global pandemic. While the lotus pond has lost its serenity in a chaotic and complex background, both Sutra and Sansara are both representations of the meaning of fulfilment; the ultimate satisfaction of life after Nirvana.

Nuwan Nalaka, Sutra III, 2017, artwork courtesy : Saskia Fernando Gallery

Q | In your opinion, how has the comparison between flowers and parts of the human body evolved over time and how do you believe it is reflective of society?

A | There is no doubt that flowers and the human body evolved over time reflecting society's indifferent aspect. This reminds me of romanticism, the works of poets and artists as they put pen to paper and portray their feelings on a canvas. In the classic poems, the female quality is described in comparison to flowers. Femininity is also metaphorically represented by the verity of beautiful flowers. I do not want to look into the flowers with material eyes, but I believe everything has a certain life and cycle of its own. Flowers have a very short life period if we compare it to human beings. But flowers always share learning’s to society. For example, if I were to talk about the life cycle of the lotus flower that reflects and resembles different stages of human life – the lotus grows on dirty mud and water but when it blooms - it's wonderful and pure while being detached it the atmosphere to which it belongs – an admirable characteristic.

Q | Your work is representative of femininity and masculinity; what of the floral motifs in your work reflect these in particular?

A | After complateing Sutra series of works, I was engaged with experimenting with flora and fauna, searching for different characters of flowers. In my search, I found that some flowers have a feminine quality and some, masculine. I try to express the sensuous feelings of these flowers. At the same time, I was searching and questioning the connection between nudity and blooming flowers. I have selected a few special kinds of flowers for the Sansara series of work as well as the lotus along with cactus flowers for this series. The process of flowering is mesmerizing and I feel it expresses the characteristics of the feminine explicitly. In this aspect, my work represents the female and male reproductive organs. Flowering of cactus metaphorically represent erotic desires and flowering of sexual desires in our life and in some ways it expresses symbols of fertility - the fertility Goddesses enduring all no matter the pain or difficulty.

Q | What of the floral works intrigue you, especially of those done by other artists you admire and why?

A | I am inspired by traditional and folk art motifs of Sri Lanka, India and Far East as well as the work during the colonial era. I have also been inspired by Modern and Contemporary Indian Artists to some extent. From the western art world I have been inspired by the work of Water lilies by Claude Monet, Sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh, enlarged flower paintings by American female artist Georgia O’Keeffe and many more. I admire them because I find conceptual and technical similarities with my thinking process.

As the influence of O’Keeffe’s, Monet’s, and Van Gogh’s great works seeps into the threads of Nuwan Nalaka’s thought processes, the influential notions of the greater perceptions of flowers continue to be reborn in other works. Nuwan applies these notions in his work, of femininity and rebirth, intense spirituality and sensual desires. Through the practice of repetitive floral motifs, Nuwan subverts the concept of flowers to present his own relationship and alliance with flowers. In his quest to seek the truths of this connection and understand complex ideologies, his work then begets the answers, canvases of landscapes both spiritual and chaotic, material yet ethereal of which Sutra and Sansara are reflections of these subversions.  

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3rd February, 2022 Visual Art | Paintings