Dumith Kulasekera: Challenging Identity, Provoking Thought

When artist Dumith Kulasekera found himself staring for hours into the eyes of his mother, he discovered it wasn’t an entirely comfortable experience. “That was the first time we were doing that actually,” he says of his decision to ask her to pose for him. Titled ‘(The) M-Other,’ it was in part a meditation on motherhood.

The painting, though far from being one of his most dramatic or provocative, still has a special significance for him. In his depiction, her face is sturdy and her gaze faintly accusing. Around her head, an orange halo creates the impression of a “holy mother,” says Dumith, explaining that the relationship between parent and child can be one fraught with Freudian undertones. Keenly aware of this complexity, he counterbalances it with the clean geometry and an uncluttered palate in the painting itself.

We meet Dumith a day before his exhibition – The Symbolical Impossibility of Disavowing Trauma – begins at the Harold Peiris Gallery of the Lionel Wendt. Sipping on a lime juice, he tells us his mother has also, albeit indirectly, provided the inspiration for another piece in the collection.

‘The Eighteenth of May, Reminisces of a Masculine War’ is a canvas that sprawls, holding the eye with its disturbing vision: buried beneath a pile of bodies which have been brutally dismembered is a head barely glimpsed. With its eyes closed, the disembodied head represents himself, says Dumith. The largest canvas in the collection, the painting was inspired in part by the day his mother survived a bomb blast in a bus.

Travelling in Piliyandala in 2008, she was lucky to have survived unharmed. Dumith speaks of her coming home, and trying to describe her experience. Before the explosion, she was carrying a basketful of fruit and flowers. Afterwards, still disoriented, she reached out to collect them, only to find her hand coming away with parts of someone else’s flesh.

Now, the artist had set himself the task of capturing the absolute horror of that moment. “It took me two years to finish the work… and it represents the relationship between object and subject and the dispersed identity of man and woman in the context of battle,” he says in his catalogue.

The painting appears to be a continuation of a fascination with violence that began when he was a child – he says he dreamt of becoming a soldier and collected toy guns. It is also noteworthy for how accurately it conveys its creator’s own obsessions and concerns. War and violence, gender conflict, irreparable trauma and intimations of mortality all run like motifs through his work. Weighed down beneath the enormity of his themes, his fierce art is distinctive in how he uses it to force his questions upon his audience.

“I have a message. I want people to wake up to think about their lives, and their society,” he tells me. He is unashamedly provocative and makes no secret of his desire to shock a response out of his viewer. Describing his philosophy, he says he wants his work to be a mirror that enables his viewers to confront their own notions of self.

‘Who Am I III’ (seen on our cover page) opens the exhibition – in it a beautiful woman’s face is framed by a corona of red flowers. It takes you a moment to see that one hand ends in a bleeding stump. The image succeeds in being both macabre and beautiful at once.

Dumith (who can go into great detail about each painting) explains that its components can be interpreted as symbolic of a woman’s desire, her uncertainty in a world of men, and ultimately of the violence enacted upon women by men. “As it is in most of my works, the directness of her gaze seems to ask a question from us about her identity,” he says of the piece.

In another work, ‘Oedipal in Crisis’, Dumith takes the elements of a renaissance painting and subverts them cleverly with the addition of his own figures. Another large canvas, the painting deserves a wall to itself, along with your undisturbed attention.

His imagery is often explicitly phallic yet he avoids eroticism almost completely; instead his work is charged with questions of gender. One of the few pieces to display an overt eroticism is the incredibly lush ‘The Impossibility of Disavowing Trauma’. With its overtly Freudian tones, the painting depicts a glowing green form nestled within an abundance of writhing, blooming anthuriums; with the flower itself, serving as visual metaphor for human genitalia.

At 32, this will be Dumith’s second exhibition and one that reinforces his reputation as a particularly thoughtful and exacting artist. Curated by the father- daughter duo of Shanth and Saskia Fernando, the exhibition will feature 12 recent works by the artist.

Five of the artist’s works already belong in Shanth’s personal collection, testament to his enthusiasm for Dumith’s work. “At last Sri Lanka has a truly contemporary world class artist,” he said, adding that Dumith was distinguished by the painstaking care he takes with his canvas. His intellectual curiosity and his unique “spiritual concept,” make Dumith’s art capable of evoking a sense of purpose in the viewer, said Shanth, adding it stands in stark contrast to the “sweet art” that he sees other artists producing.

With his exhibition set to go on till the March 1, Dumith says he dreams of painting canvases so large that no gallery could hold them. “In the future, I may have to take my paintings to the road,” he says, conjuring images of mammoth pieces. These are still years away – “paintings need time to grow,” he says likening the process to the development of a foetus.

His continued interest in gender and culture are also likely to inform his future work, and to add to his struggle to find a balance between his political agenda and his devotion to the aesthetics of his art. Now the Waduwwa based artist says he hopes those who come to the exhibition will devote time and thought to understanding his paintings – some of which have taken years to complete. “Then I can feel like I’m living. I want to say to them, you’re also living, you must be careful with your life and those of others.”

Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lankaon February 27, 2011. Words by Smriti Daniel. 

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