Mika Tennekoon’s small living room is packed full of suitcases. That’s great because Mika is a girl going places, except in the strictly literal sense. It’s been over two years since she gave up her job in London to return home and it’s been a comfortably productive period in her life. Mika’s work – fanciful, intricate and playful – has already been featured in seven group exhibitions including The Great West Coast Migration which toured several U.S cities in 2012. Still, the really exciting news is that at the invitation of the Saskia Fernando gallery, the 27 year old is preparing for her first solo show in January – and it’s all about suitcases.
She first thought of using them as her canvases when she spotted the simple boxes in Pettah. Mika immediately pictured how she could suspend the suitcases, allowing viewers to actually walk around, under and past each piece. Of course that meant painting six sides and it’s why Mika’s a little behind schedule and feeling nervous about it. She’s already completed a few pieces – a bright yellow one bears the legend ‘Horn Ok’ but the others have more unusual inspirations. For one Mika played upon an aerial image of the tents of Menik Farm, for another she asked friends what they would take with them if they had to abandon their burning houses – turns out, it would be their electronic devices.
Though her first solo exhibition will be a milestone of some significance in her life, it won’t be the realisation of a childhood dream. That, says Mika, was to be a photographer cum writer for either National Geographic or The Discovery Channel. “I wrote to them and asked what subjects I should take if I was going to work for them and they both actually wrote back,” says Mika who accordingly chose a nice mix of English literature, biology and chemistry for her A/Ls. (The letters are still carefully preserved, prized possessions.)
However, always competing with her passion for photography has been Mika’s love of drawing. As a child she remembers her grandmother giving her a whole wall in the kitchen to scribble on (the three others went to cousins and siblings) and her parents were always supportive. Later, watching the fun her sister had in her job in advertising, plus a little concern for the thinness of her wallet, made Mika opt for an internship at Leo Burnett instead of one at International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). She followed that by signing up to be one of the Colombo based Academy of Design’s first batch of Graphic Design students.
Mika would apply what she had learnt at a series of design and advertising agencies beginning with Liquid Bubble in London, during which time she also did illustrations on the side (and for free) for the magazine The Other Side, UK. (She currently works under the artist Mahen Chanmugam at MCN Creatives.) London was a revelation in itself but encountering many artists with a similarly unconventional approach to their art was perhaps the most enlightening. ”Before that I didn’t think doing my work would get me anywhere,” she says, adding that it was during that period that she ventured past her black and white ink drawings into glorious colour. Now she’s mixing acrylic with emulsions and feeling adventurous.
Her work displays a melange of influences and some of the most interesting pieces include a line or two of text. A quote from a book by Charles Bukowski or a line from a song by Simon and Garfunkle inspired drawings. (She’s a reader – in her bookcase topped with a miniature Christmas tree, Notes of a Dirty Old Man is packed in beside Slaughterhouse 5 and Haroun and Sea of Stories.) Mika laughs when she confesses though that there’s nothing quite like an argument with her partner to really get her creative juices flowing.
She has one picture of him all barbed and obviously evil in her newest notebook but on its first page is an equally hilarious memory – a to-do list written when they were on holiday and trapped indoors thanks to bad weather. It includes sky diving, surfing better (a fairly serious accident has left her a little nervous to get back on her board) and moving to Paris but also growing her hair out, living in a van/boat (her ideal is riverboat on the Thames with an indoor heater and a deck perfect for drinking tea) and turning her drawings into postcards.
The last she’s actually done, putting postcard packs featuring 10 of her pieces (A set under the insignia ‘Mikaten’ costs Rs. 1,500). Other entries on the list hint at parallel projects – illustrations for a children’s book and for a book of poems as well as a photo-documentary on Sri Lanka’s travelling circus companies.
Though she’s got so much going on, Mika still has moments of doubt. Her work tends to be fuelled by the emotion of the moment and she struggles when commissioned to work on pieces. She’s also still a little surprised by the interest her work has generated – “I didn’t think I had any real potential in that sense,” – but knows clearly where she would like to take this: “I would like to live off it. I would really like to just draw for a living.” She’s closer now than ever to living the dream.
Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 6 January, 2013. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Indika Handuwala.