On Layn Baan St in Galle Fort, two exquisitely melancholy sea monsters are separated by a rusty gate. Stricken by grief, one wears a tower for a hat, the other towers above the lighthouse, rising above the fort with a ship bleeding oil cradled in its thin, long arms. The black ooze around their waists makes it clear these, intricately patterned creatures are fugitives of a man-made disaster. Artists Rah Akaishi (New Zealand) and Simon Blackfoot (Canada) painted them together – a response to the oil slick the bulk freighter Thermopylae Sierra left behind when it sank off the west coast in 2012.
Pix courtesy Aaron Glasson
“I’ve painted public murals in various countries and artistically it’s what I love doing most,” says Rah. “I love going to galleries but they can be so restrictive. Street art is the opposite, it’s free, it’s for everyone and can beautify an ugly city scape.”
For Simon too, claiming that dirty, neglected wall for a canvas is all about visibility. “Everyone, from the crazy old uncle at the top of the road to my landlord can see it. It is not hidden away in a room where only a few people can enjoy it,” he says. “When we finish painting the mural, it becomes part of the community. It is a landmark and part of the landscape owned by the people who enjoy it.”
Their biggest project together has been a three storey high, 40 metre long mural for the Maharagama Children’s Hospital. The bright, circus themed painting adorning an otherwise bleak surface took them three days to finish with a little help from their friends Thinini, Shamalee, Kichari, Priya, Mihiri, and Mika. “The idea was to brighten up the environment for the kids but also to give them something to look at and be artistically inspired by,” says Rah.
Both men work at the Academy of Design in Colombo, and have lived in Sri Lanka for a while – Rah since 2011, Simon since 2010. “Sri Lanka is a naturally special place,” says Simon. “Those who truly see and experience its magnificence are lucky. What I have experienced and felt in life has a direct impact on everything, including this work. These murals are a way of giving thanks.”
Having adopted an artistic alias, (“we all wear a mask, why not give it a name?”) Simon formerly taught at the George Brown School of Design. He co-founded the Barbershop Gallery with another illustrator/designer named Adam Hilborn (pkartdept.com) as an alternative platform to showcase art and design. A 2008 exhibition was inspired by a month long canoe trip in Canada’s province of Yukon and the North-West Territories, “one of the last remaining ‘final frontiers’.” “The experience had a lasting influence on me,” says Simon. Selective with his projects, he’ll be painting another mural at the Electric Peacock Festival in April. “There are also a few other murals in the works,” he promises. “Keep your eyes open.”
One of the melancholy sea monsters
A dedicated surfer, Rah says Sri Lanka has been pure inspiration: “I’m inspired by so much here visually also, the colourful religious imagery, folk arts and crafts, the architecture, land, seascapes, animals and people.” He’s designed for skateboards, apparel prints, tattoos, logos, posters, stickers and editorial illustrations and his work is rich with environmental themes and often incorporates wonderfully detailed animal motifs. A volunteer creative director for PangeaSeed, Rah says he uses art and design to educate, raise awareness and funds for the protection of sharks and preservation of their habitats.
Along the same lines in his work with the design label Khogy and their project titled ‘Fish for my Unborn Children.’ “I worked with Khogy to design a print that lines the collection and tag that doubles as an education tool,” he says, explaining that his imagery references issues such as overfishing, ocean pollution, waste and extinction of species with corresponding facts of the tag. “Basically every item in the collection comes with an inbuilt lesson about the state of the oceans. We have also been working on a film and art installation about the fishing of sharks here in Sri Lanka that we will exhibit internationally.”
Choosing to value his work for not just its aesthetics but its ability to offer commentary and to communicate an idea has been part of his personal evolution as an artist. “I like that, I don’t want my work to be abstract and isolating, I want it to be engaging and provocative,” says Rah. “It’s no secret that due to human impact and ignorance many of the earth’s eco-systems and animals species are facing absolute catastrophe, but I still try to convey this, and a solution, in what I make.”
Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 10 March, 2013. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Aaron Glasson.