‘i’ is also for ‘intrigue’

Published : 9:45 am  August 30, 2017 | No comments so far |  |  (93) reads | 

 The Ceramicist Asela Gunasekara and her exhibition ‘i’

 

By Malinda Seneviratne   

CITY-DM-14-1Who is the fool on the hill? That’s a question that never came up in any A/L English Literature exam paper in all the years that the Beatles’ song, ‘The fool on the hill’ was on the syllabus. It’s a question I realized should have been discussed and that realization came when I saw a ceramic sculpture with the song-title about a month ago. 

I knew of Kuveni but I never thought of her as a feeling or more precisely ‘an effusively enthusiastic or ecstatic expression of feeling’ or as an epic poem.   


Ophelia was tragic, but I had never seen her. Nor Kuveni. I’ve seen artistic depictions of Theri Sangamitta carrying a sampling of the Sacred Bo Tree in a begging bowl, but somehow they all seem embellished or distorted now. An added dimension, strangely and unexpectedly, had ‘shelled’ the Arahat Sangamitta and yet given her in more wholesome form. I saw them all the same day I discovered the question regarding the fool on the hill.   


Pandora was about a box, about curiosity, flight and the horrors of life and the world. It wasn’t about escape, it wasn’t about embracing reality and dealing with it. Now it is.   


There was a conqueror and he came with a note: ‘The ascetic Siddhartha Gauthama conquering the three temptations: greed, anger and lust. The necessary struggle that preceded enlightenment could not have been easy. Torment was written on the face.   


How can one capture anything of the notion called ‘anitya’ or impermanence? To cast it would divest it of meaning. But then again, if approximation (of capture) is useful for reflection, then I found something useful that day.   


The full moon is for those in the northern hemisphere a ‘man’ and for us in the south, a rabbit. The full moon is also a moment historically designated for reflection of the eternal verities for Buddhists. The full moon can be depicted as the Buddha, this I hadn’t known.   

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The true worth of this artist is best assessed by those who have a deep understanding of art and especially sculpture and within that field, the medium, ceramic. But something about the works mentioned above made the images remain within or, put another way, held me within them.   


The exhibition, held at the Lionel Wendt Art Gallery about a month ago was titled, simply, ‘i’. The full title: i: imperfect, impermanent, incomplete. As titles go it could have been an easy excuse for sloth and lack of skill. Untrained though I am in art and art appreciation, I realized quickly that there was nothing trivial, flippant or mischievous about ’i’.   


The above is context relevant to what follows, which is not a review but a sketch of one of the artists featured in that exhibition, Asela Oshadhi Gunasekara. The other, Akshana Abeywardene, her son, whose photographs were on display is a talent in his own right and deserves a separate feature. Later. Now, Asela Oshadhi Gunasekara.   


Asela was born in 1973, and had been left-handed, but taught to eat and write with the right hand. She had, as a child, struggled with writing. 


The Sinhala characters had come out as mirror images. She laughs about it. Apparently her husband believes that this forced switch from left to right is why she is confused.  


It hadn’t been funny back when she was a child. She was chided at school for poor handwriting. She got a B for Art and a C for Handwork when she was in the second grade. She was told to ‘try to draw colorful pictures’ and to ‘practice folding paper.’ Today she says ‘Art should never be a graded subject in school,’ for reasons that obviously have nothing to do with those silly grades.   


Asela had always been interested in art. “I used to draw everywhere. And I also appreciated. I was fascinated by the pictures on the back of Readers’ Digest magazines. I loved Sybil Wettasinghe’s books. That was art and those were stories.  


CITY-DM-14-1“I remember my grandmother showing me birds sitting on a wire. I must have been two or three then. This was in Malabe, which was at the time a place where there was enough and more wildlife. The natural world fascinated me. I collected things like feathers and seashells My father bought me books. He also had a decent collection of books. I tried to read everything, including the ‘adult’ books, which my parents had to hide from me!   


By the time she was around 14, Asela remembers, she had become very passionate about art. She had taken the subject in Grade 6 when she moved from Musaeus College to Sirimavo Bandaranaike Vidyalaya.  


“Unfortunately the teacher wasn’t too encouraging, but I used to look at stuff, like pictures, and draw. I was always a solitary person, so I had a lot of time. When I was not studying it was all about reading and drawing. I did write poetry, first in Sinhala and later in English, but art was what interested me most.”  


Asela got 5 Distinctions and a single Credit at the O/L exam, which meant she could pick the stream of her choice for the A/L. It had been another left-hand and right-hand moment in her life. Like most of her friends, she had wanted to study arts and languages,but had been pushed into biology.   


“I was disoriented. I remember the first term; I knew it wasn’t my thing. I convinced my mother to talk to the teachers so I could switch to the arts stream. The teachers were not willing.”   


“So they robbed two years of your life?” I asked.   


“No, they robbed my whole life. Things could have been drastically different.”  


She hadn’t done too well. She had wanted to switch and do arts the following year, but her father had suggested she join a bank. So she joined Standard Chartered Bank, Colombo (1992-97) and in Dubai from 1997 to 1999. She quit when Akshana was born and it was only after he started preschool that Asela began to think of a different career. She enrolled in a two-year degree program in liberal arts at the American College of Dubai, affiliated to the Southern New Hampshire University.   


“My professors were good. I discovered different subjects like psychology, sociology, philosophy and literature, which opened my eyes to different spheres and helped me see things deeper even though they were just introductory courses.”  


The tsunami brought her back to Sri Lanka in 2004. She had gone to Sumitrayo, the well-known program on drug demand reduction, in search of work. Ms Nalini Ellawala had taken her in, first as an intern and later as an administrative director.  

 

Unfortunately the teacher wasn’t too encouraging, but I used to look at stuff, like pictures, and draw. I was always a solitary person, so I had a lot of time. When I was not studying it was all about reading and drawing