The art of Rohan Amerasinghe:
The 'monologue' that craves to be a 'dialogue'
Rohan Amarasinghe is one of the senior but lesser known Sri Lankan
artists whose work has always been about 'politics'.
He is a self-taught artist; a personality that claims an artist's
identity outside of Colombo's art hirerachy which is constructed by the
faculty and artist graduates from the IAS (Institute of Aesthetic
Studies, currently the University of Performing and Visual Arts). He has
been actively participating in Colombo's art scene since mid 1970s.
He is a regular participant in the annual art exhibition organized by
the Art Council of Sri Lanka, and many a time his work has been rejected
by the selection committee of this state sponsored show for its
explicitly radical nature.
A regular presence at various exhibitions in Colombo, he is an avid
'culture buff' and a latter day bohemian who makes his presence fealt at
a multitude of art and cultural events. Despite his long and keen, and
at times combative association with the Colombo's art scene, the art
community has been lukewarm towards his art. As such, he is still not
acknowledged as a mainstream artist.
For us, Rohan Amerasinghe presents a prelude of sorts for the 90s
Trend. His importance as an art personality relies on his contribution
to the contemporary or late modernist aspects of Sri Lankan art.
Therefore, the Rohan Amerasinghe exhibition at the Red Dot Gallery is a
retrospective event that captures this particular contribution of his
The purpose of this short essay is to endow Rohan Amerasinghe's work
with some historical weight by positioning his art and artistic
personality in the uncertain terrain that emerged at the modem/late
modern interstice of late 20th century art of Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan
modernist art reached an important turn in the early 1990s.
The artistic trend that gathered momentum in the early years of 1990s
is now named the 90's Trend. The most noticeable aspect of the 90's
Trend during its early years was its preoccupation with issues
pertaining to violence and political crimes although it acquired so many
other avenues and paths of expressions in later years.
Consequently, some critiques of the 90's Trend called it the 'trauma
school of art'. Nevertheless, what I would like to emphasis here is that
taking violence and social injustice as points of reference for art
making is not the sole purpose of the 90's Trend.
But what needs to be underscored is that Sri Lankan modernist art
already had a well established tradition of art making that had a
political interventionist edge. However, this particular tradition was
not as strong and popular as the bucolic and meditative trends of 20th
century modernist art.
This politically interventionist art tradition, which was an
important sub tradition with the modernist discourse, could not develop
to its full potential. It did not develop a relevant body of aesthetics
that had the potential to define a paradigm shift in art within the
The major achievement of the 90's Trend is to energize this political
interventionist art tendency into a fully blown art movement with its
own theoretical parameters of aesthetics.
Even among of the artists of the 43 group who averted any direct
expressions of violence and social injustice in their art, one can see
sporadic attempts at recording and responding to events of violence,
though in an indirect manner.
One such example is George Keyt's 'Bhima and Jarasanda (1943)', which
depicted the violent clash between two epic heroes from Mahabharatha.
Ivan Pieries's painting of the raid of Colombo during World War II
(Easter Sunday raid, 1943-42) is another example of this nature.
However, during 1960s and early 1970s, the Sri Lankan art scene was
not marked with any significant art that has any reference to violence
or socio-political issues worth mentioning. But by the late 1970s, after
the first JVP uprising and the violent social environment that emerged
in the country, one can see the emergence of 3 artists whose work had a
socially interventionist stance.
The most popular and the best known of the three is S.H. Sarath,
while Nayanananda Wijayakulathilake and Rohan Amerasinghe being the
other two. S.H. Sarath, who is a graduate of the IAS, did a series of
drawings on social injustice and violence which were well received by
the art audience of the late 1970s.
Wijayakulathilake, a participant in the 1971 youth uprising, served a
prison sentence and consequently became a painter while in prison.
Wijayakulathilake's painting on violence and social injustice also
acquired sufficient attention from the art audiences of the late 1970s.
However, one cannot say the same of Amerasinghe. He remained largely
obscure until the 1990s.
The reasons for this are many. The most obvious reason is that he
could claim no link with the IAS and the therefore remained an outsider
to the art community largely without the endorsing and supportive
network of IAS.
Sarath is a graduate of the IAS, and Wijayakulathilake married a
graduate of IAS while he was still imprisoned. Both Sarath's and
Wijayakulathilake's painting styles had roots in the then established
stylistic norms that came from the IAS while Amerasinghe's style was and
still is totally alien to that.
Amerasinghe's artistic personality, I would argue, stands apart from
the other two in several important ways. Unlike Sarath and
Wijayakulathilake who as artist-personalities critique the
'establishment' only through their art, Amerasinghe confronted the
'establishment' both through his artwork as well as through his
personality as an artist! While both Sarath and Wijaykulathilake are
classical modernists in terms of 'art thinking' Amerasinghe was never
He has always been consciously a narrative artist: He always has a
'story' to tell which is more or less issue based. He has never been
concerned with expressing a 'feeling', or a 'mood'. As can be seen in
his work, he has never attempted to achieve a state of 'sublime' in a
His story and his restlessness are very much located in the 'now' and
'here'. This aspect of Amerasinghe's art and artistic personality are
the factors that make him an important artist in the transitional phase
of 20th century Sri Lankan art from modern to late modern periods. In
many ways, he and his art pre-figured basic tents of the 90s trend.
This allows us to consider Rohan Amerasinghe as an important and
serious contemporary art personality.
Amerasinghe characteristically is a very vocal personality. He has a
magnetic attraction to pick up arguments and quarrels that can become
long drawn debates on the meaning and function of art, artist
personalities and art establishment.
He engages in these quarrels/arguments in such a vocal manner as if
he is demanding the attention of the society. But he has always been, in
many ways, a loner with a very loud 'monologue'.