Laki: A Humble Genius
By Shabna Cader
Laki Senanayake (1937 – 2021) wasn’t just a painter or a landscape artist. He wasn’t just a sculptor or an innovator. His ingenuity was much more. As much as it pains me to highlight and discuss this great man only after his demise, it is still an opportunity to share thoughts and ideas on the kind of life he led, his work, his inspirations, and his contribution to art as a whole. Friends, journalists, and colleagues of his often described him as a simple man with a penchant for innovation – be it by the use of paint, metal or nature. A man casually dressed in vivid sarongs, bare-chested and a curious childlike smile on his lips.
Born in 1937, Laki’s upbringing was an amalgamation of the proindependence political movement. As a result of his father being imprisoned by the British colonial administration for his subversive political activity, the Senanayake family moved to Chilaw where Laki spent a large part of his childhood in the countryside, often free to do as he wished.
This is perhaps when he grew into his passion of exploring art and nature. Both were key aspects of his identity over the years. When his family moved back to Colombo, the typical education system ‘bored’ him. His art and creativity however flourished and in time, after finishing school his creations were noticed by architect Geoffrey Bawa who hired him as a draftsman.
It was then he began to further explore his fascination over trees, the natural curvature of the trunks and branches, and tapped into the botanical art of drawing plants.
Over time, Laki became acquainted with other extraordinarily creative artists and architects including Bevis Bawa, Ena de Silva, Barbara Sansoni, Ismeth Raheem, Ulrik Plesner, and Donald Friend to name a few. He didn’t just tap into landscape art or paintings, but explored a wide array of mediums including pen and ink drawings, murals, experimenting on batik and silk, as well as large-scale sculptures.
Some of his early work included designing the diving board at the Otter Aquatic Club as a teenager, the vestments for the priest at the Nazareth Chapel of the Good Shepherd Convent in Bandarawela, a bronze-finished aluminum sculpture of a bo leaf for the Ceylon Pavilion at the Expo ‘70 in Osaka, Japan and numerous other pieces that also can be viewed at Bawa’s house in Colombo.
What Laki achieved was more than recognition for his many artistic talents. They went beyond the typical norms of shape, colour and structure. As he developed a name for himself, it was around the early ‘70s when he made a choice to move to Diyabubula in Dambulla.
Here, back again in the vast outdoors just like in his childhood, he continued to explore and expand his artistic skills with much fervour. The local currency notes printed in 1979 bear his etchings and drawings of endemic flora and fauna of our island, and are to date often referred to as the most beautiful set of currency printed.
He continued to create murals and sculptures for Bawa, which were evidently displayed at numerous locations including the bronze peacock at Bentota Beach Hotel, the owl in flight at Heritance Kandalama and the bronze and metal swirling mass of the Dutch and Sinhalese people in battle at Jetwing Lighthouse.
During the more recent years, he almost completely halted creating large-scale works, and instead focused on private commissions and also dabbled in digital art. Much like how the education system ‘bored’ him in his childhood, typical patterns and norms disinterested him and instead, he focused on unconventional approaches with his work.
At times his work could be described as highly styled, whereas most often it was also purely abstract forms of art. In both aspects, he was truly a creative genius in his own right, constantly progressing and evolving. Repeating thematic subjects in his work include flora and fauna, and the human body in multiple guises.
As a landscape designer, these subjects proved to be an exploration towards creating a sense of balance even in form and space. The attempt was always to recreate a natural environment – featuring more natural elements such as water, lush greenery, and was the ideal backdrop for some of his metal sculptures.
It was The Greedy Forest – his last exhibition – in 2018 at both the Barefoot Gallery and Lunuganga that I had the most fortunate opportunity of viewing Laki’s masterpieces. It was a visual representation of his botanic ideology, vision for lush gardens, early drafts and sketches coupled with photographs of his previous work. Many of it remains etched in my mind.
His infectious casual attitude towards life and his extraordinary passion which led to the fashioning of many remarkable works of art will always be treasured.