Local Artist Who Went Global
By Chandana Ranaweera
When Senaka Senanayake was born on 20 March 1951, many would not have thought he would go on to select art and painting as his profession and passion given the background of the family he was born into. Senaka is a member of the prominent political family – the Senanayakes – that has been actively taking part in Sri Lankan politics since pre-independence times.
However, it became apparent at a very young age that Senaka’s destiny lay not in the political arena but before a blank canvas with a brush and a palette. Senaka showed talent in art at a very young age. Considered a child prodigy, he first exhibited his art in Colombo in the late ‘50s and held his first solo international exhibition in New York at the age of 10. While studying, Senaka continued to paint and held numerous exhibitions in Sri Lanka as well as across Europe, Asia, United Arab Emirates, and in the USA.
He studied art and architecture at Yale University in Connecticut, USA and returned to Sri Lanka with the intention of dedicating his life to painting. Back in his homeland, it didn’t take long for Senaka to establish himself as a prominent artist. Currently, he is one of the most sought-after contemporary artists in South Asia, and one of only a few Colombo-based, internationally-acclaimed, living artists. Many a local and international newspaper and magazine have reviewed and praised Senaka’s art, and he is a prominent TV and radio figure who voices his ideas about art.
When talking about Senaka’s career, it can be divided into a few distinct sections and styles but in this article let’s focus on his oil painting, as described in Harsha Bhatkal’s book, titled Senaka. Reviewing his artwork from a young age to now might help out a lot of art enthusiasts as well as teachers who teach art and are keen to know more about Senaka.
During his younger years Senaka used human figures and the landscapes of rural Sri Lanka as themes of his artwork. The paintings and the colour combinations came to life as the young Senaka moved his brush along the canvas which consisted of detailed moving figures and gestures. The colours were heavy on the brighter side. His artwork titled, ‘Temple Flowers’ depicts a vase containing temple flowers. The beauty of temple flowers is clearly brought out using yellowish green, light green, dark green, and blue.
The painting, ‘Bullock Carts’ shows a few bullock carriages resting on the wayside. It is commendable how the artist has used a myriad of colours in perfect balance to conglomerate a fascinating and detailed depiction.
His painting, ‘Under the Gaslight’ has used reddish brown to create some intricate human figures. His oil colour work titled, ‘Tigers’ has used shades of dark red to bring out the ferociousness of the tigers. Moving forward as Senaka evolved as an artist it became apparent that he had found a new way or a style to his art. The artworks ‘Peacocks’, ‘The Prey’, and ‘Grass Cutters’ stand evident to this. Apart from that ‘By the Well’, ‘Rice Cultivation’, ‘Empire State Building’, and ‘Seine Paris’ can be shown as some of Senaka’s unique and exceptional art of the highest quality.
As he grew older Senaka moved on to use rather solid and semi-solid shapes and figures in his paintings. His painting titled, ‘Three Fishes’ has used a lot of semi-solid shapes. Painted in 1967 this particular work of art stands out among his ‘best’ works. His painting, ‘Drummers’ is also another painting that contains a lot of solid three-dimensional shapes. Different variants of blue, black, and white are used in perfect balance to create the masterpiece, ‘The Brahmins and the Snakes’.
Young Senaka was a master in terms of experimenting and being on a constant creative exercise. This thirst and eagerness to explore new horizons in the field of art quite expectedly led Senaka to arrive at his ‘golden era’ as a painter. He started painting nature scenes using curved shapes and light colours and most of his popular, valued, and much-appreciated paintings of flowers, animals, trees, waterfalls, streams, and ponds belong to this era. Perfect examples of Senaka’s golden-era paintings are ‘By the Lotus Pond’ and ‘Flamingos’. Coherent and incoherent shades of colours mixed with white have been used to create natural postures of animals, intricately as well as in an aesthetically pleasing way. The paintings ‘Blue Deer’, ‘Pelicans’, ‘Cattle Grazing’, ‘Leopard’, ‘Cock Birds’, ‘Cats’, and ‘Water Buffaloes’ show the passion Senaka has towards wild fauna and how he has used those feelings to birth perfect works of art. Circular shapes, familiar shades of colour, and coherent and incoherent colours have been used in perfect balance to create these masterpieces.
The paintings ‘With Nature’, ‘Flight of the Pelicans’, ‘Manchurian Cranes’, and ‘Ibis’ are some of the fine examples of how Senaka’s creative affair with colours has resulted in perfect specimens of art.
His artwork titled, ‘Lord Krishna’ has taken a rather different path to his familiar style, incorporating free lines and a new range of colours.
Some of the fine examples of Senaka’s paintings based on human figure are; ‘The Way of the Cross’, ‘Ghost Hunters’, ‘The Rebellion of the Buddhist Nun’, ‘The Renunciation’, and ‘Mara Yuddaya’.
Senaka is undoubtedly one of the living treasures of artists the Sri Lankan artsphere is privileged to have. He constantly uses natural beauty as his muse and wants to familiarise the feelings of bliss he feels when he is one with nature. He strives to spread positivity rather than picking themes of grave and pressing matters. He wants his art to be enjoyed by everyone. He doesn’t target a specific art savvy or educated or elite audience. From a university professor to a street sweeper, anyone can appreciate his art since they contain something for everyone. The success he attracts both locally and internationally is not just personal to him but helps to put Sri Lanka on the global art scene. May he live long and continue to work the brush as long as he is capable to create much more fascinating works of art of the highest quality.
(Translated by Sanuj Hathurusinghe)