Appreciating Iromie Wijewardena’s Artistic Universe

Darshanie Ratnawalli, in Island, 21 October 2017,  with title as “A long, beautiful woman carries a garland,”

An elongated woman, not as elongated as a fashion designer’s sketch, but in exactly the right proportion for visual grace sits on the floor at her ease. The gold colour of her jacket and cloth shimmers, almost blazes out, creating a pearlescent cloud of luminance, behind which the darkness of the room is a solid backdrop. Both the luminance and the golden colour have texture that leaps out of the canvass inviting touch. An invitation revoked by norms of polite society, which insists that touching is the exclusive province of ownership. And ownership will not change at any price. Iromie Wijewardena will never part with her ‘Artist Collection’ of which ‘After the performance’ just described is part. One can only admire from the safe confines of her art deco living room, while under a guest’s obligation to respect the host’s possessions.

I am there listening to artist Iromie Wijewardena – the creator of the graceful, elongated feminine form coruscating in a blaze of colours and intriguing textures – talk about the essentials of her art.

“I was no child prodigy, though I started painting from that time. But I had made up my mind that I was going to be either an artist, designer or graphic artist. I was going to decide between being a painter or a fashion designer. At that time, SL did not have such a lot of scope for fashion designing. So I thought I better go ahead being a painter. My first exhibition of paintings while at school was a huge success. It gave me a lot of encouragement.

“I used to do a lot of landscapes – oil on canvass. I also used to do line drawings, like fashion drawings, and submit to the newspapers. Both those went side by side until I decided to go ahead with my painting. After I finished school I decided to do my degree in fine arts at, what was then, the Institute of Aesthetic Studies, University of Kelaniya. One year after studying there, I won a scholarship to Wilson College, Pennsylvania in liberal arts. Then I came on holiday, got married, rejoined the University of Kelaniya and finished my degree here. I specialized in painting, textile designing and printing.”

There are two clues here. One, to the genesis of the elongated woman – fashion drawings; and the other to the impetuousness of the artist’s nature. Iromie won a coveted scholarship to a liberal arts college in USA. “I applied. I sent them a full book, a huge book of my first year coursework and they immediately gave me a full scholarship of four years.” And then? “I came back on summer vacation…” And? “Got married.”

There is no mystery here; only the whirlwind romance of an artist. Inconsistently, considering this emotional provenance, ‘Women in love’ is not to be found among Iromie Wijewardena’s themes. What comes even close is an oil on canvass titled ‘The coy maiden’ (2004). In this, a dark, elongated woman gazes ahead with doe like eyes, holding her brown, full lips relaxed to their tenderest possible curve without parting them. There’s a dark, elongated man near her, drawn with just enough detail to show the barest minimum masculinity. Compared to the femininity of the two women in the painting, the man seems almost a boy.

This tendency to hold men at bay, restricted to the fringes of her artistic universe, is an Iromie Wijewardena signature present in all but a few of her paintings.

“I am very much for women who are bread winners because I think women should be given a place in society. And these women who are doing just mundane jobs, I like to make them very colourful, to give them a different stature. I do feature men, but very rarely. If I have to introduce them, I do. But I want to focus on women.”

Iromie is wearing an antique silver and beaded necklace, which may have come from India. She is seated on an intricately carved ebony couch, which she inherited from her mother. She should have been flanked by two tusks, but only the two ebony tusk holders stand in their stead; tusks having been omitted from her legacy for some reason. On her front door, is a frieze depicting god ‘wishwakarma’, which she once saw in a woodcarver’s shop while traveling and had to have. On her walls, in trios, duos and ones, dwell women, so graceful and gracious that one wants to be like them. It’s mostly form and rhythm, two staples of this artist’s craft, that are responsible for their grace. Sometimes however, grace is created with textures. Of a particular trio, obviously going to a place of worship, the middle woman, holding a plate of fruit, wears a ‘lama saree’. The ruff or the frill of this half saree is of a gauzy material trimmed with a rich lace, which has almost been created on the canvass using texture. A second woman in a long sleeved jacket trimmed with modest Southern lace wears pearls. Another with delicate coral lips carries blue lotuses. Behind her coiffure, three golden bo leaves hang suspended from a branch. There is gleaming saffron in the background made of robes of monks. A woman from another canvass wears a silver necklace, made in the artist’s imagination, which one covets, despite knowing it’s not for sale anywhere on earth.

Form, rhythm, technique, and texture make up the boundary line of Iromie’s artistic universe. Not every woman will fit in there. It hasn’t accommodated a bereaved woman, a widow or a garment worker woman so far, though it has given asylum to a weaving woman, a pensive woman and a rambutan seller.

“We really really need a national art gallery,” Iromie says as if it is the main inadequacy in an otherwise promising situation.

We have a healthy art market, “Although the interest rates were down, the art market did not crash,” albeit one which is somewhat green still, “People who are buying copied work must realize, if they are buying as an investment, it has to be absolutely genuine.”

We are producing a new crop of artists every year, “Unlike those days, when there’d be one or two prominent artists, at the moment mostly because of the visual arts university, there’s a lot of talent coming up. Also there are private galleries that are promoting them.”

Sri Lanka is also giving birth to new art movements, “There’s one by Thenuwara. He calls it barrelism. He puts tar barrels outside his exhibitions. I think it started during the time of the war, when roads were closed and everything was restricted.”

We have artists who are gaining recognition outside our borders. “I didn’t do it for Reader’s Digest,” Iromie means her ‘Musicians’ oil on canvass (1998) which Reader’s Digest featured on the back cover of their February 2000, Asian edition. “I just sent the painting to Australia. Australia sent it to USA and one day I got this fantastic email congratulating me, saying they have selected it.”

And Sri Lankan artists have found secure niches in larger foreign markets, “Last year, the Indian gallery, Studio 3 invited me to exhibit with them at World Art, Dubai. I was the only Sri Lankan from 30 odd countries coming in to exhibit with them. Then in London, there is this gallery called Visual Art, UK. They have all the Indian masters like M.F. Husain, Anjolie Ela Mennon, then the modern famous Anish Kapoor. If you google Visual Art, with all these Indian names, you see Iromie Wijewardena.”

Iromie, the foreign gallery conqueror, admits to being ashamed to take any foreigner to the National Art Gallery of Sri Lanka. “What do you get? Just a strip. My painting is also there. But what I am saying is, it’s just a strip. On one side they have made it ACGS Amarasekara, all his paintings with a few of the others. But it’s not representative. When you say a national art gallery, it should be something very like our museum, halls and halls and halls of it. In other countries, there’s security, there’s so much of what you can buy; you have cafeterias. It’s a place where you spend the whole day. What’s ours? Just walk in and walk out.”

The previous government which liked to dream big in mega infrastructure projects didn’t get into this?

“They did. I was at the time serving on the Ministry of Culture’s arts and culture panel and there was a plan to make the present gallery into something really fabulous. They had also planned studios where artists can work. There was a big plan. What happened to it?

“Now they have Nelum Pokuna for performing arts. They have international performances there. But for us? The only good gallery now is the J.D.A Perera Gallery. Lionel Wendt is very small. For professionals, J.D.A Perera has the right lighting. And there are three floors of it. It’s a nice gallery and it belongs to the university.

“The government must take the initiative and budget separately to have a national art gallery.”

Iromie’s talent is a legacy from her mother. It has evolved from landscapes, to an Iromie Wijewardena version of traditionalist paintings that paid tribute to Kandyan period temple paintings, to her current style, which makes her into a figurative, expressionist artist. “I am obsessed with technique,” she declares to me. An elongated woman may come into your life. She may be dark, fair, blue or green. She will rule over a universe with textures, either created with heavily carvable paste or gold leaf. Her authenticity will be attested by a signature reading Iromie Wijewardena placed at the lower boundary of her plane of existence. Iromie Wijewardena takes around two years to finish a collection. This year she will be on show at the Kolor Palatte group exhibition at the Gallery of Light, Dubai on the invitation of Art Souqk 6, an art gallery based in Mumbai. She is the only Sri Lankan artist to be featured.

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