Always Ahead of the Present: Farewell Barbara Sansoni

Nazreen, Anjalendran & Ismeth farewell Barbara Sansoni —

ONE; Nazreen Sansoni, ……… Barbara Sansoni, the well-known Sri Lankan artist and designer, passed away on April 23rd at around 1.10 a.m., just one hour after her 94th birthday. Dominic, her devoted son and Kavi, her faithful right hand, were by her side – Simon, her eldest, could not make it as he was in London.

On the 22nd, a few of her family and friends had gathered to celebrate B (as she was fondly known). Although she was barely conscious, we cut a cake and sang Happy Birthday! Whilst we all knew that the end was forthcoming, it was a happy affair.

Barbara: A pioneer of her generation. Pic by Dominic Sansoni

Barbara, who was way ahead of her time, started Barefoot in 1961 at the family home where she passed away.  Her life and passion for her work filled the house with spirit, colour, warmth, beauty and sharp intelligence that fascinated all who passed through it. Barefoot, the store on Galle Road, now displays her work and that of her designers. Her products have given joy to many. Colour is a powerful tool for wellness.

But this is not so much about her legacy in art design, cloth and colour. It is about B. B was fearless; she had high principles and was ethical in what was truly important: Racism, classism, and an individual’s right to voice. B spoke her mind, and if you were at the receiving end, it would drive you to tears. She was a pioneer of her generation, indeed commanded a lot of respect from women and men. She was one of our first genuine businesswomen (she would despise me writing that), but it’s true.

Even though her aim was never to make a profit, she just wanted to help single women who needed to learn a skill –  not just for employment but to develop as human beings.

She was an excellent friend. B knew how to keep a secret, and her guidance was so sound that the advice she gave was the best for the situation. She had a gift for understanding people and analysing their character.

B was a happy optimist but would succumb to deep depression (as great artists do); the love of her life, Ron Lewcock, was a master at keeping her happy. Theirs was a unique relationship in that it lasted over 50 years, more vital than ever.

A few weeks ago, whilst being recorded by a filmmaker, Barbara said, “I am not afraid to die, but when I do, I will miss drawing very, very much.” …………………… Nazreen Sansoni

TWO: Architect C. Anjalendran, who has known Barbara Sansoni for nearly 40 years, and considers himself a part of the extended Sansoni family, said:

Barbara Sansoni perceived much of the world and its subjects in colour. She was a wondrous colourist who derived inspiration from the altering shades of Sri Lanka’s seas, sunsets and sunrises, their enigmatic tones seeping into her work as she drew with exquisite detail. Barbara’s work encompassed beautiful drawings of old buildings from aesthetically pleasing homes to exquisitely crafted places of worship across the island.

Barbara and the famous Australian artist Donald Friend etched on clay tiles in the early 1960s. Their collaboration influenced Barbara to include the surroundings in her own drawings, which she included in her column “Collecting Old Buildings” published in the Daily Mirror, during the same period. These in turn influenced Laki Senanayake and Ismeth Raheem to include realistically surrounding trees and landscapes in their architectural presentation drawings for Geoffrey Bawa, which subsequently influenced the Asian and South Asian architectural world.

Barbara, who was like a second mother to me, was a multi-faceted personality. She was not only an artist, with an exceptional and unique understanding of colour, but more so a story teller with humour. Also most importantly, her love of everyday architecture, which she has recorded for her motherland, is a significant contribution. It is an appreciation of what’s simple and good, but not pompous.

Art is not Life, but it is a part of Life. Architecture or how we live is an integral part of our lives, preferably without pretence. This is what I have learned from Geoffrey Bawa, Barbara Sansoni, Ena de Silva and Laki Senanayake, who have all enriched my life.

THREE: Architect Ismeth Raheem, also a longtime friend wrote:

My first encounter with Barbara was in 1960 at the now defunct Arts Centre Club at Lionel Wendt in the company of Geoffrey Bawa and Ulrik Plesner. By the 1960s she had set up a highly successful handloom business producing innovative and striking designs in vibrant colours, developing a business model that did not rely on factories or production lines but on individual artisans and designers.  A close friend of Bawa and Plesner, her firm supplied most of the fabric for the furniture and furnishings of their architectural projects. Barefoot Boutique, which she established in 1964, was one of the only outlets in Colombo supplying innovative design items to a discerning public.

While working as a part-time journalist, she wrote a series of articles (October 1961–January 1963) on traditional vernacular buildings. These were products of the measured drawings and documentation done by a four-member team set up by Plesner which consisted of Ulrik, Barbara, Laki Senanayake and myself. Our goal was to draw and document some of the rare and traditional indigenous buildings of the 17th to early 19th century. Barbara’s role was to produce perspective views of the exterior and interior of these then rapidly vanishing edifices.

Ever passionate about old buildings, she brought out a magnificent publication Viharas and Verandahs (1978) and with Ronald Lewcock, whom she married in 1983, they jointly published a more extensive account The Architecture of an Island (1998).

In October 1968 due to the stringent foreign exchange restrictions in the country, I helped organise an exhibition of her handlooms at the Ceylon Tea Centre in Copenhagen in Denmark. to raise money for Barbara to source the pigments and dyes she required for her fabrics.

Barbara Sansoni has been a great inspiration for a post-independent country looking to assert distinct identity. She leaves behind a colourful and significant legacy.


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One response to “Always Ahead of the Present: Farewell Barbara Sansoni

  1. Hi Robert,
    How are you? Sri Lanka is not doing so well! Extraordinary, really.
    KInd of you to post our tributes to B on your blog. I hope you liked them.
    I did not title the piece just to let you know..


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