Setting the Stage for Sri Lankan Modernism

Kaitlin Emmanuel

Timothy Mitchell’s essay “The Stage of Modernity” sets up a simple problematic: what is the time and space in which modernity exists? When did it begin and where? Too often, the understanding of what it means to be “modern” corresponds to definitions of the West. Modernity, he argues, “is produced as the West” and therefore any form of modernization that takes place outside of this sphere (i.e. Europe), is derivative. History and geography are therefore inextricably linked, that is to say that modernity is not only understood through its temporality, but through its relation to a specific place. However, Mitchell argues that each repetition of modernization that takes place throughout the world—in the form of advancements, new social structures, etc.—is simply one stage of modernity. If we understand them as new and original occurrences, then there is no original or master narrative of modernity. Each recurrence is fundamentally a misrepresentation or parody of the original.

I would like to apply Mitchell’s framework to new perspectives on art historical advancements in the non-Western world, particularly a place off the map for many writers and thinkers on modern art: Sri Lanka. Often overshadowed by neighboring cultural hub and empire India, the small island’s context within the global discourse of modern art lacks significant research and writing. But in the 20th century, Sri Lanka experienced the birth of a modern art movement that followed a narrative strikingly similar to that of the Impressionists and the modern art movement in Paris of the late 19th century—namely the controversial rejection of an institution and academic style of painting in favor of a new avant-garde. The parallels have led many to understand the history of Sri Lankan modernism in relation to Europe, especially for artists whose style and influence visibly relate to Manet, Picasso, Matisse, Derrain and others. I would not argue against this comparison, as many of these artists acknowledge how the European modernists influenced their work. But if we are to use Mitchell’s framework presented in “The Stages of Modernity,” then we need to acknowledge the repetition or mimicry of the European avant-garde as a failed project. Instead, we can focus on how Sri Lanka’s modern artists misrepresented the visual language and culture of Europe to produce something entirely new within the global discourse on modern art history.

The goal of this paper is to use the current scholarship on Sri Lankan modernism to answer this question. The discussion will map the emergence of Sri Lankan modern art in the 20th century, which reached its height at the formation of the ’43 Group, a professional artists collective in Sri Lanka that defined the modern art movement and language within the country. Much of the literature on Sri Lankan modern art revolves around the members of the ’43 Group. Writers, curators and collectors alike claim the collective as proof of Sri Lanka’s participation in the modern art movements taking place throughout the 20th century, particularly in Europe, which allowed the’43 Group to grow into an emblem of Sri Lankan pride and nationalism. But how representative was the ’43 Group of Sri Lankan nationalism? And what were their contributions in terms of form, style and content to the global art historical canon? With these questions in mind, I aim to synthesize the established narrative on Sri Lankan modernism and point out its strengths and discrepancies, as well as opportunities for new scholarship.