Sri Lankan art at the United Nations
Kala Suri Jayasiri Semage becomes first Sri Lankan Artist to exhibit at the UN

By Gaya M. Gamhewage
Geneva, Switzerland
The Sri Lankan flag waved high and proud in Europe last week as "Kale Suri" Jayasiri Semage became the first ever Sri Lankan artist to exhibit his creations at the United Nations in Geneva.

The exhibition was a landmark not only for the renowned and respected Sri Lankan artist, but also for Sri Lanka as the exhibition coincided with the 54th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s National Day and was also part of the continuing activities of the UN Year of Dialogue Among Civilisations. It was also an event designated under the government’s 100 day programme. And to mark it, Mr. Semage donated a large painting titled "Hands That Feed" for permanent display at the massive Palais des Nations, the sprawling United Nations building in the heart of Geneva.

This exhibition, organized by Sri Lanka’s Permanent Mission in Geneva, was co-sponsored by Sri Lankan Airlines and the Sri Lanka Association of Geneva. Ambassador Kariyawasam reminded that the National Day was a time to display national treasures and resources and that art is one form of resource. He pointed out that artists form a strong link for dialogue among different peoples, as art conveys a meaning and feeling from different perspectives that leads to better understanding of one another, without a written script or words.

Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva and Under-Secretary-general of the United Nations globally, Mr. Vladimir Petrovsky in a statement to mark the exhibition, said that the exhibition is only one of many manifestations of the Sri Lankan peoples’ deep-seated belief in the value of cultural exchange and interaction as a tool for advancing cross-cultural understanding and appreciation.

Introducing the artist, Ambassador Kariyawasm observed that Jayasiri Semage belongs to a long line of traditional Sri Lankan artists born, and not made. "Staple to his art, are echoes and ripples of Buddhist rites and rituals which he imbibed growing up in Ambalangoda, in southern Sri Lanka. Mr. Semage has built his vision and practice on a firm footing provided by the traditional art of Sri Lanka and mastery of indigenous forms and patterns," said the Ambassador.

"Hands that Feed..." as well as the more than fifty other oil paintings and a dozen watercolours on display all depict rural Sri Lankan life. The paintings were a kaleidoscope of colour, ranging from oceanic blues of Sri Lanka’s coastlines, to midnight purple of the tropical night; from crisp yellow of Sri Lankan sunshine to warm sunburnt terra cotta of its bountiful earth, from cool green of paddy seedlings to deep olive of overgrown jungle. Most of the art depicted human figures, captured in frozen moments of everyday living. Semage has the ability to transform ordinary everyday activities into captivating and extraordinary scenes.

His art is alive with both the rhythm and movement encapsulated on his canvasses. Some of the paintings were made up with his characteristic curved strokes. Others were magically built up from triangles, trapezoids and rectangles. All were peaceful, happy and harmonious. They were simply the beauty he sees in everyday Sri Lankan village life.

Referring to Sri Lanka’s Independence Day which fell during the week of the exhibition, UN Director General in Geneva, Mr. Petrovsky, pointed out that the occasion provides a welcome opportunity to mark how the Sri Lankan peoples have translated national responsibilities into a firm commitment to the international community and the United Nations. "Independence does not mean isolation, and Sri Lanka’s positive contributions to multilateral co-operation across a wide range of issues continuously serve as an example for sovereign nations and as a source of encouragement for the United Nations," he stated.

"Sri Lanka’s strong international involvement springs not only from a sense of obligation, but mainly from a deep awareness of the bonds that binds us all together - across national and political boundaries, and irrespective of race, ethnicity and creed. As the Secretary-General reminded us in his Nobel Lecture, ‘in the most basic acts of human nature, humanity knows no bounds’. The intense emotional and spiritual bonds that connect human beings is a central feature of Kala Suri Semage’s paintings — regardless of whether these are ties between family members, between members of a local community, or a religious group. The most personal moments and experiences — as those between a mother and a child — are also the most universal and widely shared. It is Kala Suri Semage’s unique gift to be able to commit to canvas the essence of the relationships that link us as a human family. In this way, he captures and articulates the very foundation of the Sri Lankan peoples’ principled international participation."

"While steeped in Sri Lankan history and firmly rooted in Buddhist traditions and teachings, Kala Suri Semage’s paintings are not parochial and introspective spiritual representations. They are creative expressions of central tenets of Buddhism that urge us to respect life in all its forms and to act with compassion in all our actions. These are moral principles common to all civilizations and religions. The United Nations is the institutional embodiment of collective faith in these principles, and they are our guidelines in all aspects of the organization’s work. Kala Suri Semage’s evocative images afford us with a welcome occasion to reaffirm our belief in the sanctity of life and the inherent dignity of all human beings."

"The paintings on display and the fundamental values that they communicate to us can inspire us all at the United Nations. The exhibition demonstrates how Sri Lanka has become a force for good beyond her shores, based on a profound understanding of our common humanity. We are grateful to Kala Suri Semage and the Sri Lankan Mission for bringing us not only an evening of visual enjoyment but an important and compelling message as well, "Mr. Petrovsky concluded in his message read out at the opening ceremony by Mr. Pierre Pelou.

Semage is unassuming and simple. Educated at Dharmashoka College in Ambalangoda, he was the chief artist of the former SUN and Davasa group of newspapers. For many years, Mr. Semage was part of the intimate groups of people who travelled the length and breath of Sri Lanka for the Gam Udawa programme. In 1990, he was awarded the national honour "Kala Suri" by President Ranasinghe Premadasa. He later became an art journalist at the Lankadeepa newspaper.

Jayasiri Semage is a world-renowned artist. He has exhibited his art in Malaysia, Russia, Sweden, Thailand, Japan and now Switzerland. He has permanent displays at the Sri Lankan Embassies in Sweden, Bangkok and Manila.

Mr. Semage was encouraged to hold this exhibition in Geneva by the Sri Lankan Ambassador Prasad Kariyawasam and his team at the mission in Geneva and the Sri Lankan Association of Geneva. Air Lanka helped transport the art from Colombo and many others helped make this historical event a reality.

"A feast for the senses. What a rich and beautiful art display... What a gift that you are so talented," said a visitor to the exhibition, Pippa Biggs.

"The beauty of harmony and movement... I share with all who preceded me, the impression that you are a poet as well...", Charele Steiner wrote after experiencing the exhibition. Another visitor from France called the exhibition "one moment of peace, kindness and compassion".

Observing Semage during the two weeks he spent here, it was very clear that be is an observer of life. He speaks very little but sees everything. Perhaps absorbing scenes and experiences to inspire more paintings in time to come.

Looking back on the week, Sri Lankan Ambassador Prasad Kariyawasm said that he was really pleased with the attention and praise the exhibition had attracted. Many Sri Lankans resident in Geneva said they felt very proud to have witnessed not only Semage’s art, but also the fact that a work of art by a Sri Lanka would be on permanent display at the UN in Geneva.

Speaking on his art, Semage says that he gets pleasure bringing to life rustic scenes of simple, Sri Lankan village life. Figures of women greatly outnumber men in his paintings and Semage agrees that he enjoys drawing women figures more. There is grace and serenity in all his figures. This is the way Semage sees Sri Lanka: colourful, calm and graceful.

And so through the eyes of this Sri Lankan artist, people from all over the world glimpsed into images of Sri Lanka. And the painting on permanent display will provide the opportunity for all those who pass through the United Nations in Geneva to see Sri Lankan life through Sri Lankan art for many years to come.