Ismeth Raheem

Ismeth Raheem’s work as an artist reflects diverse influences and interests including his professional work in architecture and interior design; his research and publications on colonial history, art history and the history of natural history; a life-long interest in both the natural and man-made worlds; and a taste for mythical, fantastical and surreal themes, “This exhibition also reflects my abiding interest in ornithology and includes a range of bird drawings from life as well as from specimens preserved in the Colombo Museum.” On the 1st of July, 2019, we visited his exhibition “Ismeth Raheem: Collected Works – 1960 – 2019. We discovered his work to be intricately detailed and his pieces pose as perfectly articulated architectural structures. His works of art, framed and hung, complimented each other and narrated a story. In our quest to discover intriguing art, we found Ismeth Raheem story eye-opening:

Ismeth Raheem was first an artist and, with Laki Senanayake, a founder member of the Young Artists Group. He studied architecture at Katubedde and in Copenhagen and assisted Geoffrey Bawa between 1968 and 1976 and worked on a number of key projects such as the Serendib Hotel and the Agrarian Research and Training Institute. During this period, he also designed furniture and created artworks for various Bawa hotels. Later, he practiced with Pheroze Choksy and was the architect of the celebrated Habarana Lodge Hotel.

“It is after many decades that I am holding an exhibition of my artwork. This exhibition gives a sense of my artistic trajectory: it includes pieces dating from the last ten years or so, as well as numerous examples of my work from previous decades,” although Ismeth considers himself a modern artist, his work is embedded in tradition, both in terms of techniques and subjects. While much of his work has involved painting and sketching on different textures of paper, over the years he has experimented with different materials – wood, textile, glass, metal, concrete, gold leaf – and used techniques ranging from painting, pen-and-ink sketching, engraving and etching, to batik and sculpture.

An architect by profession (now retired), Ismeth’s art has always been his first and long-lasting talent. In 1958 he won a special award for his painting ‘Railway’ (based on a work by Monet) at the Ceylon Society of Art’s annual exhibition, which led him to make art and painting his chosen career. As the secretary of the Art Circle at Royal College, he helped to present the circle’s work at an international UNDESCO-sponsored art exhibition held in Paris in March, 1959. His early exposure to the work of Monet, Cezanne, Gaugin and van Gogh in particular, widened his knowledge of artistic techniques, and inspired me to experiment with different media and materials.

Ismeth also worked with a number of fellow artists and art aficionados; re-connecting with Laki Senanayake changed his outlook and opened up new avenues. With the founding of the Young Artist Group (YAG) by Laki, himself and a few others at the Lionel Wendt Art Centre in the early 1960s, Ismeth’s contribution to YAG led him to be directly involved with the Stage and Set Theatre Group where he was invited by Ernest Macintyre, the group’s director, to design the sets and posters for two plays, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1961) and Ugo Betti’s Queen and the Rebels (1962).

In 1961, through Laki, Ismeth met Ena de Silva whose skill in the craft of batik stimulated his interest in batik as an art form. After an initial period of trial and error, he created a number of large-scale batik wall hangings which were displayed in several exhibitions such as in Colombo (1965), Chennai (1972), Copenhagen (1967) and Aarhus (1973), in Denmark.
Ismeth Raheem also had the privilege of meeting Geoffrey Bawa and Ulrik Plesner through Laki Senanayake. With Ulrik Plesner’s influential support, Ismeth secured a scholarship at the Royal Danish Academy in Copenhagen where he acquired a knowledge of engraving, etching, lithography and ceramics as he was able to work with and learn from artists and ceramists in the Academy’s studios. During his years at the studio, he learnt that Geoffrey Bawa strove to provide clients with interiors, furnishings and artwork that complimented the aesthetics of his buildings. His key collaborators included Ismeth Raheem, Ena de Silva, Barabara Sansoni and Laki Senanayake.

This exhibition features a series of paintings of Sri Lanka’s colonial era forts, and some abstract compositions that incorporate elements or perspectives from measured drawings or architectural plans. “These reveal my absorption with the documentation of architectural history.” An important early strand to this was his involvement in a project initiated by Ulrik Plesner on Sri Lanka’s indigenous and colonial buildings of the 17th-19th centuries, which also laid the foundation for his extensive research on the history of art and architecture in Sri Lanka, “I have drawn freely from this rich source of historical images when creating and developing my paintings and drawings.”

In 1972, Ismeth was also influenced by the Australian artist, Donald Friend and was fascinated by his technique and drawing of pen-and-ink medium, use of coloured ink and aluminium sculptures.

Ismeth Raheem left Bawa’s firm in 1978 to set up his own architectural practice with Pheroze Choksy, whom he’d trained with at the Royal Danish Academy. 

Ismeth’s travels have taken him far and wide including, London, Copenhagen, Delhi, Sukhothai, Isthanbul, Jakarta and Singapore, as well as to numerous historic and archaeological sites in Asia, where he is fascinated and influenced by museums and objets d’art.

ARTRA is Sri Lanka’s Art Magazine exploring curated content on Sri Lanka’s visual art, performance art, applied art and written art. Launched in 2012, ARTRA Magazine is a compact monthly art read providing a comprehensive understanding on Sri Lankan artists, art events, monthly art calendars and the Sri Lankan design landscape. In sum, all you need to know about art in Sri Lanka.

7th July, 2019 Visual Art | Paintings