BARBARA SANSONI EDITION - A PORTRAIT OF BARBARA SANSONI
Barbara Sansoni by Azara Jaleel
Barbara Sansoni was born amongst the mountainous regions of Kandy, Sri Lanka in 1928 on the twenty-second day of April to Bertha Daniel and R. Y. Daniel of the Ceylon Civil Service. Barbara grew up amidst varying cultural experiences of Ceylon as a result of her father’s occupation as Assistant Government Agent. His postings took him to Batticaloa, Mannar, Matara, Kurunegala and Kandy, taking them from one town to another in succession. She was educated at a boarding school in Kodaikanal, South India after which she studied for a year at St. Bridget’s Convent for her Higher School Certificate in 1945. She then went on to study in England for five years at the Regent Street Polytechnic. In 1952, Barbara married Hildon Sansoni, and gave birth to their children, Simon and Dominic. In 1981 after the demise of Hildon in 1979, Barbara married Dr. Ronald Lewcock. Despite her perpetual movements during which she hardly committed to a fixed location, she grew with a community of artists, designers, architects and friends who were likeminded, and many are now regarded as icons of Sri Lankan art and architecture, such as Geoffrey Bawa, Ulrik Plesner and Laki Senanayake to name a few.
Multidisciplinary Approach to Art
Intrigued by colour and its bright, unrelenting vividness, Barbara painted and drew from a young age. She had art lessons from several dedicated teachers during her youth, including Mr. J. D. Perera and Prof. G.M. Amarasinghe.
Barbara’s drawings encompassed that of old buildings. Distraught by the demolition of traditional buildings in the name of progress and development, Barbara Sansoni took the initiative to draw these buildings in an attempt to preserve them, as much as she wanted to admire them herself in the 1960’s. These drawings were published in a weekly column called ‘Collecting Old Buildings’ in the Ceylon Daily Mirror in 1962 and 1963. Her essays ‘Some Notes on Old Furniture’ (Times of Ceylon Annual 1962), ‘Sri Lankan Vernacular’ (Architecture + Design, India, March-April 1990) and ‘Leila’s Road’ (Ceylon Observer Pictorial 1963) further expanded on her insights and interests upon the subject matter.
C. Anjalendran in his citation for Barbara Sansoni in June 2011 mentioned that some of these drawings accompanied the initial article on the joint work of Geoffrey Bawa and Ulrik Plesner that featured in the Architectural Review of February 1966. Referring to ‘Vihares and Verandas’ published in 1978, assisted by Ulrik Plesner, Laki Senanayake and Ismeth Raheem, she measured seven of these architectural buildings. With the 30 years of scholarship and dedication of Dr.Ronald Lewcock that began in 1969, these reached a total of 96 examples of which this magnum opus was published as ‘Architecture of an Island’ in 1998, assisted with the funding of UNESCO and the Asia Foundation, which has now become a sourcebook.
In the 1960’s as a writer, Barbara Sansoni also began her own weekly feature page in the Ceylon Daily Mirror, where she published the stories she had invented for her children, adding her own drawings of animals and creatures in eventful settings, reflecting undeniably delightful childhood innocence and skill whilst invoking peculiar humour. Thereafter, two books collecting these illustrations and verse were published under the names of ‘Missy Fu and Tikkiri Banda’ (2002), ‘Missy Fu in Yala’ (2015) and ‘Press with the Toes’ (2003). Barbara also drew birds and creepers along the staircase of the St. Bridget’s Montessori, designed by Bawa in 1960. Since the early sixties, Barbara has exhibited her drawings in Asia, Europe, Australia and North America as a part of national exhibitions and participated in several solo exhibitions in the UK and at the Barefoot Gallery.
Barbara Sansoni also engaged in sculptural work. Together with renowned Australian artist Donald Friend, she drew upon unbaked tiles in Dankotuwa, of which some remain at her residence at Anderson Road, Colombo. Barbara also sculpted the life size Risen Christ at the Chapel of the Good Shepherd in Bandarawela in 1963 designed by Geoffrey Bawa and Ulrik Plesner. For this beautiful Chapel, Barbara Sansoni who had worked with terracotta tiles before, also carved The14 Stations of the Cross and the Psalm of the Good Shepherd.
Barefoot | The Vision
In the early 1960’s, Barbara was approached by Mother Good Counsel of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd to help design for the weaving center that the convent was in charge of. Barbara with her interest in color, now had to deal and understand dyed thread and cloth. In an interview with Ellen Dissanayake in 1989, Barbara shared, “My interest and curiosity is in colour and colour relationships, but my training is in drawing. One cannot draw on a primitive two-pedal loom, so a bird, a tree, a complicated view of a river - whatever has colours excite me. The very limitation of the loom forced me into a deeper and deeper exploration of colour. There are no motifs or decorative forms to distract me. Thus, crossing an orange warp thread with a yellow causes a new gold to be to born”.
As Chairperson and Chief Designer of Barefoot that began in 1964, known back then as Provincial Handlooms, Barbara’s clear framework of design, inspired by the island’s fauna and flora produced simple cloth at these weaving centers. Barbara’s chief concern for the weavers of Barefoot is to cultivate skillsets and the ability to preserve their independence from being exploited as unskilled labour. She evolved a team of designers including Marie Gnanaraj, Preethi Hapuwatta and Niloufer Victoria, who ensured that each weaver in turn is trained well to create hand-woven cloth of the best and highest quality. Barbara states that the best return to those who have given their time to the making of Barefoot is to see the cottage industries thrive under the selfmanagement of their women.
The Colombo Gallery, Gallery 706 & Barefoot Gallery
As Barbara practiced her own artistic pursuits, she paved ways to share the works of other artists, many of whom were her friends. Ulrik Plesner was commissioned to design and build the Colombo Gallery for Barbara in 1968. Built at her home in Anderson Road, it began to exhibit and sell art, and this gave Colombo, its first private gallery. The Colombo Gallery exhibited artists who are now revered locally and internationally including Ivan Pieris, Harry Pieris and Richard Gabriel of the ’43 Group. Tissa Ranasinghe, Laki Senanayake, Neville Weeraratne, H. A. Karunaratne, Sybil Keyt, Nadine Rutnam, Noeline Fernando were amongst those who exhibited their works at the time. In conversation with Dominic Sansoni, he mentioned that these exhibitions at the Colombo Gallery took place in an intimate setting, where there was much mirth and conversation amongst artists, friends and likeminded guests.
After a hiatus that the Colombo Gallery underwent in the 1980’s due to the country’s civil strife, it returned as Gallery 706 in 1991 at the space now, which is known as Barefoot Gallery, Colombo. Managed by Nazreen Sansoni, Gallery 706 hosted a number of prolific exhibitions of artists, while also functioning as a space that facilitated performance, poetry readings and alternative theatre. The artists that showcase/d include Anoma Wijewardane, Matthias Spiess, Peter Scala, Laki Senanayake, Alex Stewart, English & Scottish artists- Edward Scott & Rachel Sutherland, performances by Upeka Chitrasena and significant book launches to name a few. In fact, Gallery 706 exhibited a comprehensive selection of artist Lionel Wendt’s photographs in 1996. Some of the notable exhibitions include George Claessen, Neville Weeraratne & Sybil Keyt in 1993 and Ivan Pieris in 1996.
Exhibitions and Accolades
Barbara Sansoni’s works have been exhibited, recognized and featured locally and globally. In fact, her international exhibitions go as far back as 1966 when her drawings and woven panels were displayed at the former Ceylon Tea Centre in London. The exhibition showcased hanging fabrics of woven panels in diverse and bright colours while her drawings of Sri Lankan traditional homes and buildings hung on the walls to characterize the visual appeal of Sri Lanka very tastefully.
She has won many accolades in recognition of her contribution and exceptional creative abilities including the prestigious J. D. Rockefeller III Travel Award in 1970, which enabled her to study craft and folk art in fourteen countries and a stint in the West Indies as an ILO (International Labour Organization) craft advisor in the island of St. Lucia from 1974 to 1975. In 1987, Barbara was recognized for her achievements by Zonta Woman of Achievement and a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Geoffrey Bawa Trust for her contribution to the Arts and Architecture of Sri Lanka to name a few.
Barbara Sansoni has contributed cohesively to Sri Lankan art and culture, from her drawings of old buildings across the island that collectively compose the source material for the literary canon of Sri Lankan architecture to characterizing her distinctive interpretation to the Sri Lankan tropical aesthetic, its people and their lifestyle. She has remained true in representing her imaginative dexterity through her drawings, verse and paintings. Barbara Sansoni’s creative ruminations have stirred artists, industrialists and children for advocacy, novelty and wonderment whilst her perception of colour, shape and form culminate a vision of sublime beauty and sheer vitality. Fervent to a fault, Barbara Sansoni’s artistry is a reflection of the rapture embedded in the human spirit and the splendour immersed in authenticity.
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