In an article published in 1891, French poet, art critic and painter Albert Aurier gave the first definition of symbolism as an aesthetic, describing it as the subjective vision of an artist expressed through a simplified and non-naturalistic style. The symbols observed on artist Anusha Gajaweera’s ‘(In)Complete Flowers’ are those that pertain to a larger context of political and social narratives while portraying the artist’s reflection and comprehension of it. Showcased at Theertha Red Dot Gallery in April, 2021, ‘(In)Complete Flowers’ became a medium through which Anusha makes a proclamation of his conviction to confront the societal injustices of a nation while the essence of its underlying message motions to the existing friction between the nation and its capability of progress and sensible consciousness. In keeping with the general theme of his artworks that which it is social, political and institutional power, which brings forth the power struggle visible in socio-political entity in the country, Anusha addresses these concerns in conversation as he explains the concept and symbolism behind ‘(In)Complete Flowers’.
Anusha Gajaweera, born in Sri Lanka, graduated in Bachelor of Fine Arts (Special), University of Visual & Performing Arts, Colombo in 2008 and completed his Master of Arts, University of Kelaniya in 2012. In 2017 he received his Master Class in Art certificate from the Theertha School of Art of the Theertha International Artists Collective and completed a certificate course in art history from the same institute in 2019. Since 2009 he has been working as a university lecturer in visual art in some of Sri Lanka’s universities and art institutions. He had lectured in Sri Palee Campus, University of Colombo, Vibhavi Academy of Arts, Theertha Top Studio and currently he is a visiting lecturer in University of Visual and Performing Arts, Colombo, Swami Vipulananda Institute of Aesthetic Studies in Eastern University and the University of Moratuwa. Anusha has participated in art exhibitions, summits and residency programs in Sri Lanka, India, Japan, New York, including the Colombo Art Biennale, the Jaipur Art Summit, ‘Setten’ at the Sojo University, Japan and Rah residency, Iran.
Q | Can you share with us the concept of ‘(In)Complete Flowers’ and your creative process?
A | In the recent years, “Nelum Mala” or the lotus flower has become a common symbol of power in the political discourse in the country. So Nelum Pokuna (Lotus Pond), Nelum Kuluna (Lotus Tower), nelum pohottuwa (lotus bud), became widely known architectural structures and symbols with strong associations to contemporary politics and connection to Sri Lanka’s history. This idea of using the lotus flower to signify a fixed or complete idea of power was there in the political and religious contexts in Sri Lanka’s past. The lotus flower is a well-known religious, cultural symbol, and a signifier. The lotus is significantly positioned in the centre of symbolic depictions of power in the country’s history. But, what about other flowers? Have they been recognised as signs of importance? Do they reflect a complete idea or conception? These flowers are unknown, neglected, and pushed to the periphery. For me, these flowers symbolise the powerless; they are unknown. So on the white surface, I painted them in black, depicting them as opposed to the ‘Lotus’. They are not complete like the lotus flower. They are smudged and insignificant. They are incomplete in the present and even in the past.
My artworks have been on the theme of power and politics. My previous works depicted crows, nails, hammers, ties, barbed wires, commodes and masks to bring attention to this theme. In these artwork series I have taken common, insignificant flowers to talk about the same theme bringing focus on contemporary politics in a much stronger way. Assigned as an artist, I was engaged in the restoration work of the temple of the sacred tooth relic in Kandy, after it was blasted during the time of war in 1998. There, I painted many traditional lotus flowers. After the Easter bomb blast in 2019, I focused my work on the idea of the insignificant powerless. I started drawing common flowers as opposed to lotuses. I began working on this series of insignificant, ‘incomplete flowers’ since 2019.
Q | What of the symbolic elements in your work contributes to this narration?
A | A prominent symbol is the use of charcoal. Because, charcoal is something that left after something has been burnt. In other words, I consider charcoal as an agent that symbolises the dark past remained after the armed struggles, rebellions and other major violent attacks in the country. But their impact was always on the ordinary people of the society. The flower can be also said as another symbol in my works that indicate these victimised people. So I drew flowers, which we normally consider beautiful, elegant and soft; but using charcoal, which are entirely opposite to the general idea of the smoothness of the flower. These flowers are smudged. Not respectfully treated. They are just insignificant flowers, not giving any sense of complete power.
The other major symbol is the whiteness in the paper. Because white is a sign of purity. But as I drew flowers in charcoal, it gets dirty. Metaphorically, we see religion, culture politics, nation, and ethnicity as pure social institutions. On the contrary, they are not as pure as they exhibit. So black vs white can be suggested as the conflict between the ideal purity of social institutions and their reality. Erasing flowers is also another symbol I used to connote the neglecting or removal or the incompleteness of the powerless. On the other hand, the erasing process creates negative and positive shapes of flowers while merging their shapes. The flowers are smudged as if they are wilted and trampled.
Q | What was your inspiration behind the concept of ‘(In)Complete Flowers’?
A | Although I started drawing flowers before the Easter attacks in 2019, the dreadful experience of the people on the Sri Lankan soil forced me to develop my concept. After the Easter attack, I felt that the ideal concepts of religion, love, or culture of this society have been burnt. The social institutions that form and sustain the moral and civilised existence of the human being have been destroyed. The victims were innocent living beings. The attack hit my conscience hard. So I drew black flowers.
Q | Can you talk about how the colour palette used in your works emphasise and bring out the concept of the collection?
A | Black and white are the main colours of this drawing series. As we are generally aware, black signifies resistance, negativity and darkness. White connotes purity, ideal, and sublimity. But I rarely used vibrant colours as well. So in brief, society is full of all these positive and negative elements. That’s what I wanted to emphasise through the usage of my colours.
He has curated several art exhibitions, organized many art workshops and been a juror of art competitions. He has also worked as an art director in several television and film productions. Anusha has presented in national and international research conferences. “Violin Reflects the Impact: A Music Iconological Study Through the 19th and 20th Century Buddhist Temple Murals in Sri Lanka Under the British Colonialism” and “Modernist Mural Paintings in Botale Gotabhaya Buddhist Temple”, are two of his publication topics. Through contrasting colours of monochrome and pastel flowers, the fluid juxtaposition of its solid vibrance and dark overarching elements, ‘(In)Complete Flowers’ is a depiction of the artist’s perspective and a reflection of the impending social concerns; it becomes an abstract representation of chaos and innocence, vulnerability and violence.