ARTRA Magazine e61

At an early performance of Hamlet in the 1600’s at the Globe Theatre in London, a woeful Ophelia offered flowers to those around her: rosemaries “for remembrance,” and pansies “for thoughts.” A century later, during the Dutch Golden Age, revered still-life painter Rachel Ruysch added the final touches to a painting bristling with botanical symbols. These artistic endeavours, amongst many, illustrate how the history and language of flowers have been intertwined with ideas of beauty, sentiment, and power.

Subverted Flowers | The Context

During the time of the Ottoman Empire, flowers were originally a practice of conversing – a language in and of itself. The custom was brought forward during the Romantic period and since, has been perceived largely for its capacity to portray and project ideas of sublime beauty and love. Symbolism and mythology have pervaded the meaning of flowers throughout history, shaping our responses and provoking our own sentiments towards it. During the Victorian era, flowers were used as symbols and gestures of emotion. Many artists and writers also assigned meaning to the flowers used in paintings.  By depicting flowers in religious scenes, artists showed everlasting beauty of wisdom and generosity of the Creator, and thus, they reminded us of the impermanence of earthly life such as in the painting Flower Still-life with Crucifix and Skull (Munich, Alte Pinakothek) by Jan Davidsz. de Heem (1606−1683). As a rule, image of a clock or a skull was reminiscent of the transience of life. In a still-life with a different set of objects, the flower delivered this meaning by itself.

In the classical sense, the lotus, which has petals that open during sunrise and closes at sunset, symbolize birth and rebirth while the intoxicating jasmine flower in Hindu art signifies love. As a flower, which instinctively follows the sun, sunflowers function as symbols of infatuation or foolish passion while the thistle, a thorny plant with a beautiful flower, represents both evil and protection. Novels and studies such as the ‘Flowers that Kill – Communicative Opacity in Political Spaces’ by Professor Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney document the facilitation of political ideologies through exhibitions of floral imagery providing alternate narratives. Subsequently, the emblematic depiction of flowers such as the rose took on symbolic meanings of a nation and its virtues.

Vincent Van Gogh’s painting, the ‘Sunflowers’ reflect splendour and exquisiteness unlike Georgia O’Keeffe paintings of flowers documenting the ethereal life of a plant. Although this conception was challenged by photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz in 1919, who claimed that O’Keeffe’s paintings were representative of female reproductive organs, records stay true to the artist’s original concept, as she is documented to have said, “When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment, I want to give that world to someone else.” However, Van Gogh’s paintings are construed to have been simplistic in their interpretations. To him, the portrait was of beauty; originally made for Paul Gauguin, Van Gogh’s artist friend. The painting is straightforwardly a representation of beauty that often accompanies the decorative element of floral imagery. 

Subverted Flowers | The Concept

In curating this edition of ARTRA Magazine, the featured works represent flowers utilizing a system of symbols in which different variants of flowers are assigned inimitable meanings. The flowers across the pages of this edition are infinite in their formal and symbolic potential, to reflect the relationship between clarity and chaos, nature and culture, beauty and consumption, history and heritage, while subverting the ornate function of flowers. The definition of ‘subversion’, derives from its purpose to challenge a principle, theory, or conception by presenting it alternately. The forthcoming pages showcase a series of imagery abundant in floral symbols with abstract illustrations that will both challenge their traditionally perceived characteristics and present distinctly, the system in which they have been largely perceived. In our attempt to observe and explore the subversion of flowers, we reflect upon the artists’ intent through our in-depth interviews with them of which you will be able to read on our official website 

Subverted Flowers | Artists & Themes

ARTRA Magazine’s Subverted Flowers presents the works of eight esteemed local and international contemporary artists including Anoli Perera, Anusha Gajaweera, Sanjeewa Kumara, Sujeewa Kumari, Priyantha Udagedara, Gayan Prageeth, Nuwan Nalaka and  Marium Agha with their own interpretation on this age-old motif. Marium Agha’s works featured on pages 42, 43, 46 & 47 are woven tapestries that record depictions of the male gaze, of the perception of love and of the female genitalia. The flowers in the works of Agha echoes romanticism while addressing and challenging the domesticated breeding of lust within women. The featured works of the artist use the symbol of the flower to challenge cultural refinements and restrictions upon the flesh.

Similarly, in keeping with the theme of femininity, Anoli Perera’s ‘The Blue Cupboard (2012)’ on page 41 explore female agency. The artist uses the floral motifs as mediums to reflect the idea of women as memory keepers. While White Chair (2013) featured on page 57 reflect the manner through which the artist posits a form of rebellion in its sewed formation, mirroring the construction of architecture – an occupation dominated by males. In exploring these narratives, across the pages of this magazine are depictions of flowers, subverted and interpreted to represent an ideology of the artist’s work and our perspective of its subversion. Anoli Perera’s floral motifs explore the vitality of femininity on multiple levels as well. Anoli incorporates flowers as she explores the stories that follow the nation’s colonial history and the woman’s role in those cultural contexts. The colonial legacies explored in Anoli’s paintings are derivations of political connotations expressed through the subversion of flowers.

Corresponding to the theme of the political realm, the symbols of flowers evident within the works of artist Anusha Gajaweera’s ‘(In) Complete Flowers’ are prolific. These works are proclamations to confronting societal injustices of a nation while underlying the existing frictions between the social, political and economic realms bringing forth the power struggle through prickly flowers in monochrome.

Poets and visual artists alike, demonstrating the very existence of human emotion evoked through flowers and fields, resonate with both beauty and destruction. The underlying conceptual instrumentality of works featured across the magazine probes one to think about the meaning of a flower. While Anoli Perera’s flowers are indicative of the nation’s colonial legacy and the begetting of its hybridity, Sanjeewa Kumara’s floral imagery is in stark contrast to reflecting fantasy and mysticism. Where Anusha Gajaweera applies a monochromatic palette and distorts flowers to address social injustice, Sujeewa Kumari blends floral imagery with human silhouette and everyday objects representative of objective beauty.

21st December, 2021 Visual Art | Paintings