THE '43 GROUP EDITION - FATHER FIGURE
In Conversation with Cresside Collette
Cresside knew her father, Aubrey Collette of the ’43 Group for the first ten years of her life and thereafter, the last six years of his. Cresside is the eldest child of Aubrey Collette. Her parents were divorced in 1956 and subsequently Aubrey left for England with his new family in 1961. Cresside left Sri Lanka with her mother and sibling in 1962 and grew up in Melbourne. Through a series of coincidences, Cresside met her father again in 1986 and re established a relationship that continued until his death in 1992, when he was 71 years of age.
Q | Please share some of your fondest memories of your father, Aubrey Collette.
A | “I have strong childhood memories of my father, Aubrey Collette, of his studio in the garden, of the work he was doing and of the social whirl that my parents were caught up in at our house. My fondest early memories of him were associated with the Saturday afternoon outings he took me on to the Dehiwala Zoo, the Colombo Museum and the National Art Gallery along with the gallery at the Lionel Wendt Theatre. This visual education was formative for my future life. Although we did not share a close relationship after my childhood, when I met him later on in life, I realised that he was the missing clue to why I was the person I had become. This fortunate rekindling took place when I was 36 years old and he was 66, and I was struck by how like him I was in thought and manner. He was gentle, perceptive, and could see humour in most aspects of life.”
Q | How did your relationship with your father & the ‘43 Group influence your direction as an artist?
A | It wasn’t a conscious influence, but being aware of my father’s painting and the aesthetic sensibility that permeated my environment was certainly absorbed by me. I, too, was driven to constantly draw and make things from an early age and was always encouraged to do so. There were always books on art and paintings hanging on the walls of our houses, and being aware of art and artists was regarded as a necessity in living a well informed life. Ultimately, I chose to express myself in a different medium, tapestry weaving, but drawing is always a part of its conception.
Q | What of the Sapumal Collection of the ‘43 Group speak most to you, and why?
A | My first visit to Sapumal was on my return to Colombo in 2009, and the work that spoke most directly to me was my father’s ’43 Fresco that positions the original members of the group and vividly sums up their hierarchy and personalities within it. It is fluid and free in its construction and is at the core of everything that ensued.
Q | How have the works of the ‘43 Group influenced your identity & understanding of Sri Lanka?
A | There are two significant paintings that have always hung first in my mother’s house and now in mine. When my parents married in 1947, Ivan Peries gave them a painting of figures in a landscape as a wedding present. I am still moved by its beauty, and to me it is the archetypal Sri Lankan view of two friends sitting on the grass watching the sun either rise or set over the coconut palms. The other is a portrait of a little Tamil girl by my father, she lived in the block of flats my parents first lived in and it demonstrates such a strong depth of character. These two works represented Sri Lanka to me in all my years away from the country, they were a like a lynch pin to my origins, scenes from a significant past life that lived on into the future.
Aubrey Collette, Portrait of a Girl, 1949
Q | In your opinion, how do you interpret their portrayal of Sri Lanka, and how do you feel their artistic agenda can help influence the redesigning of a newer Sri Lankan identity during these tumultuous times the nation is facing?
A | The ’43 Group always aimed to represent the country in all its diversity of race, religion and ethnicity. They aimed to enlarge the knowledge and appreciation of the significant works of art from its rich and ancient civilisations, stripping back the colonial conventions of traditional art practice to reveal the nature of its origins in a fresh, contemporary style.
My personal opinion and sadness is that in Sri Lanka political events have engineered deep divisions amongst its inhabitants instead of celebrating the differences. As a young child in the 1950s I remember the way Christmas, varying New Years and Vesak were celebrated by all in equal measure. By driving away the Burghers first, and then the Tamils , Sri Lanka has been divested of so much cultural knowledge and the creative arts have suffered as a result. My hope for Sri Lanka is that people continue to come together, as evidenced in the inclusivity of the peaceful protests, and demand a better future. So much has been lost that needs to be recognised, regained and refreshed.
Cresside Collette is a contemporary artist who grew up in Australia, far removed from the world of her father. Cresside’s works experiment with drawing and Tapestry weaving. In ARTRA Magazine’s April 2019 edition, we explored her symbolic stance through the form of textile and her subject matter of landscape in her 'Postcards from Home' exhibition. Informed by a rich history, artists who work in textiles reveal women’s integral role in its creation, to which Cresside has contributed through her own works and interpretations that are entrenched with a distinct voice.
Ivan Peries, Landscape with Figures, 1947