In Conversation with Kemal de Soysa

Cultural heritage upholds our distinctiveness as a community as it attempts to model an inclusive frame for the preservation of conventions, ways of living and tradition. The palpable characteristics of culture are those that are physical and tangible yet still retains its visually inherent nature of influencing subsequent generations and eras of art. In this context, the works of the '43 Group housed at the Sapumal Foundation play a critical role in not only preserving Modernist Art, culture and living, but also sharing it in all its authenticity in an intimate setting that is bygone in decorum. We conversed with Kemal de Soysa, Trustee of the Sapumal Foundation who is professionally proficient in the field of Investment Research in understanding the scope of the cultural and social significance of art, and its role in imparting value to the equity of a nation.

Q | What do you find most riveting about the works of the '43 Group works in the Sapumal Foundation Collection?  

A | What I find most interesting is the breadth of the collection. For instance, the representation of works from the whole group along with their representative works from different periods of each artist's career, which shows the evolution of their individual styles. Particularly, how different artists who had somewhat related styles earlier on evolved in different stylistic directions.

Q | In your perspective, what components of the Sapumal Collection contribute to sharing Sri Lanka's unique heritage?  

A | I think that one of the biggest contributions that the Sapumal Foundation Collection makes to sharing Sri Lanka's heritage comes from the way the works were selected, how they are displayed, and the nature of the space in which they are situated. The fact that the works are housed in the residence of one of the members of the '43 Group, who collected those works using an artist's eye, and often to help his fellow artists, gives the collection a unique curatorial rationale. Arguably, this reflects the lack of a formal rationale and relies more on an artist's subjective preference . The "homely" feel of the building, especially the main sitting room area which is more or less exactly as Harry Peiris arranged it during his lifetime, gives the space a much more intimate atmosphere than a traditional art gallery, and I feel much better communicates a sense of what it was like to live in the era in which the art was created. It transports one back in time to experience the "heritage" in situ rather than simply extracting the artefacts of that heritage. The Sapumal Foundation has a unique ability to do this.

Q | Can you elaborate on the characteristics of cultural assets?  

A | Firstly, let me declare that I am certainly no expert in this area, but can attempt to give a layman's view. I have seen cultural assets defined as “something of value to a particular population, community, or group because of its unique contribution to the cultural, artistic, creative, economic, historic, and/or social expressions and fabric of that community." I think that is quite an appropriate definition. I am reluctant to take this too much in the direction of a financial definition of an asset, although one can draw the analogy that while a financial asset is often defined by its ability to generate a future cashflow, a cultural asset should within its own framework be then defined by its ability to generate future enjoyment, aesthetic pleasure, or the inspiration of further creativity and/or shared social and cultural experience.

Justin Daraniyagala, Head in Brown and Black, Sapumal Foundation Collection

Q | From an economic angle, in your opinion, how can the works of the '43 Group be approached or valued as cultural assets?  

A | I can perhaps try and answer this by reference to cultural assets' contribution to the cultural economy. Perhaps the works of the '43 Group in both public and private collections can be valued using their ability to generate interest among both the local community and visitors to the country to provide a destination on the tourist itinerary; inspire future generations of artists as well as academic study and exhibitions; from a financial perspective to generate an artistic ecosystem including galleries, a vibrant marketplace for their sale, and perhaps even the production of merchandise related to the works of the group.  

Q | Please share a fondest childhood memory of Harry & Sapumal Foundation?

A | One of my earliest memories is actually not of the art, but of the musical Christmas Tree that Harry Peiris used to bring out every year. As a young child, I found it very interesting and it stuck in my mind as it was not only first artificial Christmas tree I had seen, but it had a wind-up musical mechanism in its base that played a tune and made the tree spin slowly.

Kemal de Soysa, a Trustee of the Sapumal Foundation, holds a PhD in History of Astronomy from the University of Cambridge, where he was focused on the material culture of natural philosophy and in particular the didactic uses of globes and planispheres in 17th Century London and the networks of their inventors, designers, and makers. From this field, including two year's working at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science, he returned to Sri Lanka and spent almost ten years in investment research with Amba Research (subsequently Moody's Analytics and now Acuity Knowledge Partners) across several of their international offices, including as Country Head of Sri Lanka. He is now the CEO of International Distillers Ltd, one of Sri Lanka's premier manufacturers and importers of quality wines and spirits, as well as a Director of Lynear Wealth Management (Pvt) Ltd, a bespoke investment manager for global and local institutions and families.  

8th January, 2023 Visual Art | Paintings