ECONOMYNEXT – At 9 a.m. on December 11, 2021, at the National Art Gallery of Sri Lanka, a portrait of Ananda Samarakoon, who famously composed the national anthem, was lifted off its frame to reveal a perfectly preserved painting of an enigmatic woman dressed in a red saree. Who she was, why she was painted and why she was eventually covered up, remains a mystery.
The painting, unearthed during a conservation project of 239 art pieces, is attributed to Mudaliyar Amarasekara, a towering and pioneering figure in Sri Lanka’s art scene.
Mystery at the museum
The project was headed by Tharani Gamage, Director at the Department of Cultural Affairs, Hiranthi Fernando, Curator at the National Art Gallery, and an Art Restoration and Exhibition Committee comprised of eminent artists and scholars in the country.
Jennifer Myers, an easel painting conservation expert from the US, was brought in to assist with the project.
“So I’m just looking at this painting and I notice that the fabric of the canvas that was on the front was different from the canvas at the back… I was kind of pushing between front and back and I could feel there was an air space,” she says.
The conservationist noticed something unusual about the dust collected at the back of the painting.
“Because it’s a painting that’s done in landscape orientation, the dust should be at the bottom of the frame, but here the dust was collected on the side and that was really odd, so we slowly started taking off tacks from the corner and when we looked underneath, it looked like layers of paint on top of a canvas. That’s when we realised there could be another painting at the bottom.”
According to committee member Professor Jagath Weerasinghe, a mural painting conservation expert, Myers used archaeological principles to determine the existence of the second painting underneath.
“It’s very impressive, and precisely why we wanted to get an expert to help us with this project,” he says.
The newly discovered painting was found as a result of an initiative taken by the gallery to preserve some of its most exceptional pieces. From charcoal and watercolour to acrylics and oil paintings, the collection at the gallery spans two centuries and a diverse mix of mediums.
Professor Weerasinghe talks to EconomyNext about the difficulty of finding qualified individuals for the project.
“There is a lack of experts on easel painting conservationists in Sri Lanka. We do have academically trained experts on mural conservation, and they are the ones who made up the committee. We have trained in places like India, Pakistan and Japan, and we knew we had the practical capacity to pull it off.
“But working on a national collection is a difficult task, and we wanted someone from an internationally accepted programme, who had had academic training in the subject to work on it, which is how Jennifer was brought in.”
Myers, National Endowment for the Humanities Painting Conservation Fellow at the Chrysler Museum of Art, laughs as she tells us her title. “It’s a bit of a mouthful,” she says.
Myers has a degree in Museology, and a background in Archeology, Painting, Human anatomy and Bone Structure, all of which are useful for conservation work, which she studied at the University of Delaware.
“My professors at the university spoke about this project, and I was intrigued. This was an opportunity for me to learn about artists and a country that I didn’t know much about before, which is a personal interest of mine. I also thought I had the skills that the gallery was specifically looking for, so I could bring that to the project as well.”
The diversity of the collection was something that she did not expect.
“It was an amazing experience. I learnt about so many artists that we don’t get exposed to in America that often. The diversity of the collection was greater than I was expecting which was interesting and fantastic. There were paintings from a range of years, styles and there were more contemporary pieces; European and European inspired pieces, which I was surprised to see. It was a collection of surprises.”
A collaborative effort
The project, taken up by the Central Cultural fund at a cost 1.8 million rupees allocated by the Department of Cultural Affairs, was started in October 2021 and is set to be wrapped up by February 2022. Of the collection numbering 240 (with the new painting), 76 will go up for permanent display in the main gallery, and 88 will be exhibited temporarily in the eastern hall.
Professor Weerasinghe, who is also a contemporary artist and archaeologist, stresses the importance of official backup on cases such as these. “The ministry listened to the word of the professionals. So many artworks have been destroyed because of badly done conservation efforts. That’s precisely why we called in an expert. The decision to value professionalism is the most important thing that happened here. If they didn’t do that, none of this would have happened.”
Mithrananda Dharmasiri, Chief Mural Conservation Officer at Central Cultural Fund of Sri Lanka, touches on the misconceptions around conservation. “A lot of people think, can’t an artist just paint over the damage, isn’t that what conservation is? But conservation is a much more scientific, and a completely different thing.”
Professor Weerasinghe agrees, saying, “That is an important point. A conservator is not a scientist. A conservator is not an artist. A conservator is a conservator.”
Gamage gives us some official perspective on the matter.
“This was a joint effort by the ministry and the Committee and it was pulled off beautifully. This is the first time in Sri Lanka that such a large conservation project is being done, with international collaboration as well, and Jennifer was an invaluable part of the team,” he says.
The need for a change
Though Sri Lanka is home to some of the top mural conservation experts in the world, there is a great need for artists who work in other fields as well. With a humid climate that is especially treacherous to paints and fabrics, a greater effort must be put to protect the national artworks of the country, and give systematic education for those who are interested in the field.
The staff at the gallery are hopeful that the opening, as well as the discovery of the new painting, will revive the underappreciated art scene in the country. Finally set to open to the public in March 2022 after its closure in 2013, the new exhibition and the renovated buildings are a tribute to the great artists and artworks that were once hidden away. (Colombo/Jan12/2022)