Yasodhara Pathanjali is an artist based in Sri Lanka. She has held solo exhibitions in London and Galle and has exhibited at the Colomboscope art festival, focusing on the environment and pollution. In this interview with Women Talk, Yasodhara talks about how she realised her dream of becoming an artist at a critical juncture in her life, her work that is inspired by nature and social issues, her imaginative and non-stereotypical children’s literature series, and her work with ethical Sri Lankan fashion labels.
What got you interested in art and how did this journey begin for you, as an artist?
I have been drawing and painting since I could remember. When I was three or four my dad got me my first set of paints. I still remember getting that. At that time, I was just drawing constantly. I remember I was particularly drawing from Jathaka stories.
I was born and raised in England. My life is very much what I call a domino effect life. One thing happened and it affected the other. I never really had decided that I wanted to live here in Sri Lanka or that this was what I wanted to do, but one thing led to another.
I turned thirty and realised that I did not want an office job. This is not the life I wanted. I was going through some difficult times and that is when I became an artist. It was time to steer my life towards a path that I really wanted. I didn’t even look at other options. I wanted to get into art. It allows me to create because that is something that I definitely need to be able to do to survive. I also always wanted to home school my kids. That also means that I have to work from home. So, becoming an artist gives me that freedom that I need.
We are all artists underneath, all of us. There is something that we can express in a creative way. It doesn’t have to be one art form, but whether it is through music, movement, sculpture, or writing, there lives an artist within all of us. What makes you an artist by profession is the fact that you finally stand up and say I am now an artist. It is having that leap of faith in yourself. You decide that I have to create, I have to express, and I want to invite people to see it.
So, here I am. It has been around three years of hard work so far, getting things to where they are now.
What was your first major project as an artist?
My first project, as a full-time artist, was my children’s book Tikiri Baba, which was published by M D Gunasena.
Living in the UK, I was getting all my children’s storybooks from Sri Lanka. I only speak in Sinhala with my daughters. My elder daughter can only read and write in Sinhala, yet. Apart from Sybil Wettasinghe’s books, I found that many of the others were digitally illustrated. They were absolutely ugly! The good and bad child is something I very much disagree with, but to make it even more poisonous, in one series of books, the so-called good child was fair skinned and the bad child was dark skinned. There were some pretty horrendous ideas and concepts in these books. There was very dodgy gender stereotyping in them as well. Boys will go climb trees, they will play cricket, and the girls will by playing with dolls.
It is very important that my books don’t have any gender stereotyping. There is no fair skin-dark skin binary. There are definitely no good and bad children in my stories. I want them to be simple but imaginative stories. That’s all children need – a little bit of story and the rest is up to them.
Could you elaborate on your solo exhibitions that was held in London, UK, and Galle, Sri Lanka?
It was the same exhibition that I held in Colombo and Galle. That exhibition was very much based on my love for Kandyan udarata art. Those are things that will always stay with me, particularly, the binara flower. But I like to play with them and recreate them.
These exhibitions were a big learning curve for me. To put on the first two solo shows is something that is quite challenging. Many artists take part in group shows and then go on to do solo shows. I did it the other way around. But once people started coming and they started liking my work, it meant a lot.
At my exhibitions, I put up painted bricks that I make available for any amount of money. All that money goes to under-privileged children to buy them art material. At my Galle exhibition, one brick went for 50 rupees and another for 10,000. I did the same at the London exhibition. Art is closed-off to a lot of people and it is seen as a superfluous thing. I wanted to extend art to underprivileged children and allow them to express themselves. Art is also a very snobby place. Art is expensive. People can’t afford it. I wanted the bricks to also be something that anyone can afford.
Your art has a flower motif and examines environmental issues, such as pollution and the accumulation of garbage. What drew you to this theme that relates to the environment?
I think this is twofold. Firstly, since my childhood, my art has been very influenced by nature, and, particularly, by folk art. I have a deep fascination with folk art from around the world. That love started in Sri Lanka because I saw old temple paintings. From there on, I got to appreciate folk art from other cultures, particularly, Eastern European folk art. Those old forms of art are very nature based because it is what they saw during that time. It is with what they used to decorate their homes, garments, and furniture. I think that influence and inspiration has always been there.
As I got older, I also found my voice as an artist. It is also part of how old I am and the age that we live in. Being a thirty-something woman in this day and age, you cannot not be involved environmentally, with feminist issues, with equality, and with discrimination. You have to wake up and, as an artist, you are expressing what is going on around you. So, my new show is very much going to be about gender and consumerism, which are not two things that we talk about together. But it is not something that I have written, formulated, or even self-discussed. I have literally just sat with a piece of wood and started carving it. But those are the ideas that are coming out of me at the moment.
I think it is partly driven by my move from UK to Sri Lanka and the differences in society I see. Not in a negative or positive way. Just as a difference. But it is highlighting issues that I wasn’t so vocal about before. So, those things are definitely going to come out in my next show.
I feel like you are this transnational person, because you have had a background in the West, where you were raised in the UK, and you also have a background in the East, here in Sri Lanka. You are kind of in the cusp of the East and the West. Does that shape your art?
That is something that I have really had to face, moving here. As long as I lived in the UK, I didn’t really feel like I’ve had to properly face that. And when I am there my identity feels very Sri Lankan. For somebody who was completely born and raised there, I am ridiculously Sri Lankan. You can see it in the colours that I paint and the shapes that come out when I draw something. The music I listen to, the colour of my clothes, there is something very tropical about me. But then moving here has only highlighted how British I am. While I lived in the UK and I visited Sri Lanka. But I was very traditional when I came here because it was my chance to have that part of my life satisfied. I find it difficult to maintain that once I started living here. So, living here has really forced me to look at who I am, what I want to be, and what battles I am going to fight. Now, I am very British-Sri Lankan. There is very little of me that is in the middle. I am very traditional or very modern. I am very Asian or very Western at the same time.
Mainly if you look at art history, how we are taught about art or asked to see art is through a male gaze. For instance, flowers, which are very close to your expression, we recognise through Van Gogh or Monet. Even things that you find in nature are very much expressed through a male gaze.
So much of art that we take on board as good art is done by men. I think it is hard for girls to look up to someone and say that is something I can also do. Not just in art, but how I have to express myself in anything is harder when we can’t see similar things being done by women.
Also, the production of art has a lot to do with networking. Most commissions that you get is through networking. There are less women in those social circles, particularly this was the case in the older times. Some of these discourses are very polarized. Rather than these binary conversations, I think it will be easier to have more equal conversations. In a way, while I agree that what I see in art is mainly through a male gaze, from an artistic point of view when I paint I don’t think of painting from a female gaze. I paint from mine. So, what I am painting is less to do with gender and it is very much to do with who I am.
When young girls see me working, they see that there is a woman doing this also. That connection is more important to me. I hear a lot of young girls saying to me that they also like to paint but parents think that it is not a successful way to be. It opens up those conversations very much one on one at the moment.
I am also trying to have a lot of those conversations with children. In Sri Lanka, I have noticed that children are taught – this is a leaf and this is how you draw a leaf. So, one of my messages, particularly to young children, had been that there is no such thing. If you want to draw a blue hippo, go draw it. If it has six legs, let is have six legs. That is what you are seeing. That is what you are expressing. The more we express the more we begin to understand each other. It is very hard to understand each other in a world where we are not allowed to express, particularly women, we have so little chance to express ourselves.
Could you elaborate a bit on your work with Colomboscope, Colombo’s multidisciplinary annual art festival?
This was the fifth year of Colomboscope. They have a theme every year. This year, inevitably, it was about sustainability, the environment, and waste. They called it ‘re/evolution’. In Sri Lanka, with the Meethotamulla disaster, it is very much on everyone’s minds. We started to work about a couple of months before the exhibition.
And something that I have been independently passionate about since moving to Sri Lanka is the waste problem. Here, the rubbish is very visible because we can’t get it out of our house. The council doesn’t come on time and even when the council collectors come, they are selective of what they want to take. So, there is a lot of dumping everywhere. There are no public bins. People just litter everywhere. Arriving here, it was a bit of a culture shock for me to see this problem.
Then I started seeing almost everything we brought into the house as potential rubbish, which it is. Then I reduced, as much of the rubbish as we bring into the house as possible. For instance, we don’t buy any bottled items anymore. We don’t buy coconut oil from the supermarket. Instead, we go to the small shop with a glass bottle and buy from their barrel. Single-use plastics is where really my heart struck. The yoghurt cups, the spoons that come with them, milk packets, the straws, plastic bottles – these have no life expectancy. I have been slowly getting all those things out of my life.
This was before Colomboscope. And at Colomboscope, conversations about this issue started happening with artists. It was very clear from day one that I wanted to create something to do with this single-use plastic consumption. It ended up being a stained glass window with a rubbish pile in the middle of it. The rubbish was made of all single-use items like lunch sheets, supermarket career bags, yoghurt cups, yoghurt spoons, and water bottles. We are always looking for these big national solutions to environmental problems. But people can take a fabric bag to the supermarket, carry a water bottle or drink a king coconut if they are thirsty and not buy a bottle of water. That was very much the point of my piece.
Colomboscope was also an international exhibition. A lot of the artists were also borderline activists. I met some amazing people. Particularly, as an artist, I’ve only had solo exhibitions before. It was amazing to be part of something. I’ve never done that before. To meet everyone, to have that support from the community there, and to make those relationships was very exciting.
What are the challenges of being a professional artist?
Becoming an artist is one day standing up and saying I am an artist. But that does come with a huge amount of insecurity and crises of confidence, even with a commission. But commissions are one of my favourite ways of doing things. In a commission, you get to discover a person and see what they might like, what colours they might respond to – it is one of my favourite parts of the process. But when the moment arrives to reveal the piece, I find that very challenging. Because I have done all this work and you want them to love it. When you are an artist there is no separation between your identities and work – when you are an artist this is you.
How do you typically work, as an artist, how does your mind work?
It depends on the project. If it is a commission, at least, I have some constraints. I have a budget constraint. There is an amount that they will be willing to spend on the project. Sometimes, there are time constraints. The taste and colours of the buyer, I have to keep in mind. If it is exhibition work, then I have a free reign and that is very exciting. I am also involved with several fashion projects. All my fashion projects are with established retailers. Then again, I have style and time constraints that I have to work with. I enjoy both sides. I enjoy having that free reign but I also like being given a brief. I have a very organised part of me and that really appeals to that side. Instead of sketching, I tend to talk about the vision I have. And then slowly the ideas will start accumulating and forming themselves into a more cohesive thing.
Could you elaborate a little on your fashion work as well?
My collaboration with Pedals footwear is being launched. My name will officially be tied to them. I am really excited about that because it is a very organic collaboration that happened. I was already a big time fan of theirs. To design for them, I really wanted to understand their process. So, I went to their factory and saw how the shoes were made. And then I started designing. Now we have a couple of outlets agreed. If I see people wearing them in Colombo, I will be really excited.
In March, my sari collection is coming out with Selyn, the Fair Trade guaranteed Handloom company in Sri Lanka. That again has been a real meeting of minds. I think with the ethical work that they are doing, the way they treat the women who work there, it is really good to be part of that project. They are also giving me the freedom to work. Selyn’s new label, which is called Sthree is getting launched in November and my collection for them launches in March. In the next few months I have to get my second book out with Gunasena as well.
Are you happy with the decision you made to become an artist?
I am so happy. There isn’t one part of life that I would change. The kids are with me. They are home schooled. They love living in Sri Lanka. They have adjusted much quicker and easily than I have. I love finally being here. I do miss my friends because they are all the way there in the UK. But now I get to do all my arty things. I can’t ask for any more in life.
Date of Interview: 3 October 2017
Interviewer and photos: Shashini Ruwanthi Gamage