Layla Gonaduwa is an interdisciplinary conceptual artist in Sri Lanka who has exhibited extensively across local and international platforms. She works with enamel, copper, glass, paper, text, and drawings and her art works are intersections of autobiographical and political concepts. In this interview with Women Talk, Layla discusses how her journey as an artist began, her solo and collaborative exhibitions, the concepts and stories behind her art and what it means to have an artistic platform to express herself.
You are an interdisciplinary conceptual artist who has exhibited across local and international, solo and collaborative exhibitions – Dream Weaver, Memoryscape, and Angle of Incidence, to name some of your renowned solo exhibitions. Let’s start from how you got interested in art and becoming an artist?
From the time I remember I was always scribbling or drawing. In school, I did not study art either. I could not fit into the system, which I found to be very rigid. There was friction between me and the teachers who taught me art. Then I gave that up. So, the only art I did was at home. That was my practice.
In Sri Lanka, there was a place that I always used to go, not to study art but just to do art, which was Cora Abraham. At that time, Mrs Abraham herself was there. Their head teacher was Nalini Weerasinghe. She let me do whatever I wanted. They made us get used to material. I think that was the best thing that could happen to any child who is not overwhelmed or scared by material. We had that freedom. If there was any training I got, it was that; training your eye and your mind to look beyond.
I did economics and became a banker. At one point, I knew that this was not what I wanted to do. My general manager at the bank, who was a German, happened to see some of my work, and he asked me what I was doing in the bank instead of pursuing art. So, that also kind of planted a seed.
When I came back to Sri Lanka, I bumped into Nalini. She said why don’t you come back and help us out with the students. So, I started taking classes for Cora Abraham. At the same time, she wanted to retire and asked me to take over the school as the principal. I did not particularly like the administration duties that was required of me. It was not what I wanted.
I acquired a kiln and was wondering what to do with it. So, once again, I started experimenting with glass and metal. And it just grew from there. My early works, like for anybody, are inspired by my surroundings and nature. But slowly the politics of you goes into it. And then it goes somewhere else. So, that is how it started for me.
What drew you towards working with material like glass and copper?
I have been always very curious, bold, and experimental. I like that. It drives me. I wanted to find out for myself what happens when you over fire or under fire something. I got some fabulous effects. Kilning is quite addictive because there is fire involved. With the cutting of the copper itself, there is a lot of physical energy that goes into it. You get addicted to it in the strangest way.
It just evolved from there into being an artistic form and expression, first with a more foreign following, as they accepted and identified with the material and concepts better.
I started with glass and with my natural curiosity and spirit it evolved into other material and drawing. For an example, I used to run a secondhand bookshop and I was interested in paper and writing. Because of that my art suddenly had paper and writings seeping into it. The works and concepts were always growing parallel to my life and where my interests lay.
Your first public solo exhibition Dreamweaver was held in 2012, as an exhibition of fired enamel and paintings. Could you elaborate on how Dreamweaver came together?
I was part of a group of women artists who was part of the Theertha Artists Collective. They invited me to join one of the early biennales. They were doing something on Sri Lanka and the area that I had to represent was Hambantota. I felt that I needed to go to Hambantota to do my work. Afterwards, my work grew with metal and copper.
At that exhibition, Dominic Sansoni had also showcased his photographs. He walks in and stops at my work. He wants me to explain it, because he had never seen enamel in here. He said why don’t you work on something and I said yes.
So, the concept of the Dreamweaver grew from Hambantota. It was about these things that were coming up in Hambantota, which was completely unrelated to the needs of the people.
Dreamweaver grew from that. It was about this seed that you plant in somebody’s mind that anything is possible. But it can go either way. It is how you catch a dream. The whole exhibition was about how something manifests in you when you make yourself believe that it is there through repetitive thinking.
Vessel, ©Layla Gonaduwa 2015
Your solo exhibition Memoryscape takes place in 2013 at the Barefoot Gallery with a collection of 30 wall installations in copper and enamel. What inspired you to create Memoryscape?
Memoryscape was a very emotional and turbulent time for me. Enameling needs light to see it. For instance, this firing I did of Mirissa has glass and the base is copper. And something that I have written about it is:
‘I see myself blending into your sky and waves. Sand and horizon. Shimmering light and dark mysterious depths. In the quiet and serene loll. In the rolling storms and the wild wind. I see myself in all your moods…’
So, it was a memoryscape. I wrote it in verse and I executed it in glass.
My work also went on to paper, canvas, and installations. My politics seeped into those. It was about how I feel as a woman and my struggles as a woman and a mother.
The last enamel inspired piece was called ‘My Water Pot’. At that point, I had two kids. It was a constant struggle of finding time to do art. When you are an artist you live art – it is a 24-hour thing. I equated that to the water pot that I had. It was a huge aluminum pot. In the morning, I will boil one pot and while it was boiling I had to do so many other things like take my kids to school. There were so many things I had to do in-between and again in the evening you are boiling a pot of water because you have to fill all the bottles. If you miss one step, your whole day crumbles.
For my piece, I took my water pot and crushed it. I tried to explain that it is so difficult as a mother to find that time you need to create art. Art is a very selfish thing. It is all about self. And if anybody thinks otherwise they are lying. You are constantly trying to distance yourself from everything else, including your children, to satisfy your art. That was a constant struggle that I had.
As part of the Collective of Contemporary Artists (CoCA) you were involved in the Pettah Interchange Market Place, creating works of art that merge the diverse ethnicities, personalities and lifestyles of the people from Pettah. What was this project about?
The Pettah Interchange was an opportunity that I grabbed with both my hands. I was always interested in stories that came out of Pettah. I had vague memories about going there with my parents and that was that. I was really excited about Pettah and spent one month there and we did our own personal forays into it.
I was very interested in how the people co-existed in this tiny place. They pulled together like a well-oiled machine. It blew my mind. The first day people were coming on to me, they were pushing me, I was being flung from one side to another, trying to walk these streets. By the second day, I knew how to side-step the streets and people begin to recognise me and called out to me ‘Miss’. Then you build a relationship with the people. And then the next thing you know, even if you go to eat there is more food on the table or they are clearing the table for you. Even eating was not about having your own space. It was about sharing with five strangers. So, you are encountering stories and people that you have never encountered.
We invited people from Pettah to come to the exhibition. I don’t think they expected to see that kind of art. At the opening we ensured that we invited the Colombo people and the Pettah people. We wanted an intermingling. They came. They were curious about the art. They have never seen anything like this in their lives. They asked questions about why certain colours were used and why certain texts were used. Because in the works, I wrote half words and they had to guess. They engaged with the works by trying to figure out. They were thrilled. The best part was that people from Pettah were not intimidated by the works or their lack of understanding. They were always challenging me and they were always asking very hard questions, which was very refreshing.
Your installation The Silverfish was exhibited at the Colombo Art Biennale in 2014 on the theme ‘Making history’.
Silverfish came about because I have this connection to books. I like to surround myself with books. For the overall concept for the biennale, making history, I did not want to do something that was unrelated to my life. I had to choose something that had meaning for me. And it was books.
As a Sinhalese and Buddhist, I always had a problem with the Mahawamsa. I felt that it was a very subjective document with a lot of ambiguities. While reading the Mahawamsa, one of the chapters completely blew me away because as a Buddhist it was completely contrary to everything that I believed in. Then I kind of realised that Mahawamsa was actually a documentation of people and times of the royalty. It was just that the monks knew how to write. They were the literate ones. So, the job was given to them. It was a glaring glorification of Theravada against Mahayana Buddhist sects.
I wanted to show people how you can make history. I took six paragraphs. I rearranged the letters. I wrote three different accounts of the same thing using the same letters. It showed people how ambiguous written history is. And of course it is at the hands of the victor.
I called it Silverfish because silverfish is a pest that eats books and they take away matter and meaning from the books. You are left with holes and you have to fill those holes with your own perception.
SilverFish was chosen for the Delhi Literary Festival as well as the Kochi Biennale and traveled extensively in India to other cities as well. From there it traveled to the UK. It had some of the best reviews I have ever received.
There were more collaborations with the Theertha International Artists Collective and their exhibition Borders and Lines…
Theertha has an artists’ residency. They invite artists to work within a framework. It is for one month of residency where you live and breathe this concept and produce something. At that point, I was very impressed with Jagath Weerasinghe’s work and I felt that it was a good opportunity for me. They invited Colombian artist Tony Evanko, artist Samit Das, and myself. We all had work with paper and text. There was a cohesive process, material wise among us three. The concept was borders and lines.
Once again, I am very partial to my past and this whole thread that keeps moving forward. I wanted to use that silverfish concept and take it somewhere else. I had this perfect stack of paper that kind of grew into a cloud, taking over this whole room. The papers were all punched out and had holes. And the holes were once again symbolically silverfish holes.
There were two installations because I also made silverfish out of paper pulp. There was this tiny window and I had about a hundred of them trying to get away from the window. Those two installations I would say are two of my most successful works.
‘A textual work has a definitive structure or framework of thought and concept maybe subjective and singular or otherwise. The landscape of thought stops evolving at the point of declaration or print. It unfolds at the hands of another and is at the mercy of prejudices and trends of our times, in the way it is perceived, digested, and expelled. The original is temporary, reshaped and expanded in content and meaning.’
As a woman and an artist, is there a difference in the female gaze and in the way you construct art?
Sometimes I feel that I can make excuses for my art by simply identifying myself as a woman. I like to think of myself ONLY as an artist.
Have I faced some sort of prejudice or some kind of difficulty in art? Yes.
Once I had worked on a collection. The drawings were well-received but were very controversial. And a week before the exhibition I was told perhaps we have to rail this in because as a woman, this was going to harm me and my children a lot. Then I realised, I didn’t think of it in gender terms. I thought of the work as what I produce as an artist, not as a woman.
This happened decades ago. But I was frustrated. For further seven years, these paintings grew because I started writing over it, erasing and covering them up.
And at one point Jagath Weerasinghe and Bandu Manamperi said that I had to put this work out because that was the fence I had to jump to move on. And I did. I called it A Quieter Place and it was a sell out exhibition. They were paintings of a man and a woman.
A Quieter Place, ©Layla Gonaduwa 2014
‘Accept and let it go. Time makes it happen. Repetition of thoughts give way to new perceptions through contemplation and reflection. Have I concealed or exposed? Conceded and buried? Resurrected and reinvented?
The collection is intensely personal, built layer by layer over 7 years, creating a new space. At the time, the writings were done as diary entries of thoughts, poetry and prose for myself. As the paintings evolved, it seemed natural that I noticed a cohesion between the two creative elements, very different in practice as they were. The process of creating new space in the paintings was done with screening, concealing, layering. Even then what is underneath seeps on to the surface. There is a transparency that add/enrich rather than diminish the quality of the present. I look at this as transformation than anything else. It is an intriguing exercise to sift through the layers, walk back, to walk forward to the surface. The layers have gone through a tumultuous history for its explicitness, content and circumstance. That I as a woman had the audacity.
Yet my view of it has been contained to its emotion, composition and the therapeutic value I have derived from it. It has helped me come into my own.
As for the Digital/Audio Performance, it is a 9-minute projection on the floor of myself, erasing to a soft monologue of a collection of writings by me between 2007 and 2012. This gesture has a frantic, obsessive quality about it. The projection falls on a collage made of pasting together 5 layers of my face, one on top of the other, and erased to a point where the bottom layer/face surfaces. This digital performance brings to attention the opposite of concealing and creating new space, depicted in the paintings.
It is about exposing or rediscovering. Self.’
Layla Gonaduwa – A Quieter Place 2014
Does it empower you to have the ability to express yourself on art, having found that way?
I think I have my platform. I take it in a very responsible way. I know the responsibilities that go with me being an artist. And also, me having created some sort of platform and a name for myself, I take it very very seriously. If you are asking if I can use that for social discourse and change, yes, I like to do that through art. I am proud that I have kind of created this by myself.
I think it is also the personality, because I am not easily swayed by everything. I am not a catering artist. I am not a hip artist. Integrity is the key in art. You have to harness it from the inside on what is important to you and what really matters to you and how you are going to project it, instead of trying to serve different concepts and styles, genres and schools.
My key is that I am constantly working on strengthening my personal concepts. If it fits with the outside world, it is fine. If it does not, it is fine too. I have a very disciplined studio practice. I am always practicing my basics. I think that is very important. I am very proud of the fact that I do that. And that does empower me.
Let’s talk a little about your last exhibition Angle of Incidence.
The last exhibition I had was Angle of Incidence and that was very experimental. That was the biggest experimental thing I ever did. Angle of Incidence was all about how you perceive a woman. For me, a woman, but it could be a man too. I used different material. How you approach that material at different angles and how much you engage with it would release the secrets, would show you what this being or this work is.
It was called Angle of Incidence because there is a physics term that says the angle of incidence is proportionate to the angle of reflection. So, I used the term ‘angle of incidence’. I used all sorts of material and everything was an imprint.
The works are an interrogation of self. There are no paintings or direct representations, but resulting images of a lived reality. Each layer is a symbolic exploration of the historical and personal legacy which affect the visual portrayal. The image encountered and interpreted are dependent on negotiation, direction of approach and willingness and capacity of contemplation. Here the perceptual response and the visual content is further dictated by external elements such as space, direction, the manifestation of each layer and the manipulation of the piece. Some works are movable and at the mercy of the audience. With the others, the audience needs to be the movable.
The two names, Layla and Chamila are being investigated and interpreted through the impact and response of the world, boundaries, dilemmas and the overlapping spaces this has created, stimulating the attempts. The space in its entirety is the architecture of the physical I inhabit.’
The Angle of Incidence
Layla Gonaduwa – Barefoot Gallery 2016
I used the symbolism of the nidikumba plant. I love nidikumba. It is a very fragile ground cover but not until you trample on it. Then there is resistance. I have always been fascinated with those qualities of the plant. I used it symbolically and there were sculptures done where the woman would have nidikumba and its thorns drawn all over. The sculpture was pasted on to the wall. But if you go through the wall, you see this beautiful delicate painting of the nidikumba flowers inside the sculpture. That was the angle of incidence. A lot of people did not see that painting because they only saw the woman with the thorns, wrapped around her body.
Then there were double-sided paintings, which I called the Path of Layla and Chamila because the two names denote different things in my life. They were hanging paintings. If you look at a painting from one side, you see one image but there are about five-six layers of see-through sketches. So, when you look at it from the other side, it is different. It was called a path finder. You had to walk through it among constantly changing scenery though the drawings were static and definitive.
I also used traditional wood cut, which is a very complicated thing. It is all hand done and hand cut. Once again, angle of incidence, the tension on the wood you cannot see on the print. The print is something totally different but I sold it as a set because I wanted people to see the amount of tension, carving, and stabbing that is on the original wood, which you won’t find on the print. So, it is once again how you perceive a person. What is inside most probably will never come out.
What is the latest project that you are doing?
I had worked so hard for the past years, I thought this year I am going to travel. So, I travelled and of course, I was stuck in all the museums. I go in the morning and come out in the evening. It was fun! I had never done wildlife and this year I encountered more than usual.
I am working now on what I would like to call the ‘unexpected collection’ because I was not going to work this year.
The first one was inspired by a turtle because I used to swim a lot and I swam with the turtles too. It is all about capturing the spirit and the existence of the turtle. With technology, even if these majestic creatures are lost to us, I think there would be some way that we could capture or harness them from the water molecules. The essence, the memory, the song and feel of it the water will always carry. So, the works are growing and I am not sure where it will go.
I want it to be subtle. I want it to be in shadow. Create absences. If you really engage with it, there are layer upon layers to sift and dive through. At times, everything seems lost. Then you find their spirit.
That is why I say spirit and existence.
Date of Interview: 20 October 2017
Interviewer and photos of Layla Gonaduwa: Shashini Ruwanthi Gamage