Jaffna’s First Art Gallery

2 Jan

A bright white building has just recently opened in Rakkah Lane, Jaffna. Enter it and the first thing the eye is drawn to, is a cold white sculpture of a flame; a beautiful blend of ice and fire, seemingly depicting controlled passions set alight. And thus is one introduced to Jaffna’s first art gallery, opened this December.

Three showrooms have been allocated to exhibit local artistes’ works on the upper two floors. The first painting one comes across though, is on the staircase landing on the way to the exhibit rooms. It is a well-known figure of auspicious welcome to the average Jaffnaite; Ganesh, the elephant headed god. But in keeping with what the gallery probably intends to exhibit, he’s not the Ganesh of temple murals – the only form of art work established in Jaffna at the moment. He’s a modern artist’s not so rigidly defined Ganesh.

Art in Jaffna has thus far been confined mostly to temple murals. The gallery and its exhibition of paintings is thus a very new concept here. Artists exist but they have mostly had limited exposure and encouragement, and been sidelined to treating their passion as a hobby. Parents here are not likely to be too happy to see their children having a penchant for sketching or painting. It is not an economically viable pursuit.And that is precisely what in part, this new gallery seeks to redress.

“Most of these artists do not earn much, if at all for their art work,” says Father Saveri, Director of the Center for Performing Arts (CPArts), which opened the Art Gallery with the aid of the Catholic Church. “We have before, exhibited in Colombo and shared the income with the artists, but that has still not been enough to compensate their efforts. We hope that through this gallery, we can open up more mainstream appreciation and buying of art work from the local population.”
That however is not all that the art gallery hopes to achieve. It was opened by the Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Ranjith, at which time his eminence had noted that the new gallery would serve as a place of dialogue, where the North and the South could interact.

z_p15-Rev. Fr. N.M. Saveri

Father Saveri

Father Saveri, the founder Director of the CPArts, agrees. “CPArts started out in 1965 as a catholic organization to mobilize youths for social service, but it has since expanded into a multi-religious, multi-ethnic organization.” He says that that expansion of consciousness is necessary for all Sri Lankans if they wish to move forward – that facet of celebrating diversity while remaining true to their roots.

“I gave a speech in Holland recently and afterwards an audience member asked me if I was a Buddhist,” recalls the cassocked Catholic father, who on that day had happened to be wearing casual clothing. “If you truly practice what all religions preach, you will practice humanism, because that is the core message of all faiths.”

One of the displays

One of the displays

His work for Sri Lanka has taken him far and wide, yet his has always been a message of reaching out and peace rather than accusation and anger. In a 15 minute program his troupe presented to the United Nations in 2002, titled ‘The cradle of war,’ the feedback received was telling. “We find it interesting that you told a story without blaming any party.” The mandate of CPArts is to reconcile divided factions however and not to reproach. According to Father Saveri, reconciliation is the biggest need of the hour, as it has been for a long time. He has used Art, the universal language in its various forms such as theater and music to mend broken bridges for a long time now. This is the latest venture in a string of such ventures. A number of artists and academics from the South of Sri Lanka have already visited the North through CPArt’s efforts and have also pledged their support to the new gallery and the upcoming artists of Jaffna.

Inside the gallery, the art is an eclectic mix covering the gamut of mediums used and themes explored, from the traditional to the modern.
A man in the throes of pain screams out on one side of the wall. The burnt and ravaged Jaffna Library (now re-built) casts a hauntingly mesmerizing spell from the other side. In between are portraits of people, colourful and intricate designs of contemporary art, and all sorts of ‘meaningful art’ with the meanings left to the decipherment of the audience.
A perambulation of the gallery walls was certainly interesting if at times a little overwhelming. Quite a bit of the art work unsurprisingly, was about the war or aspects of the war. There were also however portraits, still life, and landscapes – some of which would not be out of place in a Colombo gallery (due to the universal themes) while others are obviously from the northern part of the country. Landscapes in which broken or towering palmyrah trees held sway were not a few. And the portraits of people would give away the fact too; a man with neatly pronged vibhuti streaks on his forehead, a lady in sari, with hair neatly coiled in a bun and pottu on forehead, balancing a fruit platter in her hand… currently common everyday sights by the Jaffna roadside or in temples, but now they have been neatly captured – an ideal mix to showcase to the rest of the world, Jaffna’s contemporary life.

The peninsula is rapidly changing. It is becoming increasingly harder to spot the shelled buildings and broken palmyrahs. Plush buildings of glass and steel are rapidly replacing them. And as Jaffna changes to embrace the world outside, its artists will no doubt continue to reflect its changes. As is typical, they are the ones at the forefront of it. The gallery, newly opened is still a novelty to the average local. Some of them might be surprised by the contemporary art on display. However it’s a beginning. To show the southern art lover as well as the northern one, what Jaffna’s artists have to offer. And it would be a revelation to both factions.
Next time you are in Jaffna, make sure to drop by at Rakkah lane. It’s worth a visit.

Even Shiva seems to be modernizing his eternal cosmic dance :)

Even Shiva seems to be modernizing his eternal cosmic dance 🙂


7 Responses to “Jaffna’s First Art Gallery”

  1. Chavie January 2, 2014 at 1:50 pm #

    Looks beautiful, Thuls! 🙂

    • Tulie January 2, 2014 at 1:52 pm #

      Yep! Not yet up to the standard of the National Art Gallery in Colombo, but we’ll get there.

      It’s pretty good for a beginning, though 🙂

      • Chavie January 3, 2014 at 4:23 am #

        Isn’t the National Art Gallery in a state of disrepair, with the paintings getting waterlogged and so on? I think this could well be one of the best art galleries in the country as is. 🙂

  2. Vasantha Perera January 4, 2014 at 3:38 pm #

    I would like to hold an exhibition. If you are interested, please drop me a message at

    You may visit my site

    • Tulie January 5, 2014 at 11:09 am #

      Thanks Vasantha, loved your work, especially the Jaffna series!

      I sent you a mail with CPArt’s contact details. Hope it works out!

      Invite me for the exhibition if it does 🙂

  3. Ajita Kadirgamar January 20, 2014 at 2:27 pm #

    Great initiative. Can’t wait to visit. Thanks for the story!


  1. Jaffna’s First Art Gallery | What's Next - January 20, 2014

    […] via Jaffna’s First Art Gallery | Thulasi Muttulingam. […]

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