The ancient Greeks referred to Sri Lanka as Taprobane, as far back as 140 A.D. The name is said to be derived originally from Sanskrit, Tamraparni (Pali Tambapanni). Alongside the later coinage of Serendib, they stand among key names used for Sri Lanka in ancient times.
Taprobane can be perceived as a continuation of Udagedara’s previous exhibit Serendib, which explores deliberations on colonialism and its aftermath. Having engaged with the seascape back then, now the artist leaves the shores behind, to escort the viewer deeper into island terrain, possibly to the central mountain ranges.
Udagedara’s current body of work consists of an ensemble of floral depictions which are tropical and endemic, as well as exotic and foreign. These floral clusters alongside their corresponding leaves form a well knitted tapestry – a myriad of flowers in vibrant acrylic shades of red, orange, yellow, golden, blue, mauve, white and more.
Paper cuttings of botanical or magazine-extracted images of flowers and plants, pieces of household or cheeththa cloth with their printed designs and open mesh fabric come together to create this potpourri of blossoms and branches. The thorns, vines, exposed branches and barks of trees, the scaly patterns on their snaking formations, as well as more paper cuttings of skeletal ensembles off biology manuals mingle to complete the picture. The thorny maze forms a smooth curvaceous path, albeit its spiky protrusions. They start darkly in places, but take on more translucent blues with muddy greens and mauves while the stems thin out into vines as they encircle the flowery mass, suggesting a cordial engagement with the rest of the vegetation. The splatterings of paint and intermingled brushstrokes, complete the visual whole.
While from a distance these paintings give an aesthetically appealing array of blossoms, the images invite one to take a closer look. This detailed view, up-close, although necessarily fragmented, reveals the seafaring ships partly hidden among the vegetation and the men on horse-back – a direct allusion to the earlier series of paintings.
The oceanic vessels, allow for another point of view: the canvases are maps, with the landmass represented by the flowery vegetation that cluster together, and the acrylic background of black, blue, brown, pink, as the ocean, further demarcated by these tiny ship motifs, much like in ancient cartographic representations. As R L Brohier writes, “old maps… are embellished… with illustrations of great beauty, showing landscape, fauna and groups of inhabitants”.
As you enter the wild terrain in the paintings of Taprobane – as a traveler, having crossed the beach – the only way to enter an island as Greg Dening points out, is to note the diversity, plurality, co-existence in the natural world. The environmental thrust of the visual depictions is significant within the context of our ‘resplendent’ past as well as the turbulent present.
As the ships possibly circumnavigate, and the traveler enters within, we see the continual movement, in and out, also circular, and the resultant intermingling. Nature and the environment feature large in these canvases, and add optimism, a hope for the future. Through the many journeys that are undertaken or envisaged, the varied places visited, the need to embrace the environment and ensure its flourished presence is an all-encompassing theme.
As writer and activist Arundhati Roy asserts in her text, The End of Imagination, “There is beauty yet in this brutal, damaged world of ours. Hidden, fierce, immense. Beauty that is uniquely ours and beauty that we have received with grace from others, enhanced, reinvented and made our own. We have to seek it out, nurture it, love it.”
- Gaya Nagahawatta