Interview with Vimukthi Sahan at Paradise Road Galleries

This is an interview conducted by Janaka Samarakoon, the curator of, with the young artist Vimukthi Sahan on the occasion of his 2nd solo exhibition, now on at the Paradise Road Galleries, Colombo. The exhibition continues till 3rd of October 2013 and is open to the public from 10am to midnight daily.

To begin our dialogue, tell me how did all this start?

I entered into the University of Visual and Performing Arts in 2005. But my academic carrier was not on Fine Arts per se. At the university, I read for a Special Degree in Design. While studying Design, around 2007, I started to paint. And the more I painted the more I was convinced that I love painting and at the same time I understood that I could do something with my art. Ever since, I never stopped painting.

Around 2007, when you started to work as an artist, what was your training in Visual Arts.

Nothing! I consider myself as self-taught. That said, even if I did not learn art from a school, people around me, the fellow artist from the University, helped me a great deal throughout my carrier. They were more or less established young artist and all of them were full of goodwill and thrived by a real sense of generosity and fraternity; the likes of Pramith Geekiyanage, Sanjaya Seneviratne, J.C. Ratnayake, Nalin Jayasena and Jagath Ravindra who was a lecturer at the University. If it were not for them, I would never have persisted with my practice. They encouraged me right from the beginning.

Your training is thus not academic, but one, which derives from practice, experience and studying art that you admire.

At that time, I spent hours in the libraries studying illustrations of modern and contemporary masters. Among them – and for different reasons – I admire Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), Marc Rothko (1903-1970), Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), Egon Schiele (1890-1918), Van Gogh (1853-1890) etc. There are a lot of painters that I admire. I consult their works pretty often.

Looking at your painting, it’s not hard to guess that you admire the likes of Basquiat and Shiele. The distortion of the human figure is even more pronounced in your compositions than theirs. I even see anger in them. How so?

At the beginning, I drew a lot of figures like any budding artist would do. And then I tried out different things by deforming the figure. And gradually I came to a stage where I almost solely focused on the human face. The fruit of that line of research is the works of this exhibition. I think, on some level, the disfiguration is a formal issue for me. I don’t like paintings in which the motif is so carefully drawn. My rapport with art is quite different from that. It is, I would say, a more of a physical one. I engage myself physically with my paintings. I torment my canvas until I’m satisfied with what I see in front of me. To go to that point, I use various techniques and media without any hierarchy.

But why anger?

That is the political aspect of my work. I simply don’t think that we live in a society, which allows an artist to content himself with well-drawn and proportionate figures. Are not we all figuratively disfigured by the prevailing socio-political conditions? That’s why the figures in my paintings are literally disfigured.

I would assume that there is an important autobiographical narrative in your paintings.

Sure. But I am not fond of self-portraits. I ask people close to me to sit for me.

But are not these figures you produce more about you than themselves?

Yes, that is true. I dislike the way our socio-political system is configured. As an artist I reckon that I suffer from it. That is this situation that my deformed figures denounce. And you may notice in my figures that there is no big difference from one figure to another. They are not individualised. For me, all of them are a bunch of oppressed individuals.

I saw quite a few examples where you use letters and phrases, both in Sinhala and in English. Some of them are hand-written and others are screen-printed. Not all of them are readable though. Some letters are even inverted. Do you use letters as a pure formal element of your compositions or else do you use them for the content they convey?

Well, a little bit of both… Using letters is a part of my procedure. Sometimes I paint and try hard to make the canvas look like what I want it to be, not really knowing how, though! In such situations, I use words to say what I couldn’t really obtain through colours and forms. However, the letters are not the purpose of these compositions. They are like any other means, which I use to express my ideas. While painting, I could incorporate into my canvas whatever I may come across: carton, pieces of plastic, collage… I may use different media in the same painting: pastel, acrylic, oil… Letters are more or less the same. The use of words is sometimes almost mechanical and unconscious but I also do it deliberately and methodically. I happen to make screens on software like Photoshop and print it on my finished canvases.

As an Action Painter, you’re engaging yourself in a full frontal confrontation with your canvas.

Indeed. I want them to be so crazily indicative of my psyche. I’d love them to be crazier [than they now are] and I hope they will be, when I progress with my art… I want to tame my canvas and confront it without any inhibition. For this to be effective, I need to work with large formats. I think I owe this kind of recklessness to the absence of any academic training as far as Visual Arts are concerned.

No titles at all in your paintings.

None. I refrain myself from giving indications of what my paintings stand for. I want the public to read and interpret them freely.