One of Sri Lanka's Best-Known Artists for Over 60 Years
Sri Lankan artist Senaka Senanayake had 10 international solo exhibitions before he was a teenager. And yet somehow, as young man he still didn't plan to make art his life's work.
The grandson of Sri Lanka's first post-independence Prime Minister, Senanayake (b. 1951) came from a long line of ambitious, socially-engaged people. Art, in the Senanayake family, was not a viable career option. But that didn't stop Senanayake's parents from letting him explore his interest in it as a child. That might have been their first mistake.
According to Senanayake, he was introduced to art at six years old by a teacher who understood that children needed a big canvas to let their imaginations have free rein. At home, he told his parents about the giant pieces of paper she was letting them paint. So his parents, who wanted to keep their son out of trouble, taped up long rolls of brown paper on his bedroom walls. The next thing they knew, Senanayake, at eight years old, was invited by a family friend, who happened to be a leading art critic, to put on a solo show at the Sri Lanka National Art Gallery in Colombo. An American journalist saw the show, and invitations to exhibit in San Diego and New York followed. London wasn't far behind.
Senanayake at 14, at a show of his work at the Upper Grosvenor Galleries in London, 1965
And yet. After attending a boys' private school, Senanayake went off to college at Yale. He studied art and architecture, with a minor in political science. Because architecture was the closest he could get to what his family considered a legitimate career in the arts, he planned to continue along that path. But after a year of soul-searching after he graduated, he concluded that art was his true calling.
Detail of the halo effect in the untitled painting by Senanayake in The Signature Summer Auction
Over the many decades of his career, Senanayake has moved through several different phases of thematic interest. First, as a young man, he painted that which was most familiar to him - scenes of Sri Lankan life. Then he focused on Buddhism, the religion of his family. It was in this phase that he developed the soft circular halo effect around everything in his paintings, which he considers his signature style. Senanayake says this halo refers to the Buddhist belief that life is circular, with no beginning and no end, until one reaches Nirvana.
In the later part of his career, Senanayake has focused his talent on the natural environment of his homeland. As he is quick to point out, 70% of the Sri Lankan rainforest has been cut down to make way for mines and agriculture. And so Senanayake paints the forests, to remind viewers of their plight and importance. In an interview, Senanayake spoke of the Buddhist guru who showed him that his painting could be an effective method of resistance: " wife introduced me to guru Sathya Sai Baba. He once said that happiness is always sandwiched between two sadnesses — we live for this moment of happiness. This struck me. I thought, if I depict the negative parts of environmental destruction, who is going to be interested? But if I show the positive, I will get my message across." And so now Senanayake paints brilliant canvases filled with vibrant lotus flowers and butterflies and hummingbirds and heliconias and dragonflies. The beauty of Sri Lanka is writ large in these paintings, there for all to see, value, and hopefully preserve.

The Signature Summer Auction
Saturday, June 12th
9:00am (EST)