The first paint brush I held was given to me by my grandfather. We painted snakes on the bark of coconut trees with paint derived from used car engine oil. This was to prevent insects from destroying the tree.
Aleveddi in Jaffna Peninsula heard my first cries on this earth in 1977. As the oldest grandson, I had the privilege of spending many hours on my grandfather’s farmstead. I watched him tend to his plants, whether they be banana, mango, jackfruit, grapes, palmyra, tobacco or paddy fields as he taught me how to incorporate nature and the surrounding landscape into my drawings. During paddy harvesting season, as the afternoon sun graced the courtyard, I helped my grandfather roll the abnormally large mat made of palmyre leaves. My hands have memorized this technique, as it is identical to the manner in which I still roll canvas.
The village is renowned for producing generations of various artists. Our neighbour Kala acca, the daughter of Thavil player Thedchanamoorthy, was able to decorate intricate kolam designs to include peacocks, swans and snakes. Kolam is a traditional art drawn during festivals and special occasions. Rice flour is guided through the thumb and index finger to create the design. This influence is evident in my paintings in subtle ways.
Ammamma was an exceptional cook. From curries to sweets, she would meticulously clench kolukkattai to prepare the perfect shape. I use the same method in my new series Clench. I inherited her love of cooking. This led me to pursue higher studies in hotel management in Cyprus.
Appamma and Appappa, my paternal grandparents, lived in the picturesque town of Murunkan, known for the rich red clay it’s earth produced. Families who made their living making pottery lived along the Kattukarai lagoon. Hundreds of clay pots adorned the large courtyards as they lay upside under the sun. This image remains in my memory as I create with ceramics, especially during workshops in Vernon and Kagoshima.
The combination of value given to art at Mahajana College, it’s art teacher Mr Thiyagarasa and a specific classroom dedicated to art solidified the foundation. The varieties of ways in which nature has arranged colour in fish, butterflies and birds have always found their way onto my drawing paper. Appa bound drawing books for me. They have all been lost during the countless times we were displaced. Personally, this is equivalent to the burning of the Jaffna Library in 1981. I left my green village for the last time without hope, but full of thoughts.
Amma, as the ethnic conflict escalated, was smart enough to send me to live in Colombo with Appa at thirteen. In Colombo, I discovered fashion, the Singhalese language, culture, city and countryside. The freedom to travel on a bus in Colombo was alien to me. Nevertheless, this was a new experience for a boy used to riding a bicycle in the streets of my village. People watching on public transit translated into my art. Fashion and archaeological cities allowed me to expand my art. For the first time, I was exposed to independent street artists, as well as art on an international stage. I discovered Fresco paintings and Batik. Particularly the paintings of mythical female figures in Sigiriya of Apsaras had a significant impact on my art. I experimented further with watercolour.
When Amma arrived in Colombo with my two younger sisters, she upgraded her manual Singer sewing machine to an electric one. As a boy, I pushed the pedals of the Singer sewing machine, it was years later in Colombo I learned to sew. My exhibition in Japan “Tha-Varam” assimilated what Amma taught me on the Singer.
Island of Cyprus and its energy felt like my second motherland. I was eighteen and homesick and subconsciously found solace in art. In Cyprus, I was introduced to Greek, in terms of both the language and culture, it’s archeology and new landscape. I travelled to Israel and Egypt while living in Nicosia. This gave me a deeper understanding of the Mediterranean civilization. Naturally, these new ideas and concepts found their way into my paintings. The Mediterranean sea with its migrant birds, it’s surrounding olive and fig trees will always be my muse. A friend of mine, who both modelled for a group of artists and worked in an olive factory introduced me to Glyn Hughes in Nicosia, a Welshman who was a modern painter and art critic. I had never before seen an artist who could afford to work independently with a model. I showed up at Glyn Hughes’ doorstep. The manner in which he treated his fellow man, whether friend or foe, taught me invaluable lessons. Though, we were from the opposite ends of the world, art was our common denominator. He took the initiative to admit me to a local art school in Kaimakli, in order to develop my understanding of portrait and figurative painting. Hughes was instrumental in a group exhibition I participated in 1997. As a result, I identified as an artist for the first time.
“If you want to continue painting, go to Paris,” these were Hughes' words to me as I struggled to determine where to put down my feet on permanent land. Upon my arrival in France, I had the pleasure of working in Île de Ré, a beautiful coastal town on the Atlantic ocean. Like myself, both migratory and native birds danced on this island. The beaches were adorned with female nudists and birds. I would sit there and do many sketches with models free of charge.
Returning to Paris from Île de Ré, my life was monastic in the sense that I had only lived in islands. The early days as a refugee in Paris were difficult. I felt like a piece of salt being thrown back into the ocean. My claim for refugee status was denied four times. I held a handful of exhibitions during this time. After years of struggle, Annick Sansoni organized my first exhibition in 2004 titled “No Name, No Face.”
From 2008, I attended courses and workshops in the art department at the University of Villetaneuse. May 2009 witnessed the culmination of years of struggle in my homeland with genocide. Simultaneously, I received a letter inviting me for an interview to attempt to obtain asylum as a refugee. This was to be my final endeavour to build a life in France. As my motherland suffered, I too agonized; deciphering through our collective desperation gave birth to painting “faces and masks”. Farmers in my village sow seeds of paddy in red soil, then uproot and replant them in black soil. This procedure ensures their growth. This mimicked my refugee life. Irregardless of the myriad of challenges I faced, every phone conversation with Hughes’ ended with “think about painting.” I held a solo exhibition at a renowned municipality council titled “HanUMAN’s Dancing Brush.” “La Couleur de l’exil” was held in 2010, a decade after struggling to establish a permanent home in France. The spirit of the paintings at this exhibition was a testament to the trials leading up to that point and the joy of a sense of belonging. Emiko Mizushina, a Japanese gallerist in Paris, had a profound impact on my “faces and masks.” In 2011, “Man in the Mask” was held and I continued annually to exhibit at her gallery.
My wife and I welcomed our son Nadiyaan into this world in 2014. His birth forced me to examine my art on a level that was unbeknownst to me. I wanted to teach him his heritage, and the only way I knew was through my art and food. Each year on his birthday, we make a painting together using his feet that I include in the series “Identity.” One of my paintings is titled “Life is Full of Surprises.” I have given great thought to the titles associated with my paintings and exhibitions. Mostly influenced by personal life experience, people’s situation, nature, culture and travels.
For three years, Arvind Appadourai, a poet and I owned and operated “Les Salon Indien” next to Canal Saint-Martin. “Les Salon Indien” was a restaurant and art gallery. I held my first online "live exhibition” titled “Think about Painting” during the pandemic and was pleasantly surprised by its success. The lockdown period has contributed to the evolution of my canvas.
Via Jaffna, Colombo, Nicosia and Paris, this journey, with my signature, has given me the ability to push the boundaries of art.
Thanks to Shivappriya THARMASEELAN