In a palette of reds, purples, greens, yellows and oranges, the 17 oil-on-canvas works that form Senaka Senanayake’s latest solo show, Mystical Moments, are saturated with colour and come alive in the detailing of flowers, birds, butterflies and other motifs from the rainforests.

What is interesting is that his vivid use of colour not only characterises the acclaimed Sri Lanka artist’s work but it also dictates his creative process. Colours are the reason Senanayake prefers using photographs, rather than sketches, as references. Why he collects scores of pictures of his subject: rainforests around the world. And why he mixes his colours himself and is frustrated when he cannot recreate a hue. “The flowers and birds and animals that I paint are as they are in nature,” he said over the phone from Sri Lanka. “That’s why I need photographs to get the colours exactly right.”

It was at Yale School of Art in the 1970s that Senanayake formed this obsession – “I learnt about colour from [Professor Emeritus] Richard Lytle...I had been self-taught before [and then] I became very conscious of the colours I used.”

Take the example of the tropical butterflies that Senanayake paints often. In one of the paintings – simply titled Butterflies – in Mystical Moments, which is on display at SaffronArt in Delhi, Senanayake depicts the endangered blue morpho butterfly. In the painting, the butterfly’s scaly wings reflect the light, as they do in nature and gain a kind of luminosity. Their colour sits somewhere in between a cobalt blue and an indigo edged with black. The overall effect is that of a glass painting. And around the butterflies is a profusion of flowers and forest undergrowth.

Butterflies, 2017. Senaka Senanayake.
Butterflies, 2017. Senaka Senanayake.

The documentarian

For at least a decade now, Senanayake has been capturing a growing void in his paintings – the one created as rainforests around the world are depleting. He is part documentarian for future generations, part environmentalist drawing attention to an ecological crisis, and part narrativist who finds his muse in rainforests across Sri Lanka, Sumatra, Singapore, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Colombia and Peru.

His paintings are a nod to species found in rainforests worldwide. Hummingbirds, which are native to the Americas, share space with butterflies and elephants from Asia and Africa. Scarlet macaws, indigenous to the Peruvian Amazon, spread their wings next to helonia flowers found in rainforests from South America to Maluku in Indonesia.

“This [rainforest depletion] is a global issue,” said Senanayake. “It’s what’s happening in Brazil and as well as Sri Lanka.” According to one estimate, 80,000 acres of tropical rainforest and 135 species of plants, animals and insects are lost worldwide daily. In Sri Lanka alone, Senanayake said, some 70% of rainforests have been cut down to make way for coconut trees, and tea and rubber plantations. This may have severe consequences for the island nation which needs rain for its fresh water supply.

Art with a cause

Of course, environmental art – or art that highlights the social and political factors contributing to environmental degradation – isn’t new. The world over, practitioners such as Bavarian artist Nils-Udo and British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy have used their works to talk about the delicate ecological balance in nature. In India, leading artists such as Sheba Chhachhi and Ravi Agarwal have taken up the cudgels for environmental concerns.

Where Senanayake’s environmental art feels different to many other environmental artists is in its profusion of colour. “There are lots of young artists who deal with environmental issues,” said Conor Macklin, director of London’s Grosvenor Gallery, which has been representing Senanayake for more than five years. “But here’s someone who’s at the top of the Sri Lankan art world. He doesn’t get bogged down by the politics. His art is about celebration rather than criticism. There is a colour and a flatness to it.”

The Morning Blooms, 2017. Senaka Senanayake.
The Morning Blooms, 2017. Senaka Senanayake.

The colours are, to Senanayake’s mind, also an integral part of the viewing process. He wants them to arrest the general passerby as well as the art lover. He wants the vivid hues and saturated canvases to be a point of entry which allows the viewer to start asking questions.

“The first question is, ‘Is this real?’” said Senanayake. “My answer is: ‘Yes. This isn’t in my imagination.’ The only artistic licence I have taken is to put so many of these species together in one canvas. The second question is, ‘Where can I see this [in nature]?’ and then ‘Where are the rainforests?’”

As rainforests – or, indeed, green cover of any sort – continue to shrink around the world and species are lost by the hundreds every day, these questions will only gain more immediacy.

Purple prose, 2017. Senaka Senanayake.
Purple prose, 2017. Senaka Senanayake.

Mystical Moments is on at SaffronArt, The Claridges, New Delhi, till 24 January, from 11am to 7pm (Sundays by appointment).