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Poorna Daundasekara, a Sri Lankan Artist Talks About Cultural Integration Through Art | Interview

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ශ්‍රී LankaNZ is a free distributed Sri Lankan Community Newspaper that aims to reach a Sri Lankan population of over 18,000 all over New Zealand. The demand for entertainment in literacy media itself gave birth to ශ්‍රී LankaNZ

As Thomas Kinkade, an American Painter said, ‘Art transcends cultural boundaries.’ That is what exactly Poorna Daundasekara, a Sri Lankan artist in New Zealand attempts to create through her work which has elements from both Sri Lankan and New Zealand cultures. 

We here at SriLankaNZ caught up with Poorna to know more about her artistic work and her vision in creating the Kiwi-Lankan experience through art. 

Let’s start from the beginning, how did you start your artistic journey? 

My love for art and paintings actually started from the very beginning. My mother was an art teacher. So, my childhood was filled with art, paintings and colours.

I was living in Marassana, Sri Lanka and I studied at Hillwood College, Kandy. Every morning, it took almost an hour to go from Marassana to Kandy. That one hour journey was like a trip for me. We were travelling past beautiful paddy fields, stunning mountains and shiny water streams. So, whenever I got a chance to draw something at school, I always tended to draw what I saw on my way to school. I loved bringing what I saw in nature into my art. Being an art teacher, my mother encouraged me a lot and she taught me various techniques and methods to use colours in my paintings from a very early age. For my higher studies, my dream was to attend Moratuwa University and study their Fashion Design course. Therefore all my Advanced Level subjects were in accordance with that. Fortunately, I got selected to Moratuwa and got a chance to study fashion and textile design for my Bachelor’s. With those studies, I was able to improve my knowledge and further develop my artistic techniques and skills. 

About two years after my graduation I started a small brand in Sri Lanka. I went to a village where they wove ‘Dumbara Patterns’, a traditional craft in Sri Lanka. At that time, that craft was on the verge of extinction as many artists were abandoning it due to difficulties in sourcing traditional inputs and poor market prices. I wanted to help them through my brand. I designed sarees, T-shirts and other products using those Dumbara patterns. Now, I guess lots of designers are working with those artists and have helped them to revive the traditional art.

You got an opportunity to showcase your work at Nelson Art Festival held in 2019 as well as in 2020. How was that experience? 

I came to New Zealand in 2019. As soon as I came, the Sri Lankan Community in Nelson got a chance to do a three-day stall and a performance at the Nelson Art Festival. For the stall, we thought it would be a good idea to get Sri Lankan masks and let the visitors paint some of these wooden masks. We brought some like Garayaka and Kolam masks from Sri Lanka. Kolam masks were given to the visitors of our stall to paint. We had different traditional masks displayed in the stall to give some idea to everyone before they started painting their own. However, fascinatingly everyone had their own interpretations and had painted the masks with colours of their choice. 

Due to the success in the previous year, I got an opportunity to conduct a mask painting workshop at the 2020 Nelson Art Festival. I noticed that, just like the previous time, even though they had the traditional masks displayed for inspiration, everyone painted their interpretations of the masks. I was inspired by their work to try my own interpretations of the masks based on my experiences. 

There were different types of traditional Sri Lankan masks displayed in the stall of the Nelson Arts Festival

Your interpretation of Sri Lankan masks demonstrating the four seasons in New Zealand was commendable. Tell us a little bit more about them. 

When I was doing the masks workshop, I made some sample masks by hand. While doing that I understood that all the details included in these traditional Sri Lankan masks had meaning and purpose. Ancient artists had studied thoroughly and have included nature and beliefs beautifully in these masks. I was fascinated by that. Therefore I felt that my interpretation should also be drawn from nature as well. The idea of demonstrating the four seasons in New Zealand through the masks came to me as a result of that. Since Sri Lanka does not have these seasons, I thought these would be novel. My interpretations of the masks were displayed at the 2021 Nelson Art Exhibition that was held in January. 

In my mask drawings, I used colours to get the feeling of each season. For example blue for the winter season and yellow and brown for Autumn. However, this was a basic creation. I created those with the very first idea that came to my mind. Therefore these creations can be developed further. For example, I included ice crystals for the winter mask, the first thing that reminded me of winter. However, this mask can be developed further maybe by including specific flowers that grow only in winter. 

How was the response that you got from New Zealanders on your artistic creations? 

They really appreciated my efforts. More than appreciation they encouraged me to do more. When I first joined Nelson Art Group, I was not sure how that experience would be. I was the youngest there. But everyone welcomed me warmly and encouraged me to showcase my paintings. They were the ones that encouraged us to do a Sri Lankan stall in the Nelson Art Festival and showcase our culture with the local community. 

At the art exhibition, everyone was so keen to learn and study about our culture. They were really appreciative of my work as well. They took time to read the descriptions of my art and understand the inspiration and cultural aspect behind what I have done. Those were some proud moments for me as I got to see others giving such great value to our culture. 

What are your plans and goals that you thrive to achieve in the future? 

Well you see, we were born and raised in one culture and now we are integrated and living in another. This is the duality that we experience in our lives. So my future focus is to look more into this duality and learn how to demonstrate that with art and paintings. I tried to do that with my recent creations like the Four Season Masks. I want to study further about that, do proper research and maybe do a Masters in that field. I recently moved from Nelson to Christchurch. Another dream of mine is to do Sri Lankan mask wall art on Colombo Street. Since it has the name of a city in Sri Lanka, I feel such art would bring out the beauty of the multicultural society that we live in. 

Also, I would like to add that we have to own our identity and integrate that with the society that we live in. We first need to be confident in who we are and then learn to respect and value those of others in society. When everyone learns to value and respect other cultures I believe it would create a better world. 

Poorna’s reinterpretation of Sri Lankan art with the Manuka Flower that grows in New Zealand

~ Discussion by Sandaruwani Arambepola ~

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