Laki Senanayake is an artist and architect who grew up in Madampe in the Northwestern Province of Sri Lanka, and later developed his artistic capabilities in Colombo and various other areas of the country. Senanayake had an interest in the arts since he was a child, and he fondly refers to the fact that his family accepted him for pursuing art as a career alongside his “wayward behaviour”. He is one of a rare group of artists to have become a household name through years of practice and experience despite the lack of academic qualifications. He studied art in his early years under renowned painter Stanley Abeysinghe, and was later enrolled as an architect at the firm Billimoria and De Silva, Pieris and Panditharatne. He refers to this as the beginning of his career as an architect and artist although he was thrust into it “by circumstance”. After a difficult exit from the firm following his open comments about the low pay of his fellow colleagues, Senanayake started working with architects Valentine Gunasekara, Geoffrey Bawa and UlrikPlesner at Edwards Reids and Begg, the leading architectural firm in Colombo during the 1950s. Since gaining momentum through architecture, he has transformed into one of the most versatile artists and designers in Sri Lanka, having worked prolifically in various arenas including sculpture, visual art, currency design, landscape gardening, building design and poetry.
As an artist, Senanayake is someone who has unconventional notions about art. On his blog he states that “he believes that the current art market is a racket like the financial market, and is based on the capitalist notion of valuing property over human welfare and happiness.” He also “believes the social value of art lies in it being a widespread activity, and not in being a passive and vicarious entertainment as can be seen in the sports and music of our time.” He is known to immerse himself in the environment, away from materialistic and commercial pursuits. His friends Anjalendran and David Robson describe him as follows: “often bare-bodied, or wearing a stringy sleeveless banyan with a sarong of vibrant color, with flute in hand, a satchel over his shoulder, full of smiles, and looking casual, yet about him an air of quiet distinction… this is Laki the artist. He has more than once been taken into custody on suspicions aroused by his unconventional appearance, though his reputation as an artist soon ensures his release.”
Senanayake’s passion project was his retreat “Diyabubula”, located in Dambulla where he is permanently stationed. The site comprises of a house on a pavilion built on a platform of timber, supported by timber piers over a large boulder. 100-year-old railway sleepers were used as the basic material for the building, which is surrounded by a water garden quenched by a nearby fresh water spring. The site is now a growing tourist attraction, allowing visitors to engage with nature in a homely atmosphere facilitated by Senanayake’s clever usage and hand-crafting of local, naturally sourced material. His architectural aesthetic is bohemian, seemingly effortless and close to nature. In terms of visual art, Senanayake has experimented with many distinct mediums including acrylic, oil paints, screen printing, erotic art and water colours. His paintings are exceptionally bright and colourful, designed to please the eye of the beholder. It is evident in each work that the artist has had an enjoyable experience creating it, and that he wants convey a similar sentiment to please his audience. His sculptures have also received widespread attention; a chandelier of silver palm fronds hanging at the center of the debating chamber at the Parliament complex at Sri JayawardenapuraKotte, for example. He also created a large brass peacock for the Bentota Beach Hotel and several brass palm and plaster reliefs for the Neptune Hotel in Bentota. Two of his well-known sculptures that portray owls are stationed at Barefoot Gallery and Cafe in Colombo, garnering much deserved attention from visitors. Under the guidance of Bawa, Senanayake also created sculptures for the Heritance Kandalama Hotel in Dambulla and the Lighthouse Hotel in Galle, with the latter depicting life-sized Sinhalese and Portuguese soldiers engaged in battle at Raddeniya, while the Sinhalese King looks upon them from his throne playing the flute. Overall, Senanayake’s sculptures are fascinating as they are manifestations of nature that simultaneously attempt commentary on the historical and cultural situation of Sri Lanka.
In 2018, Senanayake’s works on landscape gardens were presented in an exhibition titled The Greedy Forest, curated by Max Moya and photographed by Luka Alagiyawanna. This is one of the rare instances in which his works were displayed to the public in the form of an exhibition. The exhibition was again advocating for the notion that man needs to become one with nature and reduce estrangement from the ecology that helps earth and humanity survive.
He currently resides mainly at Diyabubula, and as Smriti Daniel puts it, “he spends his days watching the forest live around him, taking long naps and creating his beautiful paintings and sculptures with seeming ease. If occasionally he sits down to lunch, only to find a trail of sightseers walking through his kitchen, seeming to wonder who he is, he takes it all in his stride. In more than one way, it is an enviable life.”
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