Exploring themes on climate change, inclusivity and reconciliation, Sri Lanka’s coolest artist is no stranger to painting a statement. Here, she muses about feeling the fear, and doing it anyway.
In the sun-dappled living space that acts as her Colombo studio and gallery, Anoma muses on that all-consuming of topics for a modern Sri Lankan woman—parental permission. “It was quite a struggle with my parents, because they didn’t want me to go to art college. I don’t blame them, because it had a terrible reputation for wild extracurricular activities at the time! They were so convinced that art college was a bad idea, and I was so convinced that it was the only thing I wanted to do! They may have had fears that I would be unemployable, but I’m so grateful that they actually let me do it.”
Looking around me at the layered, nuanced, emotion-laced paintings on the wall, and having researched for hours on her exhibitions all over the world (literally), I know that Anoma’s overwhelming success as a painter relies on more than the fact that she attended Central St. Martins (one of the world’s premiere art schools, which counts Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen as alumni) or that she has great business acumen—it’s the fact that she paints endless stories on a single canvas, each overlapping the other; seemingly telling the same story in a spectrum of brushstrokes, conveying a variety of opinion.
“Painting, for me, is a state of grace. It’s almost an act of meditation,” Anoma beams. It’s also a matter of perspective. “You and I are both looking at the same painting, but we’re seeing two different things. Why? Because you’re looking at it from your experience, your age; your knowledge; the fight that you might have had with your boyfriend last night…all these things come into play. Similarly, I’m looking at it from an alternative experience. It’s like history. One incident can be viewed in so many different ways; and every question has several answers.”
Truth be told, I’d been wanting to meet Anoma for months, as curious about her delectable painting style as I was about her signature shock of white hair and extroverted smile. She seemed to know everything about everything. Sitting with her, she’s certainly all I imagined, but what is even more appealing is that her confidence is neither overwhelming nor jarring. Instead, it’s refreshingly honest, revealing a self-understanding that belies years of looking inward.
“Confidence is like happiness; it changes position and it’s not constant. I was ignorantly and arrogantly confident as a young person, because I thought I knew exactly how the world worked. I didn’t.” There, she chuckles again. “I often see confidence built on a platform of ignorance. But then, of course, life as it so often does, gives you hard knocks and brings you down. There were things that happened in both personal and professional capacities that made me lose confidence completely. I had to recreate my life, pull myself back together and claw myself back out.”
In a sense, what we’re discussing is that, at a fundamental level, it’s easy to be confident if you put up an act. But, that confidence isn’t going to be self-serving or lasting. What is to be envied is the confidence that comes about after putting yourself back together; the personal calm you feel when you’ve tested your mettle and understood your capabilities.
“There’s certainly uncertainty in your twenties,” Anoma comments. “And you do have things that don’t work out—a career may not develop the way you had expected; you realize you’re not as smart as you thought. But I often think it’s your forties that are the most challenging…middle age. Because you know you’re running out of time. It’s also the time you assess if you’ve met the expectations you’d set for yourself early on in life. It’s the mid-point where you’re aware that there’s probably less years ahead than behind, and so you feel a kind of uncomfortable urgency. For me, in my forties, my marriage broke up, and I left England, the country I’d been living in for many years. Going through such hard times, you always think your life is over. It never is. But sometimes, in life, you have to be okay with not having closure. You carry the scars, and you work with them. After that time in my life, my art became very deep. I was utterly terrified at what was going to happen next, but you can either give into the fear, or you can use it.”
Sold out exhibitions and an ardent international following later (she’s shown at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong), it was worth all the hardship, right? “It’s a very solitary process; I need silence and I need to be on my own, but there are times I do get lonely. Do you see? It’s not lonely working alone but sometimes, this vocation demands so much of you, there’s little to give other people…”
A little while later, Anoma returns to the topic. “That being said, I don’t think I intentionally chose this unorthodox path; I just wanted to paint. It was my raison d’être. And honestly, I didn’t know it was going to be this difficult! The road less travelled is not an easy path; it’s much easier to travel the conventional route – marry the boy next door, and do the job that your parents do. And, I don’t think we should mock that. Some people need to play it safe. But, by creating your path, you’re celebrating your own individuality. You get to engage; to communicate; to inspire; to start a dialogue; to think a little outside the box; and make a small change in how we view the world.”
She continues, “I’m aware I’m not the perfect friend, cousin and daughter, and I haven’t been the perfect wife, but I think the question, ‘Are you a happy person?’, is ridiculous. You have happy moments and you have sad moments. With age, you learn to trust certain instincts and follow certain paths. There are pluses and minuses in any life. What’s important is finding out exactly what you need.”
Does she miss it, her old life? “I do certainly miss the normalcy; but this…it gives me the freedom.” There’s a wistfulness about it that’s not sorrowful, but is said as an homage to everything that’s come before.
I always think the answers are what’s important, because answers give clarity and a sense of peace. Anoma laughs big, and her eyes twinkle: “I think the questions are what it’s about. The confidence I had when I was your age was because I thought I had all the answers; what ignorance! Now, I know that I don’t have the answers to anything in life, because there is no one specific answer. There’s only questions and different ways of looking at them. The more we see of the world, the more we realize that everyone has a different answer to the same question.”
At that she sees me out, my head full of questions but with an uncanny sense that through the relentless questioning comes the life we desire. “Your mind knows all the facts, but your heart moves mountains,” she says with a wink. And just like that, something small falls into place.
This article was originally published as ‘The Road Less Travelled’ in the August 2017 Confidence issue of Cosmopolitan Sri Lanka. For more stories of inspiring women, grab a copy of our latest magazine.
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