Between cultures: Josephine Balakrishnan’s art
PETALING JAYA, July 13 — Josephine Balakrishnan’s Summer Exhibition at Shalini Ganendra Fine Art has been celebrated as “wonderfully vibrant and naïve,” a description which is no doubt accurate.
These 10 paintings revel in bright colour and bold shapes, creating an atmosphere that feels much like childhood fancy. You don’t need to be a child, however, for these pieces to fascinate you: “naïve” fits them perfectly in that both the adjective and the paintings are playfully deceptive.
Behind almost every scene lies a narrative. Since she was a child, Balakrishnan’s imagination has been consumed with storytelling. Her mother, an acclaimed Sri Lankan writer, told her stories of their ancestors in Sri Lanka, tales filled with dancing snakes, fortune-tellers, and men who could walk on fire.
Balakrishnan has incorporated these mythologies into her paintings, along with a myriad of influences from around the world — her father is English, and the artist has described herself and her work as “between cultures.” Many of the paintings in the exhibition, such as “Garden,” which depicts one person emerging from the foliage of the garden and another gazing at him, immediately draw us in to guess at the underlying narrative and to create our own.
For other pieces, narrative is a less necessary element, but those paintings are just as captivating. In “Butterfly,” a girl looks up at a floating butterfly and subsequently gazes directly into the viewer’s eyes. Interestingly, the focal point of the painting is not the centre of the composition, but instead we are drawn to look at the girl’s face, full of wonder and expectation, and then to realise that she is not looking at us but at the butterfly in the top corner of the painting. These visual cues cleverly lead us on our own journey through the painting, rather than following an external narrative.
Balakrishnan’s renown as both a colourist and a symbolist is well-deserved and exemplified by the Summer Exhibition. No piece illustrates this more clearly perhaps than “Flowering,” which depicts a seated person staring upwards into the sun, surrounded by flowers.
One flower is still connected to its stalk planted in the earth, its roots also visible. This symbolically echoes the person herself, whose figure contains two smaller human silhouettes: both the roots and the silhouettes reflect earlier stages of development, fundamental components of growth and being.
This is a bright, optimistic painting, portraying the “flowering” of the self — of the artist and of us, as individuals. Yet the watch on the figure’s hand brings a more sombre note to the painting, hinting at the passing of time, a kind of momento mori, reminder of mortality.
Balakrishnan’s work has occasionally been called “tropical pop,” but each painting has deeper forces at work under the layer of stunning colour and striking shapes. She creates her unique blend of colour, symbol, and narrative from a range of Eastern and Western influences, making the Summer Exhibition at SGFA relevant not only to a Malaysian audience, who themselves live in a society of mixed cultures, but also to a global one.
Exhibition on through September 15, 2012:
SHALINI GANENDRA FINE ART @ Gallery Residence
8 Lorong 16/7B, Section 16, PJ Selangor
Tel:+603 7960 4740
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