Artist to Know: Senaka Senanayake

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Early Painting by Sri Lankan Contemporary Artist Will Hit Doyle’s Auction Block

Art opportunities started early for Sri Lankan artist Senaka Senanayake. With the encouragement of his parents and teachers, he started drawing while attending elementary school. Senanayake’s parents agreed to an exhibition of his works on a whim. Almost immediately, the young artist shot to fame. He was widely regarded as a child prodigy after exhibiting domestically and in New York. Despite the hype, Senanayake was ready to turn away from art in high school. A chance encounter at an exhibition changed his mind, and Senanayake went on to become one of Sri Lanka’s foremost contemporary painters. 

Doyle’s upcoming Fine Art auction, held on July 15th, 2021, will feature an early painting by Senaka Senanayake. Bidding will start at 2:00 PM EDT. Before exploring the catalog, learn more about Senanayake and his life’s work.

Senaka Senanayake with one of his paintings. Image from Open Magazine.
Senaka Senanayake with one of his paintings. Image from Open Magazine.

Initially, Senaka Senanayake wanted to play cricket professionally. Yet in 1950s Colombo, Senanayake’s parents expected him to pursue a more traditional career in medicine, finance, or law. Art was mainly a hobby that kept Senanayake out of trouble. However, a local journalist and art critic happened to notice the quality of Senanayake’s early paintings and arranged a solo exhibition. Senanayake exhibited at Sri Lanka’s National Art Gallery at the age of eight. His paintings captured the flora and fauna of Sri Lanka, as well as scenes from his everyday life. They were an immediate hit. 

A stranger from the Smithsonian Institute encountered Senanayake as a teenager. At that point, he was successful in art but still committed to pursuing a career in medicine. The stranger encouraged the artist to make use of his talents and study art in college. Senanayake decided to take his advice, eventually earning a degree in art and architecture from Yale University. 

The upcoming Doyle auction will feature an untitled painting that Senanayake completed when he was just seven years old. The piece dates back to 1958 and depicts a line of Buddhist monks carrying umbrellas. A group of musicians gathers before them while several twisted trees float against the red and orange background. Senanayake painted this piece before receiving any formal training or exhibition opportunities. Doyle will offer the untitled work with an estimate of USD 4,000 to $6,000.

Senaka Senanayake, Untitled, 1958. Image from Doyle.
Senaka Senanayake, Untitled, 1958. Image from Doyle.

While Senanayake’s early works granted him fame and scholarships, he learned an appreciation for practice and study while in college. Senanayake experimented with sculpture and learned techniques to make his paintings appear more realistic. Over time, he specialized in painting vibrant landscapes and rainforest scenes. These images took on a more pressing tone when a friend alerted Senanayake to the increasing destruction of the Sri Lankan rainforests. The artist watched as tea plantations replaced lush forests and drove out life. He decided to use his art to combat the growing ecological crisis. 

Senanayake intends for his paintings to spark questions and discussions. They depict real scenes and animal species from Sri Lanka and around the world. While the paintings capture beauty, they also document the biodiversity that is rapidly disappearing from Earth’s natural habitats. 

“There are lots of young artists who deal with environmental issues,” Conor Macklin, the director of London’s Grosvenor Gallery, recently told Scroll. “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.”

The bright colors and composition of Senanayake’s paintings tend to attract collectors. Most of his pieces sell for between $10,000 and $40,000 at auction. International auction house Saffronart has offered several of Senanayake’s paintings in recent years. An untitled rainforest piece from 2007 sold for $22,500 in Saffronart’s Summer Online Auction in 2017. Though Senanayake has a strong presence in the Sri Lankan and Mumbai art markets, his international influence has particularly increased within the last ten years.

Senaka Senanayake, Untitled, 2007. Image from Saffronart.
Senaka Senanayake, Untitled, 2007. Image from Saffronart.

A reverence for beauty stands at the heart of Senanayake’s work. After encountering guru Sathya Sai Baba, the artist chose beauty as a vehicle for activism. “[Sathya Sai Baba] once said that happiness is always sandwiched between two sadnesses— we live for this moment of happiness. This struck me,” Senanayake said in a recent interview with Sonia Patwardhan. “I thought, if I depict the negative parts of environmental destruction, who is going to be interested? But if I show the positive, I will get my message across.” 

Senaka Senanayake’s untitled painting from 1958 will come to auction with Doyle at 2:00 PM EDT on July 15th, 2021. For more information and to register to bid, visit Doyle’s website. 

Looking for more artist profiles? Check out Auction Daily’s article on American painter and dancer Thelma Johnson Streat

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