Asoka Weerasinghe Kings Grove Crescent . Gloucester . Ontario . K1J 6G1 . Canada
27 May 2015
Hon. Mangala Samaraweera, MP
Minister of Foreign Affairs
Government of Sri Lanka
Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Dear Minister Samaraweera;
I read in Tamil Diplomat of May 24, a head line Sri Lanka to Organise a Diaspora Festival: Says Foreign Minister in Berlin. Wow! I said. This Minister is Big in his Vision. Great! Then on second thoughts I said to myself, is this Minister a Big Talker or what? Will all what he said in Berlin go ‘Puff’ up in smoke and disappear into thin air, once he arrives back in Colombo as he is preoccupied polishing the charnokite granite in his back yard by rubbing the noses of the Rajapaksa family.
The news item said, “As a first step towards engaging with the Diaspora, the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera said his government is to organise a Diaspora festival where persons of Sri Lankan origin from around the world in all possible fields could participate and explore means to work closely with Sri Lanka including in reconciliation and development effort.” Oh! Right!!
Come again Minister!
But, there is one expatriate who will not get too excited about your proposal and get on the first plane heading to the town where the Diaspora Festival will take place. And that is me. Why? You may ask.
Read on, Mr. Minister. The unsolicited proposal that I sent to Sri Lanka’s Minister of Cultural Affairs on July 10, 2007, to help bring the National Art Gallery to one of the world’s best.
Do you know what Minister? This Sri Lanka’s Minister of Cultural Affairs, nor his Secretary didn’t have the simple administrative etiquette nor courtesy to acknowledge receipt of this proposal. Not a word. And I said, “To hell with you lot. Even for the love my Motherland, I have no interest to deal with such yahoos,” So there you are, Minister!
I almost know what your response will be. “I am sorry to hear what happened, but then you were dealing with the former no good Rajapaksa administration.”
But, then, I understand that it was an unsolicited proposal. Yet, I expected a common courtesy of a 14 word acknowledgement. “Mr. Weerasinghe, we appreciate your interest and we will look into it with interest.” It’s not much to ask for, isn’t it!
Just a note of caution, Mr. Minister. If ever this Diaspora Festival happens, please be courteous to whoever attends this Festival who will be there with bells and whistles wanting to help their Motherland. Remember, it would have been easy for each one of them to turn their backs on their Motherland, but they didn’t and that’s why they were there.
Please read my unsolicited proposal, which may have been thrown into waste paper basket and I am not prepared to go through such discourteous rubbish by any Department of an incumbent Sri Lankan Government. It is a case of my conscience saying, “Hey No, I won’t Go.”
This was the unsolicited proposal:
Re: The National Art Gallery: A National Disaster
OPEN LETTER to
The Honourable Minister of Cultural Affairs Government of Sri Lanka Sethsiripaya, 8th Floor Battaramulla Sri Lanka
7 July, 2007
Kings Grove Crescent
*Re: The National Art Gallery: A National Disaster*
I am taking the liberty to address this letter to you assuming that the National Art Gallery is under the purview of your Ministry.
On June 19, I had the privilege of visiting the National Art Gallery at Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha, together with my Canadian born daughter to introduce her to Sri Lanka’s best visual art and her prestigious artists.
*/The Lonely Planet Series – Sri Lanka/* recommended visitors to the island to take in the National Art Gallery. She insisted that we go, and so we did.
It said on page 90 : */‘The National Art Gallery, 106 Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha, Col.7; admission free; 9am-5pm, closed poya days is next door to the National History Museum in Viharamahadevi Park. The permanent collection mostly consists of portraits, but share also some temporary exhibitions by Sri Lankan artists.’/*
The beautifully manicured front garden, the sculptured friezes and the guarding lions of the well kept ochre exterior of the National Art Gallery quite rightly prepared us for an amazing excitement that one would expect walking into a truly cultural institution that Sri Lanka is proud of. Unfortunately, in my eyes, it was not to be.
I walked in, looked to my left, then looked to my right, and instantly realized that I had walked into a national disaster. It was embarrassing, truly embarrassing. And I felt that there was no reason why your Ministry should expose Sri Lanka to such an embarrassment, and destroy the worth and dignity of Sri Lanka’s visual artists of the past and present.
Sir, this is what I witnessed. Every piece of art hanging on the wall, which was obviously a national treasure or else they would not be hanging from the walls of Sri Lanka’s National Art Gallery had been abused environmentally and curatorially.
Every oil painting, some which I believe have been hanging for decades, were dusty, paints were cracking off the canvases and flaking. The frames were in disrepair. The mouldings were broken in parts and missing, and the colouring of the frames had lost its sheen. The stretch bars on which the canvases were stretched were rotting in places and the one frame that enclosed the oil painting of the portrait of Rt. Hon.S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike had dropped off the frame exposing the rusting securing nails. God knows how long it had been dropped off the frame without being attended to. This was less than amateurish and crude and should not be an acceptable norm for any national art institution.
The amazing fact is that all the watercolour paintings were window-mounted with ordinary art paper when they should have been matted with one-eighth-inch acid-free conservation mat boards. There have been extensive water damage to some caused by a leaking roof. Some had lost their details damaged by improper lighting and discolouring of the supposed to be white mat paper. The mats had curled and were out of contact with the paintings. To expose these paintings to the public as your national treasure shows a poor sense of value by the government for the visual art of Sri Lanka and the lack of pride in your erstwhile artists of the past who excelled in their brilliance in this part of the world. George Keyts works have been auctioned at Sotheby. And that says it all. Were paintings by L.T.P.Manjusri, S.P. Charles, J.D.A Perera, David Paynter, Ivan Peiris, Justin Deraniyagala, Richard Gabriel and Aubrey Collette have no intrinsic value as Sri Lanka’s premier visual art of the past? If they were hanging, then I did not know as there weren’t a single label telling who the artist was. If they are indeed in storage, I propose that you appoint a panel of three jurists who are specialist art connoisseur-critics and established artists to go through the collection and bring out the best art that Sri Lanka can be proud of as treasures produced by our visual artists of the past and present. Should there be sculptures by sculptors Tissa Ranasinghe and Oliver Weerasinghe who have found fame abroad?
Should the National Art Collection be presented at the Gallery in some chronology – Pre-colonial Period (Temple Art), Colonial Period, Post-Colonial Period (50s, 60s and 70s), and the present (80s and beyond)? This could produce an amazing permanent art exhibition befitting a National Art Collection of Sri Lanka.
I like to believe that your *Mission Statement* of the National Gallery is as close to, *‘The mission of the National Art Gallery is to serve Sri Lanka in a national role by preserving, collecting, exhibiting, and fostering the understanding of works of art, at the highest possible museum and scholarly standards.*
* The National Art Gallery’s principal duty is to keep its collections intact for future generations and to pass these on in optimum condition, by striving to maintaining security, environmental control, building maintenance and conservation.’*
If that is indeed the case, then I suppose you have a solid base to bring back the pride of Sri Lanka’s visual art and give back the dignity to your outstanding artists of the past and present and make the National Art Gallery the repository of a treasured collection. And, perhaps, eliminate the requirement of having the portrait of every past Prime Minister and President of the island as part of the national collection, unless the paintings meet the “highest scholarly standards”.
The appointed panel of art jurists will be able to make choices to conform to the Mission Statement.
Sir, I wish you would take my observations positively and activate a* PROJECT PRIDE: REINVENTING THE IMAGE OF THE NATIONAL ART GALLERY.*
I will be honoured if you would permit me as a concerned expatriate, art collector, and a former owner of an art gallery in Canada, to help you restore the dignity of your visual artists and charter the course to pave way to be proud of your visual artists of yesterday, today and of tomorrow.
I propose the following plan for *PROJECT PRIDE: REINVENTING THE IMAGE OF THE NATIONAL ART GALLERY.*
If invited, my team will consist of –
*1. Asoka Weerasinghe*, art collector, art consultant and dealer, and former owner of ART WORLD ONE, art gallery, studio and framing store at Ogilvie Square 2181 Ogilvie Road, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
*Luis Salazar*, master framer with 15 years experience in Museum quality and conservation framing of original art, and present owner of ART WORLD ONE.
*Yao Wen Kui, *artist and conservator. Former instructor in Art at University of Shanghai, China.
- We will restore, conserve and frame according to museum quality standards all the *juried art collection* that will hang from the walls of the National Art Gallery as the permanent exhibition and *not ones in storage. *This will entail two visits to Colombo.
The frames and liners will be of classical wood mouldings produced in Italy and Brazil and acid-free mat-boards. All paintings except the oils will have acid free backings and will be sealed. All glass will be cut in Colombo.
When we return after the first visit we shall order the frames and acid-feed mat boards, stretch bars, etc., which hopefully will be delivered within the month. Our supplier is in Laval, Quebec.
Once the frames, stretch bars and other framing materials are received we will crate them (maximum of three crates) and hand them over to the Sri Lanka High Commissioner in Ottawa to be forwarded as diplomatic cargo to be received by you. Once they reach you, inform us and we will do some housekeeping at this end so that we can free ourselves to get away for two months,
- To accomplish this task the team will require two visits to Colombo from Ottawa.
The first stay will be for two weeks, when we will measure all the paintings for framing and select mouldings which will be appropriate for each painting, assess the requirements for conservation and cleaning of the paintings, etc.
The second visit will be for two months, when we will conserve the paintings, re-stretch canvases where required, frame and hang the paintings.
- I do not believe for a moment that Sri Lanka is a poor country, according to my cost effective barometer of the number of staff at the Sri Lanka High Commission in Ottawa. A desk audit will tell you that I am right that this Mission could be run effectively with a staff of 11. Any more than this number is punitive financial decadence riding on a poor man’s back, as during one Foreign Minister of late there were 21 staffers in this Mission. Yet, having made that observation I am prepared to share the cost of project with your Ministry.
* 5. My responsibility* : Absorb my consultancy fee ($850 a day) for the project. Pay the lost wages and labour costs of Luis Salazar and Yao Wen Kui, and hiring of two art student helpers from Heywood who would also have a learning experience.
Absorb half the invoiced costs of frames, framing material of the project, splitting right in the middle of the total costs.
Absorb the cost of crating the frames and framing material and cost of transportation to the Sri Lanka High Commission in Ottawa to be forwarded as diplomatic cargo.
* 6. Financial responsibility of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs*:
Absorb costs of six return air tickets Ottawa-Colombo-Ottawa.
Pay for the transport of my team from Colombo airport to Hotel and back to the airport.
Book and be responsible for the cost of board (3 meals per day) and lodging at a hotel close to the National Art Gallery, and transportation from hotel to the National Art Gallery and back during our stay.
Absorb cost of the crated diplomatic cargo and any brokerage and taxes incurred at Customs in Colombo’s sea port, and delivery to the National Art Gallery.
Absorb half the cost of invoices of all the frames and framing materials purchase for the project.
If this financial break down favours you we should be able to sign an MOU negotiated through the Sri Lanka High Commissioner in Ottawa, with a projected guestimate, with one proviso. We should not start this project unless there is a commitment by your Ministry that the National Art Gallery infrastructure is corrected which includes specifically fixing the leaky roof and put in place new banks of conservation lighting, which will be specified by our team.
I shall have this proposal open for your consideration until December 31, 2007.
You may wish to contact me through the Sri Lanka High Commissioner in Ottawa as he knows where I reside.
While thanking you for your consideration, let’s give back the pride and dignity to Sri Lanka’s visual artists of yesterday, today and tomorrow with *PROJECT PRIDE*: *REINVENTING THE NATIONAL ART GALLERY* as they deserve nothing more and nothing less. And the Sri Lankan peoples will be proud of this cultural oasis.
Consultant, Communications and Exhibit Planning and Design; Former, Head of Thematic Research, National Museums of Canada; Former, Head, Exhibits Section, National Museum of Natural Sciences, Ottawa, Canada; Former, Manager of Exhibits, Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ottawa; Former owner of ART WORLD ONE, art gallery, studio and framing shop in Ottawa.
- Sri Lanka High Commissioner in Ottawa
But here’s what was pathetic about my observation at the National Art Gallery. While speaking with the Caretaker/Security person of the Gallery I stroked a large hanging frame with my finger and showed him the layer of dust that covered my finger tip. I asked him, don’t you dust the hanging frames as routine every morning with a duster, preferably a feather duster.? And the answer was, “Apita naney may duster ekak, Mahathaya.” That was pitiful, I thought.
For the love of the paintings by the master artists of Sri Lanka I wanted to go out and spend Rs.500 and bring him a feather duster so that he could dust the frames and paintings each morning.
On second thoughts I said, “Na! Sri Lanka is not that poor, when I have watched convoys of big cars transporting Ministers down Sri Jayawardenapura Mawatha at Rajagiriya to Parliament, the Minister’s chauffer driven car following two Security personnel cars and two other Security cars chasing the Minister’s car, this country is rich and they can afford to spend Rs.500 and buy this caretaker at the National Art Gallery a feather duster to take care of our national treasures.” That’s how bad it was. And I left the National Art Gallery with disgust. And that is what lead to my comment about your vision of having a Diaspora Festival to encourage them to help their Motherland with their expertise. As for my participation, as I told you earlier, I say, “Oh No, I won’t go.”