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Chandraguptha Thenuwara

Sri Lankan Contemporary Artist

Born 1960, Galle, Sri Lanka

Lives and works in Colombo, Sri Lanka

Thenuwara is particularly noted for his ongoing series titled 'Barrelism' that incorporates barrels and camouflage in a variety of forms and media. Trained in Sri Lanka and the former Soviet Union, an inciter of the '90s trend, Thenuwara's work helped revitalize Sri Lankan art over the past two decades, through his painting and, more significantly, installation works.



M. Phil, Postgraduate Institute of Archeology, University of Kelaniya, Colombo, Sri Lanka


Masters of Fine Arts with Honours, Moscow State Art Institute, Moscow, Russia


Bachelor of Fine Arts, Institute of Aesthetic Studies, University of Kelaniya, Colombo, Sri Lanka

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UNDERSTANDING Chandraguptha Thenuwara

He explores war related issues through a variety of mediums

Thenuwara is also known for a large number of sculptures, installation works and public monuments, which address the familiar issues of war, loss and the pointlessness of it all. The sculpture entitled 'Samadhi' consists of four figures of women, looking in all four directions with the hope that their loved ones will return back. Each of them holds picture frames near their torsos, with nothing but outlines of faces in them - hinting at the emptiness in their hearts and in their wombs.

In his arresting response, not only to the war, but to the militarization of Sri Lanka, 'Monument to the Innocent Victims of War' (1997), ten barrels, arranging seven of them on top of each other, vertically, producing something like a tower, with those at the top painted sky-blue and three at the bottom painted in yellow signifying the military. The effect of the whole was to fuse the militaristic with the natural (sky), calling attention to the naturalization of military presence in everyday Sri Lanka.

Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Samadhi/The Monument (detail)

Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Monument to the innocent victims of war, 1997, acrylic paint, barrels

Barrelism - Thenuwara's own unique language of expression

Chandraguptha Thenuwara's work focuses on issues regarding the impact of war in Sri Lanka between government forces and Tamil separatists. In response to this, Thenuwara has devised his own stylistic formulation, called 'Barrelism'. For Thenuwara, barrels denote state power and Sinhala Racism.

When asked about his exhibition 'Barrelism', Thenwara explains in an interview that, "These barrels represent a frightening reality because they are a permanent, organic part of life and, what's more, a state of nature! This is horrifying! So, I wanted to construct a "third eye". In bringing those barrels into the gallery, my intention was to severely shock the spectator. It is shocking to see barrels invade our private space, our consciousness."

With his barrels, he aims to incite people into questioning the war and to inspire them to participate in the efforts to stop it. In works such as ‘Thousand Barrels' (1999) seated Buddhas and painted barrels are intermingled in a mandala-like grid. At times the Buddha is in the barrel or simply replaced by it.The work ironically suggests that in Sri Lanka's era of war the country is no longer protected by Buddhas but by barrels instead.

Chandragupta Thenuwara, Thousand Barrels, 1999, acrylic, plywood, painted barrels

Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Khoj Workshop, 1998

From Barrelism to Neo-Barrelism

Neo-Barrelism was a more recent reaction to the current situation in Sri Lanka by Thenuwara. It dealt with aspects of life under siege that have become so commonplace today that many have grown immune to their conditions.

The installation with a white clothed rectangle and two neat rows of white gloves dangling above addressed this issue of identification, status and segregation. The white gloves waving like dismembered hands also served as a morbid reminder of the incidence of sinister deaths and abductions in the country. A single work in the corner of the hall titled 'Incomplete list of Killings' named people killed in the war starting with Alfred Duraiyappah (July 27, 1975) and ending with Herath Abeyweera (July 16, 2007).

Chandraguptha Thenuwara, 2007, mixed media, installation view

Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Incomplete list of killings, 2007

Thenuwara parodies war by showing peace as a facade

The artist's most recent exhibition entitled "Beautification" makes a parody of contemporary Sri Lanka by suggesting that peace is but a façade and that the conflict is in fact on-going. Beautification serves as a reflection of life during and post-war. Through a combination of mosaics, sculpture, drawings and paintings, Thenuwara interprets his ideas with great power. The 'Dhammapada' triptych comprised three large canvases with acrylic paint. Each painting,since the time the original colours were painted on, had been painted over with white paint to give a white-wash effect which inevitably softens the appearance of the original colours. There is juxtaposition between the camouflage colours, with connotations of war and of conflict, and the white, with its connotations of serenity and peace, which attempts, but fails to eradicate these colours.

Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Dhammapada: White Painting (triptych), acrylic on canvas

War is a recurring theme across his works

The sentiment towards war is also reflected in such series as 'Camouflage' (1999) in which the ubiquitous military pattern is composed of severed limbs and dismembered torsos. These forms emerge only after close inspection, otherwise appearing as generic camouflage motifs. For Thenuwara, this process helps to reveal the inner tactics of a war. His use of camouflage plays with patterns in order to make an object disappear in its surroundings - implicitly alluding to disappearances of people and mysterious killings.

In 2005, Thenuwara paired up with old classmate and friend J.Weerasinghe for a project whose objective was to explore the exchange of drawings between four leading artists of the country and a period of reconsideration of the medium of their work.The initiative opened up a realisation of the potential, relevance and power of drawing on a deeper level.

Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Camouflage I, oil on canvas

Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Harbour, 2012, ink on paper