Pat Coyle describes the opening of Kingsley Gunatillake’s exhibition in Trinity College Chapel on 3 February. There were anxious moments before Charlie Bird arrived to launch the exhibition, but the night turned out to be a great success.
It was just over an hour until the opening of Kingsley’s exhibition when Geraldine, Roseanne, Jae Hong and myself arrived at the beautiful chapel in the main square of TCD. Five minutes later, unpacking wine glasses and stabbing cocktail sticks into cheese cubes I began to feel a tad nervous! Charlie Bird, who was launching the exhibition, had just rung from RTE to say he was doing a story for the six o’clock news and would be running a bit late. ‘But I won’t let you down’ he reassured.
Be as late as you like I thought, looking up the aisle where Kingsley stood calmly surrounded by about 30 paintings – not one of them mounted, and a gang of Gonzaga boys holding tape and bits of string. The lighting inside looked very dull and subdued except for the light streaming from outside –but that was fading fast! We’ll never be ready I thought as the tummy butterflies started multiplying.
Finally, trying not to look too anxious I sidled up to Fr. Fergus O’Keefe, superior in the house where Theo (Kingsley’s friend and colleague,) lives. “Time’s moving on,” I whispered; “Do you think Kingsley realizes how late it is?” “He’s done loads of these exhibitions”, was the calm reply; “He seems to know what he’s doing”. He could have added “O ye of little faith”, for at five-thirty every painting was hung around the main aisle, with overheard spotlighting newly supplied. By then the public were spilling in to view Kingsley’s art .
They had just about time to have a quick viewing when Charlie Bird arrived. He gave a frank and moving talk on his time in Sri Lanka reporting on the tsunami. He stood in front of one of Kingsley’s boldly coloured oils depicting the displacement of his people by natural and human violence. And he spoke of going to a centre where thousands of photos of the dead were posted on the walls and relatives wandered round in shock trying to identify their loved ones who had died in the wake of the dreadful tidal wave. On the canvas behind him there were rows of semi-abstract human heads and shoulders, looking like photo-shots, gravestones.
“Our pictures on screen are one-day wonders, long forgotten,” he said. “Perhaps it’s up to the artists to immortalize the images and make sure we never forget.”
That for me is what Kingsley has done in this beautiful, challenging exhibition. In his own words: “I divide my canvas; the spaces become filled with the symbolic; portraits in silhouette depicting the displacement of my people. This exhibition is not a nihilistic scream of despair, but an attempt to inspire the vision and courage necessary for them to rebuild their lives”
Up to one hundred and fifty people turned up to the opening, and many more came the next day. Some bought paintings or drawings and one third of the proceeds of the sales go to a house building project in Sri Lanka.
On presenting Charlie Bird with one of his paintings, Kingsley spoke to him about Ireland which he declared ‘to be very grey’! Don’t know about Charlie, but I was a bit miffed! I mean we know it’s grey in winter – but, hey, we do have our forty shades of summer green to boast about. But Kingsley continued, “That’s what I love about here, how beautiful my paintings seem because their colours take on new vibrancy balanced against the grey. In Sri Lanka, it’s too bright and the colours seem washed out and are never seen in their true intensity.”
Never thought I’d be grateful for grey stones and grey days, but it took an artist’s eye, the same artist’s eye which Kingsley wrote “would prefer to paint only what is beautiful, but my soul cannot turn a blind eye to the harsh reality of my people’s plight.”
They were well remembered that first weekend in February and Kingsley’s work ensures they will not be forgotten.