Let’s go back 25 years and try to imagine what it was like for an aspiring Sri Lankan artist. Just the thought of taking up art as a career must have been a forbidding one. At that time, the only opportunity to exhibit art to a wide audience was through expensive private exhibitions. The art collectors themselves were limited to a few of the elite. The likelihood of an unknown artist meeting a willing art buyer was extremely slim and the gallery circuit centred around Colombo and Kandy was inadequate to nurture budding talent. So many promising careers were over before they even began. There is a saying in Sinhalese that goes – Kala karaya, Duppatha. It means the artist is a poor fellow. For many local artists of that era, it rang loud and true. Of course there were exceptions and some very great ones at that, but in general the Sri Lankan art scene at the time can best be described as dull and uninspiring.
The George Keyt Foundation was set up in 1988 by some of Keyt’s most ardent admirers and friends led by Cedric and Sita de Silva. Its objective - to celebrate George Keyt’s art and life while stimulating Sri Lankan art and artists to reach higher plains. It was in this spirit that the idea of Kala Pola was born.
In 1993, the George Keyt Foundation presented the first ever Kala Pola on the sidewalk at Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha in Colombo. Thirty five artists came out to show and sell their work at Sri Lanka’s first open air art fair. George Keyt himself was to pass away only a few months later, but his legacy had paved the way for others to emerge. The event was far from the grand traffic stopper it is today. It did however strike a tender chord with both the artists and the public for its informal setting, easy accessibility and festive air. It was a small, tentative first step. But it caused a ripple in the art world that gave the status-quo a bit of a wobble
Kala Pola was inspired by world famous out-door art fairs like the Montmartre in Paris and the Turl Street Art Festival in Oxford. Within just a couple of years, it was being regarded as an important art event and a highlight on the Sri Lankan art calendar.
The John Keells Group began its association as the sponsor and organizer of Kala Pola in 1994 and has done so every year since. Over the years, the Group’s CSR entity, John Keells Foundation has become the driving force behind Kala Pola with the guidance of The George Keyt Foundation. Together they have nurtured Kala Pola into a world class art spectacle while remaining true to their mission of empowering Sri Lankan artists.
Each year the fair has grown to include more artists, attract more visitors and occupy more space on Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha. In recent times the entire street has been blocked off to make way for the art stalls and other fringe events like musical performances and art workshops for children. The last edition drew 317 artists and over 22,000 visitors. The fact that the street that hosts it has now turned into a permanent art market all year round is the greatest testament to the impact Kala Pola has had.
The 25th edition of Kala Pola opens in Colombo on the 25th February 2018 and promises to be the grandest one yet. It needs only to carry on doing what it has been doing so well; creating the space for an artist to be just that. An artist!