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Kala Pola
Kala Pola | Courtesy of the John Keells Foundation
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How This Street Fair in Sri Lanka Changed the Local Art Scene

Picture of Shamina Mohamed
Updated: 8 February 2018
Sri Lanka’s rich and diverse history has paved the way for an ever-evolving culture of fine arts. However, although art has always been a central element of the country’s cultural landscape, talented artists have struggled to survive, as people have tended to regard their passion as simply a pastime, not a legitimate career. It was George Keyt, one of the foremost contemporary Sri Lankan artists, who recognized these limitations and created ‘Kala Pola’ as a platform for local artists to showcase their work.

Now one of the most significant events in Sri Lanka’s art calendar, Kala Pola is a street-art fair that takes place annually along the whole of Ananda Coomaraswamy Road in Colombo. Kala Pola 2018 will be the 25th anniversary of the event, and will take place on 25th February. The first event, which took place in 1993, featured just over 30 artists. At the time, this was a real breakthrough for the art industry, with the only previous options for artists wanting to showcase their work being expensive private exhibitions with limited access to art buyers.

Kala Pola 2017 | Courtesy of the John Keells Foundation

Today, the event hosts over 300 painters and sculptors from across the country with over 20,000 visitors in attendance. In addition to art displays, there are musical performances and workshops for budding artists. The event is co-organized by The George Keyt Foundation and the John Keells Foundation.

Kala Pola 2017 | Courtesy of the John Keells Foundation
Kala Pola 2017 | Courtesy of the John Keells Foundation

The event has not only provided a platform for artists to showcase their work, but has also created livelihoods and a culture that recognizes art as a serious occupation. In recent years, Kala Pola artists have generated an estimated Rs. 13 million in sales – a feat that would be unimaginable a few decades ago.

Kala Pola 2017 | Courtesy of the John Keells Foundation
Kala Pola 2017 | Courtesy of the John Keells Foundation

In addition to being an advocate for artists, George Keyt was also an inspiration to his peers as one of the few Sri Lankan artists at the time to gain international recognition. Keyt passed away just a few months after the first Kala Pola event and, in an obituary dedicated to the artist, The Independent wrote: “No one has so far attempted to count the number of styles, representational or modernistic, adopted and discarded by the artist George Keyt.” His influences varied from temple paintings to Picasso. It is this creative boldness that set Keyt apart and it is fitting, then, that his legacy lives on in events like Kala Pola, inspiring generations of Sri Lankan artists to come.

Kala Pola 2017 | Courtesy of the John Keells Foundation