As a young student, Sri Lankan-born artist Muhanned Cader was enthralled by British adventurer John Still’s Jungle Tide, a 1930s-era memoir of his time on what was then the island nation of Ceylon. The intrepid voyager’s book described in vivid detail an untamed Sri Lanka whose ancient manmade cities had been overtaken by jungle growth.
Today, the Colombo- and United Kingdom-based mixed-media artist’s fascination with the sublime, wild natural world of his native land remains powerful. Just as Jungle Tide recounts Still’s discovery of early civilizations hidden beneath wandering roots and vines, Cader’s first solo exhibition in the United States, also entitled “Jungle Tide,” at Talwar Gallery in New York, exposed the verdant, untouched utopias of Sri Lanka through new paintings, drawings and collage.
Cader’s characteristic landscape paintings on rough canvas, with their ragged edges exposed, hung loosely from the gallery walls. Employing his trademark use of negative space—and rejecting the traditional rectangular format of landscape painting—the artist’s images fill only part of the canvas and take different forms in each work. They are tear-shaped in one work, blob-like in another, and sometimes in a wide form that narrows to a point—as though the image is dripping down the canvas. These geomorphic forms echo the imagery of uncultivated terrain that is depicted within each shape: from mountain jungles, lakes and ponds, to rocky caves, outcroppings, dusty woods and stands of trees.
In Kumana II (2014), a landscape painted in an inverted triangular form fills less than half of the canvas.The painted image is wide at the top and narrows down to a point, as though the canvas is being ripped open and to expose a wild jungle and glimmering lagoon that is hiding behind it. Like peering through keyholes into secret gardens, a trio of gouches on paper, Self (2014), draws viewers into hidden paradise. Cader’s effective use of the negative space that surrounds the teardrop-shaped fragment of lush vegetation in Kumana V provides a glimpse into another realm. Meanwhile, the landscape in Kumana I (2014) depicts the ancient ruins of Ceylon of which Still wrote.
One of Cader’s hallmarks, an accordion book, hung nearby. Land and Water (2014) is a small leather-bound book, in which blank pages are adorned with collages of cut photographs. Personal snapshots taken by the artist of Sri Lanka’s abundant flora, which have been cut and assembled into organic silhouettes, snake from one page to the next and along both sides of the book—an origami-like diary of his journey through the country’s wildlife.
Elsewhere, larger versions of such photographic collages unfolded across a wall. In Landscape Unfolded (2014), delicately trimmed, natural shapes appear across a series of paper surfaces. In the collaged photographs that form these shapes, viewers can make out snippets of ferns, blossoms, vines and palm trees. From one piece to the next, it is a kaleidoscopic exploration through Sri Lanka’s abundant terrain. The story is told through multiple viewpoints: the images within the photographs; the organic shapes into which they are collaged; and the asymmetrical formation in which the framed collages are hung on the wall.
In employing nature-inspired forms to present scenes of his native environment—through both photographs and painting—Cader’s works are varied, spontaneous and unpredictable, wherein no two are exactly alike. They remind us that the natural world cannot be contained by human-imposed frameworks or, for that matter, frames. It is a notion that was shared by John Still who, in 1930, presciently wrote, “I do not think man will win final victory over the jungle, but rather that the battle will go on in the future as it has in the past with alternating victories on either side, and with the tide of the jungle ever ready to rise and flow over civilization whenever it grows too proud to keep on learning . . . or when it gets tired of exerting willpower . . . or when it makes mistakes.”