Lionel Wendt
(1900–1944)

Lionel Wendt, installation view, EMST—National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, documenta 14, photo: Mathias Völzke

Lionel Wendt, installation view, EMST—National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, documenta 14, photo: Mathias Völzke

Lionel Wendt (1900–44) carved an influential legacy in Sri Lanka as a photographer, concert pianist, critic, and founding member of the 43 Group, assembling modernist artistic practitioners who steered away from the academic style and Victorian naturalism dominant in the colonial period. Wendt’s family was of Dutch descent and he initially trained as a lawyer in England before returning to Sri Lanka, where he took up the camera and co-founded the Photographic Society of Ceylon.

The selection of works includes photographs of a traditional dancer preparing his costume for the Perahera festival, an animal mask used in ceremonial processions, and the celebrated Kandyan musician Surumba drumming. Wendt’s photography captured the elemental significance of living Ceylonese traditions and Indigenous expression, while also chronicling the island’s ancient heritage and labor routines in the tea and coconut estates as well as its fishing communities. His experiments with photography included the use of montage and solarization. Wendt created intimate portraits of male and female subjects, presenting them as vulnerable and performative bodies, while also candidly addressing sexuality in these images.

Wendt was instrumental for British filmmaker Basil Wright in realizing the award-winning experimental documentary Song of Ceylon (1934), originally commissioned by the Empire Marketing Board. Wendt performed a voice-over that navigates the complex experience of Ceylonese history, conflating archeological records, Robert Knox’s seventeenth-century account An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon, aspects of Buddhist spiritual life, imperial economy, and labor relations in colonial modernity.

—Natasha Ginwala

Posted in Public Exhibition
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