Debutantes: Vishmi Helaratne

Artists who leading gallerists have thrown their weight behind with a recent debut exhibition.

Words: Emil McAvoy

Vishmi Helaratne describes themself as a “third culture kid” with a fluid identity, born and raised in Te-Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, New Zealand to Sri Lankan parents. Helaratne grew up keenly aware of their immigrant status, where it was “hard to find people who look like you”.

The artist moved to Sydney in 2014, gaining a Bachelor of Fine Art in Social Practice and Participatory Experiences from the University of New South Wales in 2018. Following a visit to Sri Lanka and on to Aotearoa to visit their mother in 2020, Helaratne found the New Zealand border rapidly closing due to the onset of Covid-19 restrictions and decided to stay.

While Helaratne’s formative experiences as a migrant often involved feelings of isolation, and instances of being ignored and silenced, in response their recent work celebrates and generously shares South East Asian culture’s “explosion of colour and flavour”, in the artist’s words, and its history in the Antipodes: “everything is excessive in my culture – the gold, the garments, the food, the conversation – there is no chill,” they say.

Drawing on the artist’s experience growing up around the busy family kitchen, Helaratne reflects on their mother’s cooking as “rhythmic and haptic” – a kind of dance. The artist’s work is similarly sensual and labour intensive – also drawing on their culinary background – painting with piping bags commonly used in baking and cooking, and working from above a painting as a chef might plate a new dish to be encountered and consumed.

Helaratne mixes pigments with moulding paste to create vibrant, richly textured sculptural paintings which often wrap around the sides of the canvas. A suite of Helaratne’s recent paintings and sculptures were exhibited under hot pink lights at play_station, Wellington in 2021 in the show Kandy Road. The exhibition also saw the artist cooking with their mother for guests, including stuffed Pan rolls, Butu curry and a beetroot dip infused with chilli. Helaratne reflects on how rewarding it was to see members of the local Sri Lankan community attend – from senior citizens to children – foregrounding the role of social customs, hospitality, multiculturalism, sensory language and storytelling in their work. Art as nourishment.

The Ministry of Creation, Helaratne’s first solo exhibition at a commercial gallery, will be staged at Laree Payne Gallery, Hamilton in February 2023. Helaratne will also show with Page Galleries, Wellington in late 2023. The artist’s mother is a civil servant, and always told them to take a stable government job out of concern for their financial precariousness as an artist. For Helaratne, the exhibition will act as a new kind of creative ministry which holds open “space for play, surprise and participation”. The artist continues: “this is me, icing my own cake.”

Featured image: Artist Vishmi Helaratne. Photo: Russell Kleyn.

This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 103, January-March 2023. 

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