Wall hangings at the retrospective in Colombo, including ‘Peacock Flying in Yala 1968’ on the right side and ‘Nesta’s Garden’ on the left © Sebastian Posingis

The 8ft x 4ft wall hanging is a series of deep blue, sky blue and lime green stripes of handloom cotton that shimmers as if it were silk. The inscription reads, “Peacock Flying in Yala 1968.” Instantly, the bright colours make sense as a homage to the plumage of a peacock against the backdrop of a verdant national park. It is part of a retrospective in Colombo to celebrate the Sri Lankan textile designer Barbara Sansoni, who died in April last year a day after turning 94.

Sansoni saw herself primarily as an artist. The peacock of the wall hanging had been sketched on a trip to the Yala National Park in south-east Sri Lanka and then transformed for the warp and the weft patterns required for handloom weaving. Marie Gnanaraj, who worked with Sansoni for decades from the mid-1970s, says “to transfer her drawings to the weaver was very tricky”. The exuberant jamming together of psychedelic colours on objects from tablecloths to bedspreads, saris to soft toys is a Sansoni trademark.

Near the peacock hangs a work called “Nesta’s Garden 1980”. Here, bands of fuchsia, orange-red and brown are reminiscent of Sri Lankan gardens full of giant heliconia flowers with red and yellow lobster-claw pattern, luminous pink ginger lilies and unruly bougainvillea creepers in myriad colours.

Sansoni started a business in the early 1960s that later became the Barefoot store. It was a predecessor of the infinitely more famous European design houses such as Etro and Paul Smith that also made colour the centrepiece of their offering. With an approach that was artisanal long before the word became ubiquitous, Barefoot now supports 330 people.

Barbara Sansoni
Barbara Sansoni saw herself primarily as an artist © Sebastian Sansoni

The venture began when, having returned to Colombo from studying in England, Sansoni was asked by an Irish nun to help transform a village weaving project started by the sisters to create employment for destitute rural women. Until then, the project had been making utilitarian products — dishcloths and towels — usually adorned with just a stripe. The typical size was 54in x 98in, which Sansoni downplayed as a redda (a piece of cloth) that could be used as a tablecloth or a bedcover. They were usually in near-fluorescent colours.

“The very [geometric] limitation of the loom forced me into a deeper and deeper exploration of colour,” Sansoni is quoted as saying in an article reprinted for the retrospective. “There are no motifs or decorative forms to distract me. Thus, cros­sing an orange warp thread with a yellow causes a new gold to be born.”

The exhibition at the Barefoot Gallery, next to the flagship store in Colombo, is a riotous circus of colour. A ceiling is transformed into an indoor shamiana, a ceremonial tent, by wall hangings, one in peach, pink and mauve bands next to another with stripes in more sober olive green, sky blue, cream and a dull gold. Against the window are draped two giant snakes, one in orange and yellow with bull’s-eye spheres of contrasting colours and the other in lime green and turquoise. Along a wall, seemingly suspended in mid-air, just out of the clutches of these polychromatic pythons, are stuffed toys of elephants.

toy mice
The Barefoot Mice by Barbara Sansoni © Dominic Sansoni

The Sansoni palette was influenced by the melodramatic sunsets of reds, burnt orange and mauve over the deep blues of the Indian Ocean that are daily theatre in this island nation of 22mn. Recalls Gnanaraj of their many trips along the coast: “She would want me to observe how the sea, sky and beach changed colours at different times of the day.”

To bring those colours to the handloom required “abstract tapestries of landscape that in many ways are like a Mondrian, minimalist but with sumptuous colour,” says Suhanya Raffel, director of M+ museum in Hong Kong.

Sansoni and the Sri Lankan batik artist Ena de Silva created work for women at a time when a restrictive socialism exerted a chokehold on the local economy in the 1960s and 1970s. They worked on occasion with the Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa to create spectacular works for large spaces such as the Bentota Beach Hotel.

The work on display at the retrospective includes Sansoni’s architectural drawings, intended to be a historical and artistic record of colonial and historical buildings before some were torn down.

Sansoni’s architectural drawings and watercolours
Sansoni’s architectural drawings and watercolours © Sebastian Posingis

Sansoni was never without her notebook. Journeys to weaving centres outside Colombo that should have been a 45-minute drive would take much longer because she would stop to sketch whatever caught her eye. She drove her trusted Volkswagen, sometimes over rickety bridges, to deliver yarn to women weaving in the villages.

While being rowed up a river, Sansoni spotted shrine doors in a temple she wanted to sketch. Her friend grumbled but gamely paddled “his hands in the water to steady us”. They quickly retreated when Sansoni realised what she had thought were coconut husks floating towards them was a crocodile.

Barefoot the store, says Raffel, was “the entrepreneurial exposition of a creative need” for Sansoni to sketch and paint. Walking from the gallery through to the shop, one passes a handloom and a spinning wheel to rooms filled with things that are practical yet fantastically Fauvist. Delightful cartwheels of imagination are everywhere: a pencil case in multicolours wears a lion’s face, a lion with a lime green body has the oversized face of a chrysanthemum.

The sensory overload borders on the hallucinogenic: I came away with three tablecloths, two completely the wrong size, because the colours were so enchanting. The store is filled with variations of the Barbara Sansoni manifesto: “To match is mediocre, to clash divine,” she declared.

As she wrote in a poem that also could serve as her epitaph: “Paddy fields, violet shadow, goldfish swimming in indigo pools, magenta lotus, vermilion sword tails/ Swim in these colours, brown is for ghouls.”

“Hang a Little Landscape Colour: Barbara Sansoni — A Retrospective”, until May 28; Sansoni’s textiles will be shown until the end of June.

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