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'Part of my methodology is travel. This idea of experiencing new smells, tastes and cultures.'

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Feature by Caroline Clements

For Sri Lankan–born, Sydney–based artist Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, travel is a crucial ingredient in his creative methodology. From Bangladesh to Taiwan, India and the western suburbs of Sydney, Ramesh draws his inspiration from frenetic urban streetscapes and revels in the power of art to cross language and cultural borders.

Known for his larger-than-life ceramic sculptures and paintings of mythical figures and ritualistic icons, Ramesh’s work is bold, bright, chaotic and deeply layered. In between traveling Asia extensively, Ramesh finds rich inspiration at home in Sydney, among the city’s diverse ethnic communities. He has produced installations for Dark MOFO in Tasmania, the Art Gallery of NSW, and he has appeared as a finalist in the celebrated Archibald Prize, as both an artist and a subject. We chat to Ramesh about following his creativity to some of the world’s busiest metropolises, immersing himself in the creative community of Sydney and his top Travel Gems to explore in the harborside city. 

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On how travel inspires you

For some artists, part of their methodology is travel. It's experiencing new smells, tastes, cultures and architecture. I'm interested in how different cultures around the world have different kinds of street vernacular. When I was in Dhaka I noticed the high-density population and a base level of noise and bustle. At 5.00 am you are woken up by chanting from the mosque. When I traveled to Taipei, it was like colored lights everywhere in the main city areas. I find the vernacular of urban contexts really inspiring as I often explore the way color is perceived, conceived and iterated in different contexts. If you look at India and Sri Lanka, it's elaborate, bright saris and you're not complete unless the jewelry is on. Yet, it's not perceived as bright color, it's just normality.

On the excitement of cities

I'm more interested in cities. I have no interest in going to some remote place to be at one with nature or any of those clichés. I want to go to museums. I want to get a sense of the nightlife and the street food. I want to go to restaurants. I like noise, bustling and density. I want culture, dance, theater, music. That’s what I want when I go traveling. I also want to be connected, I want to be able to put shit on Instagram. And I like going to International Duty-Free and all that stuff, which sounds a bit ridiculous. The place that I would love to spend more time in would be Seoul in Korea. I also have some shows in India next year, and I haven't been back to Sri Lanka since I was 21. I'm now 32. But if I'm not traveling for work, the key thing that'll draw me to a place is food.

On where you’re from

I was born in Sri Lanka in 1988 and during that time, Sri Lanka was still in civil war, so my parents migrated to Australia in 1989, when I was one, as refugees. We lived in Western Sydney, in Auburn. I lived there my whole childhood and my early adult years. I think the issue of forced migration means people move for different reasons. My Dad is Tamil, so the reason for us was conflict. The Sri Lankan community in Sydney is quite large and complex, and a lot of them live in the western suburbs. The waves of migration from Sri Lanka into Australia were really about displacement.

From exploring the streets of Bangladesh and exhibiting at the Dhaka Art Summit (top four images), to crafting works in situ in Taipei (bottom left) and drawing inspiration from the colorful streetscapes and landscapes in India (bottom right), Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran loves to travel. Images courtesy of Dhaka Art Summit and Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran.

On traveling back to Sri Lanka

I’ve visited Sri Lanka a few times during my childhood and in adulthood. It's all quite ‘foreign’, a word I don’t like using. But it's hard to appreciate the place for its nuance. You're going on a holiday, and you're visiting relatives. My family live in Colombo, which is the capital city. Sri Lanka isn't that big, so when we were there, we did a bit of traveling and visited other counties in East and South Asia. But the thing I've always loved about traveling to that region is the food.

On Sri Lankan food

Sri Lankan food is really interesting. It has connections to Indian and Malaysian food, but it's also incredibly specific. You can find food in Sri Lanka that you won't be able to find in other parts of the world. What's also really interesting about it is that there's a very specific kind of spice. It's almost halfway between a Thai bird's eye chili, which gives your mouth a peppery spice, and one that gets your throat. They're very into big, punchy flavors. It's often incredibly spicy and salty, with hints of sour.

'I often explore the way color is perceived, conceived and iterated in different contexts. If you look at India and Sri Lanka, it's elaborate, bright saris and you're not complete unless the jewelry is on. Yet, it's not perceived as bright color, it's just normality.'

On finding your love for art

People often ask me when I first started making art, yet children always make art. It's something you're encouraged to do with your time, and kids love the textures. But for me, the question is, when did I realize I loved making art? Which was probably very young. I’ve always loved drawing. I make big sculptural works and do other things, but I have diaries full of scribbles and process imagery. I have memories of getting the A4 copy paper and pens out and just drawing for the whole day during the school holidays. I've always had a bit of a messy aesthetic.

The phenomenal scale of Ramesh’s work means he is often sculpting and finessing onsite, as seen here, with his electric 'Earth Deities' installation commissioned by DarkLab for Dark Mofo 2021 in Hobart and ‘Mud Men’ for the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. Top four images courtesy DarkLab, middle three images courtesy of National Gallery of Australia, final images courtesy Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran.

On forging your own path

My parents aren't from creative backgrounds, so I was never really taken to galleries. I was left to my own devices to forge my art journey. I've always loved making art, but the shift happened in high school, where I realized I loved learning about art. That’s when my work turned up a notch. I remember learning about artworks that were more political or progressive, I remember learning about feminist and queer art, and art about race politics. That's when I started to feel a bit more connected to the philosophical aspect of art-making as well. I then studied Fine Arts at university.

On art’s ability to cross borders

Some artists and cultural practitioners make work that is connected to certain traditions. What's really interesting for people who connect their artistic practices with more historical practices, is that we can actually look at tradition as something that's amorphous and fluid. There could be a perspective that the works I'm making are just an extension of previous South Asian vernacular and sculptural traditions. But what I'm really clear about is that the works that I make aren't devotional or cultural, and there's no representation, say, of specific gods. I'm interested in more global paradigms around art, and art coming from different regions. That's the kind of art that I respond to: art that acknowledges that creativity is iterated differently in various parts of the world.

'I'm interested in more global paradigms around art, and art coming from different regions, and the way in which art functions very uniquely according to different social and cultural frameworks.'

On your exposure to religious art

When migrants move to different countries, they often try to find their communities. My mother, being a Dutch Burgher, was raised with some Christianity in her household. I was going to church until the age of about nine and, this is a bit controversial, I always remember hating it. It wasn't on a philosophical level, I just didn't like going to the venue. I didn't like the sitting, the standing, the smell, the routine and the structure. I also remember being scared of some of the imagery on the walls. Then, we'd go to Tamil cultural festivals, which are generally Hindu. They'd be at the temple in Westmead in Sydney, there’d be food, music, color, and kids running around. And there were sculptures which I found really imaginative and welcoming.

The Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney holds upwards of 60 works by Ramesh. In late 2020, 77 of Ramesh’s pieces sat in brilliant contrast to the sandstone halls of the more than century-old gallery for his exhibition ‘Avatar Towers’. Prior to the exhibition, and in partnership with the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Ramesh also filmed a ‘How to make a monster’ sculpting class for kids. Top photo by Eggzy Pallet, remaining images courtesy of Art Gallery NSW.

On expanding your creative practice

When I studied at university, we had to major in a specific medium, which is considered to be quite unfashionable now in terms of contemporary ways of teaching. The idea now is that artists are medium-neutral. But when I studied art, I majored in painting and drawing. I've always loved to paint and loved the feeling of paint on my hands. I love mixing it. I love the smell of it. Up until I was about 24, I was painting all the time. Only when I finished art school did I start to make sculptures and ceramic works. If you look closely at some of my ceramics, you can see there's a painting methodology that comes through. The glaze is applied like paint in a lot of ways. Transparency, opacity, tone — there’s a whole range of things impacting the way the surfaces are elaborated, which comes from my painting background.

On your favorite food spots in Sydney

If you want really good Sri Lankan food, you want to go to Pendle Hill or Toongabbie. There are a few strips that are just full of Sri Lankan takeaway joints that are very similar to what you'd find in Sri Lanka. They’re not about service, they just give you the food and away you go. But it’s what I like to eat. I'm interested in punchy food. Flavour of Ceylon in Pendle Hill is probably my favorite Sri Lankan restaurant. They make amazing curries. Their black pork curry is especially excellent, and you can eat in. I think the best place for Tamil Sri Lankan takeaway is Rams in Homebush West. It’s similar to South Indian food where you get all the snacks and fried rolls that are crumbed. You just walk in and it seems really indiscreet. There's a menu written in chalk and you tell them what you want and they'll just go into the back and bring it out to you. In Ashfield, there's really good mainland Chinese food. We’d go to Shanghai Night whenever we could get a table. It’s always good, cheap and tasty.

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'I'd encourage you to go to Campbelltown Arts Centre or the Powerhouse Museum, just to make it clear that culture isn't concentrated in Sydney’s inner city. There are amazing contemporary art venues in Western Sydney.'

One of Ramesh’s top tips for discovering his version of Sydney is heading west to Parramatta to visit the growing number of art institutions that are now based there, and to enjoy the cheap and cheerful South Asian restaurants in Harris Park (pictured), Pendle Hill and Homebush. Photos by Maddie Seddon.

On where you’d take a friend who was in town for the day

I'd tell them to experience an art gallery or museum in the city. Go somewhere like the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where you get a sense of different cultures, international art, and Indigenous art. Then I would recommend they take a train out to a gallery in Western Sydney. I'd probably encourage them to go to Campbelltown Arts Centre or the Powerhouse Museum, just to make it clear that culture isn't concentrated in Sydney’s inner city. There are amazing contemporary art venues in Western Sydney. Then I'd recommend food. I'd probably tell them to go to Harris Park, which is next to Parramatta. It’s like Little India, with eateries and cool Indian grocery stores. It's got a good vibe. Then I'd probably say something nature-wise, like Lake Parramatta.

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On a window or an aisle seat.

Aisle seat! I get claustrophobic in the window.

On Sydney in one word

Multi-faceted. 


For me, the most interesting thing about a place like Sydney is that it looks and feels different in different parts of the city. Even from a physical perspective, you can go to this amazing coastline, but then only travel 30 or 40 minutes out of the city and be in this beautiful bush land. That also functions culturally, with amazing hubs across Sydney. We've got thriving migrant and multicultural communities that have amazing positive contributions to society.

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