The Soul Gallery, Part III: Nihara Fernando

An interview with artist Nihara Fernando on how art creates trends, published in today’s NATION.


Nihara Fernando is a woman on a mission; she wants to create a hat-wearing culture in Sri Lanka; “It’s strange that we haven’t considered it already, being a tropical country.” she says. “I never thought about it before. I’ve seen the random person wearing a straw hat on occasion and sportsmen wearing caps, but most people seem to opt for umbrellas when they head outdoors on a sweltering day”. Nihara is not only making hats, she is in fact creating one-of-a-kind, handmade pieces of art that have manifested themselves as some very cool hats. Combining fashion, art and common sense, Nihara might just be onto something here.

This is the third in my series of interviews with local artists I am attempting to unearth, who I believe collectively form a larger sub-culture of artistic expression in the country that could possibly put Sri Lanka on the map for more than just civil unrest or long, sandy beaches. I’ve been noticing a few common threads across the very different people I have been speaking with, the most interesting being the fact that more artists today are opting to use multiple forms and disciplines as mediums, making their work richer and multi-dimensional. Nihara for instance is a freelance interior designer, photographer and crafter, with a passion for intricate detail, which has now manifested itself into an unusual collection of hats about to be launched.
She says it all started with one of her grandfathers’ who was an architect. “When I went to his house I was always amazed by how he created asense of space and always wanted to be able to do the same thing.” As for a foray into photography, she thanks her father for the perspective. “As a landscape designer, my father taught me to see things differently. He designs with a lot of detail and used to show me the different perspectives through which he saw things. I also learned about color and form, and how they contributed to the little details.” She picked up a camera to be able to show people what she saw, from her very unique point of view.


I asked her about how her art manifested itself in school, having had very negative responses from my previous interviewees who didn’t believe the school process contributed to their current positions as artists. Nihara tells me that her school days helped her to discover herself, but only by chance, due to a decision to pick up Home Economics for her A/Levels as a stress free option to her other subjects. Always gifted at handwork and craft at school, it was only in her Home Economics class that she first learned how to sew and about the concept of a color-wheel, both things that contribute immensely to her current creative ventures. “I learned so much because of a subject I took up by accident.”

On the topic of hat-making itself, as someone drawn to head gear, hats and colorful accessories in general, Nihara made her very first hat for herself, “I’m a button addict,” she says with a grin “I put buttons together on a hat and wore it out one day. It wound up attracting a lot of attention. Everyone wanted to know where they could get one.” When they found out it was her own creation, many wanted her to make them one as well. This started her thinking about the possibility of putting together a collection of hats for exhibition and sale, a plan which is well under way at present.


Taking a look at the hats she’d made, I even opted to do a slightly different shoot to display her work for this article. I suggested a mad-hatter’s tea party, to which she immediately agreed. Her hats are vibrant, colorful and adorned primarily with waste material, felt and of course, many buttons. She hopes to create a new trend of hat wearing in the country with her designs, a lively addition to our rapidly expanding fashion industry, further enhancing this new explosion of color and art in Sri Lanka.

“It’s about creating trends with art. We need to create awareness to get people to invest in more color in general. Online media now allows everyone to market themselves,” she tells me. She may possibly be onto an original idea that is very trend worthy. It is reminiscent even of Barefoot, who reinvented the sarong by simply bringing in a new dimension of color. If color affects people’s moods, then it could possibly be a plausible reason for its attraction, especially when used in art and design as is the case with both the sarongs and Nihara’s new hats, the former having continued to be a trend for many years since its launch.


Personally, Nihara enjoys wearing a lot of color and has realized that it makes her livelier, “if you can bring color around you through any medium, it instantly affects your mood and makes you happier.” It is her signature style with everything she creates, be it an interior, a photograph or hat. Why create at all, I ask, wanting to know because I believe artists don’t create to solely make a living, it’s something that only happens as a result of the art and can’t really be a motivator for it. Yes, she wants to create a living out of her art, but the actual reasons that make her create at all, are very different: “Art is a creative outlet. Even if they can’t create themselves, people who connect with a piece of art or creativity are able to get in touch with their creative sides. If I can bring happiness into someone’s life through something I have created, then I know I’ve done a good job.”In a country that is treading its toes into another wave of civil strife, maybe the solution is a distraction from our age old habits of constant aggression. Maybe simpler things like art and color can give us new perspective on how we see each other and how we react to the situations around us.



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