Class of 2024: Varshga Premarasa – Parental Guidance

Varshga Premarasa’s paintings reference film to explore family stories that bear witness to her Sri Lankan heritage. By JAMIE LIMOND

A boy wearing an oversized cat’s head raises a toy hammer. A dotted trajectory line connects the hammer to its intended target: a large, penitent rodent standing on a box. The painting, Old Days (2023), represents a conflation of Middlesex University student Varshga Premarasa’s twin preoccupations: film and memory.

“I was born in London and my parents moved here from Sri Lanka in the late ‘90s,” she tells me over Zoom. “I only went there once when I was three, so it’s basically like I haven’t been at all. The only way I know my culture is fully through my parents’ stories, which I’ve ended up exploring through painting. But what first really drove me toward narrative painting was an interest in psychological thrillers and plot twists, where there’s this big build up to the unexpected. I wanted to recreate that in my own work, by having these fun whimsical visuals but with this darker narrative behind them.”

Varshga Premarasa, Old Days, 80x60cm, oil and acrylic on canvas, 2023

Old Days specifically references the famous hallway hammer-fight in Park Chan-Wook’s 2003 film Oldboy, “There have been times where I’ve remembered their stories incorrectly, but I think that’s a really interesting thing to capture, the fragility of memory.” but it also depicts something that happened to her dad. “There aren’t really any photos of him as a child so it’s a reimagining of this story of him going into the prayer room and there was a rat or a mouse, I’m not sure which. He went to kill it but he remembers the mouse praying or begging him not to. I just thought it was such a weird story. It obviously affected him enough to tell me about it. But I’m not sure why I’d pick a movie like Oldboy for a story about my dad!”

Behind the paintings there’s often a narrative of loss and separation. “The Lion’s Memories (2024) is about my maternal grandfather who was run over by a tractor. It’s an image that has almost a cinematic feel to it. My mum’s other siblings were at the funeral but she wasn’t able to be there. That’s a kind of trauma that my mum hasn’t really expressed or doesn’t know how to express. Another painting, Little Golden Memories (2024) is about my dad flying to Sri Lanka to see his mum after seven years, but finding out that she had died while he was on the flight. I thought that was like something that would happen in a film. There was this interesting connection of him not knowing his mum had died and her not knowing her youngest son was coming to visit her.”

Varshga Premarasa, Sheba, 60x80cm, oil and acrylic on canvas board, 2023

It’s something that comes through in the dreamy, interstitial quality of the painting, which has something of the sleepwalking feel of Henri Matisse’s The Conversation (1908-1912): a sense of mother and son existing for the moment outside of time. But I wonder how explicit these stories will be for the audience when it comes to the degree show? “It’s something I’m still trying to figure out. I’ve had suggestions of maybe having a voice recording of someone narrating the stories, but I’m trying to find a balance between letting the viewers view them versus me imposing myself onto them. There’s a lot of hidden symbolism in the paintings, things written in Tamil or Morse code; the frog that’s in a lot of them has become a kind of signature even if I don’t really know what it means. But are these things really effective if I have to explain them?”

Varshga Premarasa, The Lion’s Memories, 80x60cm, oil and acrylic on canvas, 2024.

Premarasa expects the collaboration with her parents to continue and perhaps deepen after the degree show. “Now my dad’s become excited at certain memories becoming paintings. He said, ‘I’ll even draw something out for you if you want,’ and I was like, that’s something! It’s always been a collaboration with my parents but it might become an actual physical collaboration. On the other hand, I also use AI in generating the compositions, which adds another layer of fragmentation. So at the same time as I’m preserving their memories, in a way I’m losing the originals through all these interpretations.”

I wonder what her parents think of them? “To be honest, I often don’t really tell them I’m making the paintings, then I do a sort of reveal. There’s a moment of, ‘Oh, you chose that story…’! It’s funny because I re-tell their stories back to them and there have been times where I’ve remembered them incorrectly, but I think that’s a really interesting thing to capture, the fragility of memory. It’s a way of me processing my parents’ experiences but also preserving them: preserving this estranged homeland.”

Degree show: 6-13 June (PV 6), Middlesex University, Grove building, 79 The Burroughs, London NW4 4AX.

Main image: Varshga Premarasa, Little Golden Memories, 80x60cm, oil and acrylic on canvas, 2024

Read the a-n Degree Shows Guide 2024: