The Faculty of Visual Arts of the University of the Visual and Performing Arts has a long history spanning over one hundred years. Its origin goes back to the establishment of the Ceylon Technical School (later the Ceylon Technical College), Maradana, in1893. Courses relating to painting and drawing were taught in this institute and later, craft subjects were also introduced under the supervision of colonial educational system. Alfred Bartlam, a certificate holder from the Royal College of Art and City & Guilds Institute in England was appointed by the British colonial government to develop local art education. In 1902, Bartlam started his career as the first drawing instructor of the Ceylon Technical College. In its early days, the art education was dominated by a distinct vision of the art and technology that prepared Ceylonese students mostly for the requirements of the Government Engineering and Survey Department. However, the Art and Craft Department of the Ceylon Technical College was gradually developed into a center that produced teachers and other professionals in the field of arts and crafts in the island.
Appointing C.F. Winzer as the chief art inspector of the local Department of Education in 1920 is a significant event as helped some personalities, for instance J.D.A. Perera, to emerge as leading figures in tertiary and secondary education. J.D.A. Perera was a student of the Ceylon Technical College who studied under A.E. Bartlem. Due to his skills in painting and drawing, J.D.A. was appointed as an assistant instructor under the art master D. John Perera and soon after he won a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Art in England. This scholarship laid the foundation to study academic methods systematically and to be aware on other contemporary art movements in the West that affected his decisions on Sri Lankan art education.
In 1949, the Department of Arts and Crafts of the Ceylon Technical College was shifted to Heywood building at Horton Place, Colombo 07, where the Faculty of Visual Arts is located today. The said department was separated from the Ceylon Technical College in 1952 and was upgraded as the ‘Government Institute of Arts’ that offered diploma courses appointing pioneer painter J.A.D. Perera as the head of the institute. Thereafter, dance and music programmes too were introduced to the course systems of the Government Institute of Arts.
The Government Institute of Arts was renames as the ‘Government School of Fine Arts’ in 1953 and was announced as an independent institute under the Ministry of Education. Drawing, painting, sculpture, crafts, music and dance courses were taught in the Government School of Fine Arts. Later, music and dance sections were moved to Albert Crescent in Colombo 07. J.D.A. Perera was the first principle of Government School of Fine Arts. The Royal Academician David Pianter (1900-1975) was the second principle of the school followed by the painter Stanly Abeysinghe (1914-1994).
All visual arts subjects at the Government School of Fine Arts (later changed as the Government College of Fine Arts) were taught in English medium at the beginning. However, after 1952, J.D.A. Perera commenced a Sinhala Department to conduct art courses in Sinhala medium by recruiting local art teachers and artisans as the lecturers and instructors of the college. In 1960, the Government College of Fine Arts was renamed again as the ‘Sri Lanka National Institute of Art’ under the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. In 1965, arts and crafts sections were upgraded to an independent body, named as ‘Government College of Arts and Crafts’ appointing Stanly Abeysinghe as the first principle.
In 1973, Prof. H.G. Hanmante (Dean, Sir JJ Institute of Applied Arts, Bombay) and Prof. S.C. Palsikar (Dean, Sir JJ College of Fine Arts, Bombey) were invited by the Government of Sri Lanka to restructure the courses particularly relating to art and craft subjects. Based on recommendations of the two Indian expertise, the Institute of Aesthetic Studies (IAS) was established in 1974 by the amalgamation of the Government College of Arts and Crafts, Government College of Music, Government College of Dance and Ballet, and Ramanathan Academy in Jaffna. The Institute of Aesthetic Studies (IAS) had three major departments namely the Department of Art and Sculpture, the Department of Music, and the Department of Dance & Ballet. Mahagamasekara, a famous poet and illustration artist, was the first head of the Department of Art and Sculpture. The institute was also granted the university state in 1974. In the year of 1978, for the first time in the institute’s history, 63 students were graduated with Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree (42 students from Art and Sculpture, 11 from Dance and 10 from Music)
The Institute of Aesthetic Studies was affiliated to the University of Kelaniya in 1979. Ramanathen Academy was separated from IAS as it was attached to the University of Jaffna. The Institute of Aesthetic Studies managed to establish a branch in Sripali (Sripali Kalayathanaya) at Horana for a short period of time from 1979 to 1993. However, Sripali was separated from IAS in 1993 by affiliating to the University of Colombo and its students who followed fine art courses were called back to Colombo premises.
In 2004, a special committee comprised of three scholars namely, Prof. Senake Bandaranayake, Prof. Tissa Kariyawasam and Prof. Walter Marasinghe was appointed by Sri Lankan government to investigate the art education and structural system of IAS. As a result of recommendations of the committee, the University of the Visual and Performing Arts was established on the 1st of July 2005 under the university act No. 16 of 1978. As mentioned in Gazette No. 1400/24, 08 July 2005, its main purpose is ‘providing, promoting and developing higher education in the branches of learning of Visual and Performing Arts and for advancing these arts to achieve standards of excellence in relation to their aesthetic and applied dimensions’. The first Vicechancellor of the University of the Visual and Performing Arts was Prof. Sarath Amnugama while the Chancellor was Dr. Lester James Peiris.
The University of the Visual and Performing Arts has four faculties today namely Faculty of Visual Arts, Faculty of Dance & Drama, Faculty of Music, and Faculty of Graduate Studies. The first Dean of the Faculty of Visual Arts was Sarath Gunasiri Perera. This faculty has nine departments that offer nine degree programmes under painting, sculpture, visual communication & design, printmaking, multidisciplinary design, ceramics, textile & wearable arts, multimedia arts and history & theory of arts. J.D.A. Perera Gallery located in the Faculty of Visual Arts is the largest gallery in Sri Lanka and the university library holds the biggest book collection for fine arts in Sri Lanka.
The Faculty of Visual Arts offers a four-year ‘Bachelor of Visual Arts (BVA) Special Degree’ under the above mentioned subject categories. It should be mentioned that it is the only faculty in the higher education system in Sri Lanka that offers bachelor degree programmes in Visual Arts. Students, who followed the Arts stream at the GCE (A/L), are allowed to enrol for the BVA degree programme based on their performance in an aptitude test conducted annually by the faculty. The major aim of the Faculty of Visual Arts is to promote and develop the creative works and academic researches in the field of Visual Arts. This Degree Show that exhibits such creative works and researches provides an arena for the students of the Faculty of Visual Arts to put on display their talents and skills to the general public.