Five years ago, I remember seeing Anoli Perera’s “Dinner for Six” (2008) as part of “Home Spun,” an exhibition held at the Devi Art Foundation in New Delhi. The work resembled a traditional dining room setting, replete with neatly placed crockery, plastic flower arrangements and black-and-white portraits. The viewer could only see the installation, however, [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Where are the women?

Art as a place: Looking again

Anoli Perera’s Dinner for Six

Five years ago, I remember seeing Anoli Perera’s “Dinner for Six” (2008) as part of “Home Spun,” an exhibition held at the Devi Art Foundation in New Delhi. The work resembled a traditional dining room setting, replete with neatly placed crockery, plastic flower arrangements and black-and-white portraits. The viewer could only see the installation, however, through a suspended web of white crocheted lace.

The interknitted fabric, engulfing the entire ‘set,’ evoked a sense of wonderment with its patterns, nostalgia with its old-world charm and claustrophobia with its mesh-like quality. What struck me the most was the timeless and haunting nature of the piece; how it spoke to the comfort and confines of a space from which women are supposed to operate, dominate and negotiate.

Learning more about Perera’s oeuvre revealed that her fascination with needle-point and spiders’ webs is inspired by maternal traditions and the revered artist Louise Bourgeois, respectively. In her writing, she explains that by researching and understanding “the social and cultural conditioning that defined [women’s] ways of art making” she began to reassess her own practice – and those of the “few women artists” around her.

Looking again at “Dinner for Six,” in the context of her artistic, written and curatorial engagement in South Asia makes one consider its wider resonances. While the work is clearly explorative of the problems and power within the familial domain, it also points to linkages between art and craft, and the larger gaps in discourse on women in art history.

Perera is also the co-director of Theertha International Artists Collective; a creative space in Colombo which she fondly refers to as a “male club.” Along with some of the city’s most senior artists, she has worked on several initiatives to counter this gender imbalance – which appears to extend to much of the contemporary artists’ fraternity in Sri Lanka. “We have always wanted to showcase more women artists,” Perera explains, “but we don’t want it to be tokenism.”

Instead, these artistic mentors have tried to develop practice via successive workshops (e.g. the “Women Artists Colloquium,” 2005-2007) and document historically overlooked artists (e.g. “Reclaiming Histories: A Retrospective Exhibition of Women’s Art,” 2000). The latter was staged by Vibhavi Academy of Fine Arts (VAFA), which also had a wing called the Association for Women Artists (AWA) for some time.

Despite these multiple efforts, Perera concedes that the question of why women are not more prominent in Sri Lanka’s visual arts scene remains (unanswered?). “The majority of people studying Fine Arts at university level are women,” she tells us, “but somehow they disappear once they graduate. They become teachers…and they become invisible.”

The lack of visibility of women in art is an issue echoed by Kumudini Samuel, a founding member of the Colombo-based Women and Media Collective (WMC). While several cultural practitioners I spoke with cited familial pressures and domestic responsibilities as reasons for their supposed disappearance, Samuel reminds us that these are “easy answers” and that more research is needed.

This may be true, as in other parts of South Asia where similar socio-cultural issues exist women appear to contribute more publicly to the discourse on contemporary art. Many artists in Pakistan, for example, are also active teachers, but continue to showcase their artistic practice. (As a point of contrast, there are a number of women in Sri Lanka serving as the directors of art institutions, which is in keeping with this trend in other parts of the region.)

Samuel cites the lack of female mentors, professional opportunities and dominance of male artist-networks as particular problems for Sri Lanka’s artists. She carefully adds, “Maybe if we hadn’t been so focused on the conflict, we could have done more [for women in art].”

Having said this, the WMC’s role in promoting women in art is not to be underestimated; since the early 1980s they have hosted a number of art exhibitions, photography shows and film festivals for women. The organization has also maintained strong networks with other South Asian women’s movements exchanging and strengthening ways in which to engage publicly.

While keeping ‘women artists’ visible in the public domain is paramount, Samuel stresses that it is critical to think about how this is done. “Women shouldn’t just have to exhibit in ‘women artist’ shows,” she says. “We need to think of ways to feed them into mainstream institutional and market spaces.” One of the ways in which the WMC creatively addresses how women are included within the mainstream is through their publications, such as “Options.

On one of the recent covers of Options is a striking, monochromatic image, taken by artist Menika van der Poorten, of dancer and performance artist Venuri Perera. The latter is trained in traditional Kandyan disciplines as well as contemporary dance, and is a wonderful example of someone experimenting and pushing her art practice in Colombo.

Aware of the dearth of exhibition spaces surrounding her, the performance artist helped to initiate the Colombo Dance Platform in 2010 with the Goethe Institut, and has since taken part in festivals in Paris, Dhaka and Tokyo. Last year, she performed a piece called “Excuse Me,” (2015) as part of the Theertha Performance Platform 2015, in which she observed and photographed bystanders’ responses to being publicly dressed in a white singlet and short skirt.

While some of the artist’s work does challenge conventions to do with gender and the body, others investigate the parallels between Buddhist rituals and performance art, or experiment with merging fictional characters and real-life encounters. Her approach reminds us, as (Anoli) Perera states, that it should not be the burden of ‘women artists’ to only address ‘women’s issues.’ Indeed, there are those who advocate that all issues should be seen as ‘women’s issues.’

The idea of looking beyond stereotypical ‘women’s issues’ also surfaced at a recent talk on “Engendering Transitional Justice in Sri Lanka,” held by the Law and Society Trust. Panelists trying to digest the current process of ‘Transitional Justice’ talked of how justice for women could only be achieved through looking at more nuanced narratives and readings of the recent past.

Despite women often being absent or underrepresented in public and political spheres, they said, this phase of mediation and moving on could not happen without their input. When we spoke later, Samuel broadened this notion, by saying that to truly understand overarching concepts such as reconciliation or memorialisation, you need women – and you need the arts.

“Creative arts will play a central role in this process and it’s important to get women involved… The idea of reconciliation is not possible without looking at it creatively,” she says. “That will help us to truly realize and implement these ‘four pillars’ [of Transitional Justice].”

Going by the many discussions on socio-political change being held across the city at the moment, it certainly feels like a time of renewed potential and plurality. Perhaps it is the right moment to be redressing such questions again – on the invisibility, stereotyping, tokenism and participation of women – and maybe one of the ways that this can be done is through art itself.

Art can have the ability to address the complexities of the now in an accessible, intimate and sensitive manner; at best it connects with you in a way that surprises you – or asks you to look again. In the case of “Dinner of Six,” one wonders if it acquires a heightened resonance at a time like this.

In Sri Lanka’s current moment, could it be asking us to re-think the dualities of the conventional private and public space altogether? What if it is not about replacing one space with the other, as traditionally assumed, but one feeding the other instead? What could new forms of engagement for women in Sri Lanka look like – in art, politics and otherwise?

It’s clear that many cultural practitioners in Sri Lanka have looked at such issues before, from the creation of platforms for women in art, to making sure women have been included in various peace-building processes.

For many reasons, we are here anew, in a time where multiplicity is being encouraged and the possibilities for a transformative future seem possible again. The answers to some of these questions can only be worked through by more women joining in the conversation – and there seems like no better time than the present.

* Art as a Place derives its name from the Sarai Reader 09 exhibition (2013) in New Delhi, curated by Raqs Media Collective

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.