One of the organisers asked me, “Which work of art at the Colombo Art Biennale 2014 (CAB) makes most meaning for you?” It is not an easy choice to select from 60 artists having roots in 15 to 16 countries, all responding to the theme “Making History” exhibited in over eight locations. Thankfully CAB 2014 [...]


The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Other people’s stories

Prof. Asoka de Zoysa reflects on last month’s Colombo Art Biennale

One of the organisers asked me, “Which work of art at the Colombo Art Biennale 2014 (CAB) makes most meaning for you?” It is not an easy choice to select from 60 artists having roots in 15 to 16 countries, all responding to the theme “Making History” exhibited in over eight locations. Thankfully CAB 2014 that took place from January 31 to February 8 was generous.

The special feature of CAB 2014 was Live Art which could be witnessed only during the performance. The Project “Sethusamudram” between Sri Lankan and Indian artists and the exhibition of the British Council collection, “Homelands’ seen for the first time in Sri Lanka added flair to this year’s offerings. Artists from Iran, China, Qatar, Ireland and Scotland too were seen for the first time at the CAB. Many newcomers like Gihan Karunaratne’s maps and diagrams, which were turned into graphic art, showing how urban space very quickly can become a war map when angry civilians take to the streets in protest, crossed the borders of what is accepted as “Art” in Sri Lanka.

Live art: Bandu Manamperi in the act of ironing. Pic by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

Sri Lanka has a unique heritage of recording histories based on the lives of rulers like kings, queens, princes and chieftains continuously over 2000 years. “Making History” does not deal with such histories as recorded by the erudite monks, who were commissioned by those in power to write heroic poetry praising them. Pala Pothupitiya responded to the theme “Making History” with his giant figure of an academic holding a historical document like a scroll. To Pala, it is the academic in service to the ruler who makes history by writing eulogies and interpreting history. Layla Gonaduwa’s book art “The Silver Fish” rearranged a section of the 26th chapter of the Mahawamsa. She re-wrote the same passage using the same words in the English translation by Geiger, without omission or addition. Thereby she created a counter-narrative that would be acceptable to the tolerant ears of a modern, multi-ethnic society. With her first entry to the CAB she did not echo the critique of the “Mahavamsa Mindset”, but viewed the Mahawamsa as a narration of a single monk, with many erasures evident in other chapters as well. To her, a lover of old books, Mahawamsa is also impermanent. Like any other book, it can be a victim of the Silver Fish.

Many testimonials from Sri Lanka’s recent troubled past strung together provided a counter narrative to the dominant and official narrative of “what happened” in Sri Lanka after independence. Much information of the country’s violent past reposes as a personal memory or collective memory many miles away from Colombo both in the north and the south. At the moment, it is the artist or writer, who drives around the sandy dunes and arid plains documenting these memories. The process of archiving for me is essential. I only see an ethical issue if the archive is not treated just like a pond, to fish out cruel stories to be performed and exhibited elsewhere and then to be forgotten.

Jake Oorloff’s “Othered Histories” enacted in the Park Street Mews was one of the Live Art performances that drew from narratives collected. Jake narrated “histories” of three persons in English, which most likely, were originally recorded in Sinhala or Tamil. The English texts read out, to me seemed scripted and polished up for the theatre. One may ask if any kind of dramatisation of the text read is necessary, if the narration is presented convincingly.

Women artists were among some of the newcomers to CAB 2014. Keeping the initial question in mind, which work of art made most meaning to me, I picked a few exhibits for discussion in this review.

To me, the outcome of the project “Her stories of Resilience and Hope” presented by Radhika Hettiarachchi and Shanika Perera seemed to be one of the most convincing exhibits. The digitalised prints in black and white, using isometric figures and symbols seen at the exhibition attempted to capture the main sentiment of each of the ten narrations. By using isometric figures, usually used to visualise statistics, the emotion of the narration was subdued leaving more space for self-reflection. The repeated black and white designs brought all narrations under one denomination whether from Mullaitivu, Moneragala, Kurunegala or Vauniya. The text, sometimes a letter written by the women, was annexed to the image. “Her story Archives” exhibiting traumas and experiences by ten women did not stop at selling a sad story in a gallery space.

Sachini Perera and Natalie Soysa’s documentary film “I Was I Am” too was a unique experience, each time I watched it. Mainly using black and white stills, the documentary made 30 articulate women-activists, artists, journalists, educationists and a transgender activist too- speak for themselves. This kind of revisiting incidents from the Black July of 1983 was genuine, and one could get a glimpse how women were able to negotiate safe space when the violent mobs attacked Tamils.

Live Art as seen in the kind of “Clown’s Parade”, weaving its way through traffic from Park Street to the Viharamahadevi Park, on Independence Day, I feel was a bold experience both for the performers and the audience. The performance was well rehearsed and worked out with performers with theatre experience by Adrian Schvarzstein. Some of the other Live Art consisted of poetry being read during the exhibition and rather self-indulgent performances within the walls of the JDA Perera Gallery, which were supposed to be “responses to the works of art”. The connection between the live body performing and the works on display was not always clear although the intentions may have been noble.

“We must move on” seems to be the buzz word in post war Sri Lanka. Some artists who had the privilege of exhibiting their works at the past Biennales and in 2014 do not seem to be “moving on” bringing out new themes and new perspectives expressing their newly discovered creativity in the past two years. Why do the same artists turn up at each Biennale, if they have nothing new to contribute to a new framework or theme spelled out by the curators? As such, a certain mustiness seems to be creeping to this very young and vibrant Colombo Art Biennale. The catalogue on sale at the venues did not give names of the exhibits and some artists, I feel, were left out. Maybe the visitor to the exhibition need not remember the artist or the work of an exhibition dealing with memory and history. The newcomers however, brought in fresh ideas and new media, to demonstrate how a country can reflect a troubled past.

(The writer is attached to the University of Kelaniya)

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