When Sharmini Pereira sees a book, she sees a gallery, a museum, a space for artistic interaction.The founder of Raking Leaves, an independent publisher of contemporary artists’ book projects, Sharmini has discovered ways to stretch and manipulate the architecture of a book, so that it holds more than the sum of its pages. By adding [...]


The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Stretching the boundaries of books

Smriti Daniel speaks to the founder of Raking Leaves, Sharmini Pereira

When Sharmini Pereira sees a book, she sees a gallery, a museum, a space for artistic interaction.The founder of Raking Leaves, an independent publisher of contemporary artists’ book projects, Sharmini has discovered ways to stretch and manipulate the architecture of a book, so that it holds more than the sum of its pages. By adding voices from Asia to the existing and already rich tradition of such projects, Sharmini has been going about quietly upsetting the established order of things. Raking Leaves has produced memorable works by well-known local artists such as ‘The Incomplete Thombu’ and ‘The One Year Drawing Project.’In the process, she’s made art not just more affordable but more accessible, liberating it from the confines of a museum and leaving it there, lying invitingly on the shelf of your local bookstore.

Sharmini: Breaking new ground

2014 is already shaping up to be a busy year for Sharmini. She began it with the inauguration of the Sri Lanka Archive of Contemporary Art, Architecture and Design in Jaffna in late January. The archive evolved from a previous project when Raking Leaves hosted the Asia Art Archive’s Mobile Library project in 2013. “Unlike exhibitions, a library of books is a resource that has depth and latitude,” Sharmini says, explaining that “with so much discussion right now about ‘memory’, I wanted to create something that took a simple approach by starting an archive. The decision to extend the scope of the archive to include Architecture and Design came because the disciplines are interlinked.”

Going forward, the Archive will collect materials in all three languages and will host talks, seminars and screenings related to its content.Set up in a newly restored courtyard house on Temple Road, it will serve one of the island’s largest contingents of Fine Art students. Sharmini hopes the access to these new resources will fuel in the latter a “dramatic shift in the way in which they digest, analyse and make sense of knowledge.”

But there’s still more for us to talk about. The day after this interview Sharmini flew to Mumbai to mark the launch of a new publishing initiative called Last Resort, an imprint of Raking Leaves. (The first book is a translation from English to Tamil of 50 poems by the renowned Sufi poet Rumi.) She was also honoured to be invited to be the very first Guest Curator for the new Aga Khan Museum (AKM) to be opened in Toronto later this year.

It’s easy to look at Sharmini’s busy schedule (and the reputation she’s earned over the years) and imagine that the trajectory of her career was inevitable – when in reality, it was anything but. Her parents met and married in England and Sharmini was born abroad. Growing up, Sharmini remembers being a shy and quiet little girl, but one determined to master the language of her new country.“English was something I struggled with,” she says. “It was the language I had to really, really master, if I wanted to belong.” Wanting to become a writer, she applied to study English literature in Edinburgh. She also chose Greek and Latin, as well as Art History. In her 4th year, an interest in social anthropology would set her on an unexpected new path. “It encouraged me to think of the limits of art history in terms of its critique of culture,” she says. When she graduated, it was with a degree in Art History and at age 23 she moved back to Sri Lanka.

Here she would meet and befriend artists like Jagath Weerasinghe and Chandragupta Thenuwara. She curated her first exhibition ‘New Approaches in Contemporary Sri Lankan Art’ and chose to showcase their work. “Artists like Jagath and Thenu were beginning to make work about what had happened in the early eighties, and that kind of work hadn’t been made by anyone else and certainly wasn’t being shown,” says Sharmini. She was fascinated enough by what they were producing (and the contrasts in aesthetics and focus) in the works of their contemporaries as well to put Laki Senanayake, Druvinka Madawela, Tilak Samarawickrema and Tissa de Alwis in to the gallery space beside them. “The impetus came from me wanting to look at a picture of the art scene at that socio-political moment in time,” she says. It was after the JVP and Chandrika Bandaranaike had just come into power, marking a clear shift in the political pendulum.

An MA in Curatorial studies as well as other exhibitions would follow but another milestone came when she was invited to serve as the co-curator for the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art hosted by the Queensland Art Gallery. An invitation to co-curate the Singapore Biennalein 2006 and then a stint in 2011 as the international guest curator of the Abraaj Capital Art Prize were among other notable highlights. While Sharmini made the most of these opportunities, she was also keenly aware of the limitations of galleries and museums. These could easily become “bastions of elitism” and collecting art remained out of the financial reach of most people. “I just wanted to find another way of curating that didn’t need me to be reliant on a physical museum, gallery or space,” she says. The answer to that turned out to be a book and Raking Leaves.

Set up as a not-for-profit independent publisher in 2008, she hoped to produce at least two books and two special editions a year and has more or less kept to her schedule. Included in their portfolio are not just works from notable Sri Lankan artists Muhanned Cader, Thamotharampillai Shanaathanan, Chandraguptha Thenuwara and Jagath Weerasinghe but also Bani Abidi, Imran Qureshi and Aisha Khalid (Pakistan) as well as the Singaporean born artist Simryn Gill. Each project is especially commissioned and artists must embrace a process of experimentation.

“Trying new ideas with printing and production are the kind of challenges I relish,” says Sharmini. “The artist gets completely involved in the design of the book working closely with me as a curator and the designer. They are artworks first and foremost created from collaborations with designers, printers and curator.” The works defy easy description – in one the artist makes ‘pearls’ out of the pages of a book, another was 29-month exchange of drawings by four artists, yet another was reviewed by a nine-year-old blogger as ‘two equally interesting books.’

Sharmini is proud of how the books have managed to promote a handful of South Asian artists on an international platform in a memorable and critically acclaimed way. She’s published all 12 of her books with zero marketing and yet, Raking Leaves has managed to carve out a niche for itself. “In addition to two prizes, invitations for the book projects to appear as part of Biennales and exhibitions around the world has signalled to me that we are doing something right, even if its small scale.” Looking forward, she’d like to imagine a time when she can step back and Raking Leaves would still run. But then as her admirers have noted before, it just wouldn’t be Raking Leaves anymore.

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