RIO. Rio Grande. Rio Rita. Rio Tinto. Dolores del Rio. Rio de Janeiro. RIO Cinema. RIO Hotel. There, all the RIOs that came to mind dashed off in a line. The first is an animated movie about a macaw called Blu. The second is a great river in the US. The third a mining and [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

RIO projects a thought-provoking show


The cinema-hotel complex that was once the star of Colombo 2, Slave Island, comes alive for a week – for art
and history’s sake, writes Stephen Prins

RIO. Rio Grande. Rio Rita. Rio Tinto. Dolores del Rio. Rio de Janeiro. RIO Cinema. RIO Hotel. There, all the RIOs that came to mind dashed off in a line. The first is an animated movie about a macaw called Blu. The second is a great river in the US. The third a mining and metals conglomerate. Fourth, a 1929 Hollywood musical. Fifth, a Mexican actress and beauty from the 20s, 30s. Sixth, the capital of Brazil. Seventh, the Slave Island cinema that brought Todd-AO to this country. Eighth, Colombo’s “first city hotel”, with ground floor swimming pool and rooftop nightclub, built next to the RIO Cinema in 1979, and looted, gutted, burnt four years later, during Black July 1983.

Room at the top: A space to listen and reflect

In 1965, when the RIO came up with its state-of-the-art cinema-house features, it was the talk of the town, a big happening for film-goers, many of whom who had never heard of Slave Island, still less visited that part of Colombo. Going to the RIO felt as adventurous as heading out to exotic Rio de Janeiro. It was at the RIO that you got to see some of the grandest movies in film history. It was here that we saw “South Pacific”, “The Sound of Music”, “Exodus”, “Cleopatra”, “Can-Can”, “Lord Jim”, “West Side Story”.

The RIO Hotel, owned by a Tamil family, was targeted during the pillaging and arson attacks of July ’83. The cinema was spared (of course it was – you get to riot only once or twice in history, while you need occasional entertainment the rest of your life), but the hotel was wrecked. In the 32 years since, the building has remained in place, in the state the rampaging mob left it in. Nothing has changed, except where time has wrought its work – walls are blackened with soot and ancient mildew, floor and wall tiles have come loose, and the woodwork has rotted away. The former RIO Hotel is a shell. It is a time capsule of a dark moment in the nation’s history. It must be the only destroyed structure of that black hour that has been left as it is.

The RIO shell came alive for a week as the art venue of Cinnamon Colomboscope, the city’s annual intensive-extensive Art-Performing Arts-Literary festival, with Sri Lankan and foreign artists and writers contributing. Shadow Scenes, the name of the event, required that you ascended seven floors of the former hotel to view the exhibits, each floor filled with art and art installations. It was not a stretch; you had enough time at each level to catch your breath. Besides, climbing stairs is what the doctor ordered.

The seven floors gave space to little-known local artists from all communities and all parts of the country. Each artist, like the guests who had once checked into the RIO Hotel, was given a room to set up his/her display. Some rooms were booked by a couple, two guest artists. There were framed paintings and sketches, unframed artwork, murals, graffiti, and a miscellany of installations. Video films were spookily running and clicking in empty rooms. Much of the art was political in hue. And cry. There was crying art – silent wails and laments, such as the room done up like a Colombo chummery accommodation of an on-campus out-of-towner. Half-closed doors led into the shadows of what were once the guestroom toilets, minus fittings.

The rooms had had their walls scraped, sandpapered, and whitewashed by the artists and volunteers, including a former Air Force soldier, Thushara Nandalal, who had fought in the War in the North and the East and fought furiously to get the venue ready on time.

All the while you were eerily aware that you were in a place that was once a scene of violence, possibly extreme violence. Visitors were hushed and thoughtful and spoke in murmurs. Halfway up you started to see the city outside the hotel: rooftops, tenements, streets, commercial buildings, restaurants, hotels, a Hindu kovil, a church, the green of an enclosed playing field, old stained apartment blocks. Bird sounds, recorded, from inside the building were mixed with the real thing outside.

The eye consciously focused on the theme of art saw the outside world also as art. The buildings and streets looked like the facades of an elaborate film set, unfolding for miles around and aflame in the golden afternoon sunshine. With each ascent, a new dimension expanded the view. By the time you reached the top – a vast rectangular space with pillars and vistas – you were ready to sit down and think about having come to the RIO Hotel to experience art and history.

There was also the time line. Past and present and future were juxtaposed, as we stood in the RIO balcony-corridors. We were standing in the past, in 1983, and looking on the present three decades later, and getting a whiff of the promise of the buzzing future. From a sooty, burnt, begrimed vantage point.

At the top, the crowning art event, so to speak, was sitting in a chair and putting on headphones and listening to Colombian artist Pedro Gomez-Egana intoning a prose poem about descending on the country in a mythical flying machine and taking in the view – a fantasia of real and imagined landscapes. This meditation with background music was lulling as you gazed out over the tops of Slave Island, Kompannya Veedhiya, the distant Fort, and Kollupitiya, while a sinking sun made silver and gold of the sea.
Shadow Scenes curator Menika van der Poorten, an artist in her own right, who was there daily to take visitors on a tour of the exhibition, said “There was something very fitting to have the works that were there in terms of the history and physicality of the RIO complex. It felt like the right time to comment.

“Almost all the local artists and some of the international artists did original site-responsive works. It was deeply satisfying to see how the artists responded and engaged with the concept and the site.”Shadow Scenes cultural coordinator Jan Ramesh de Saram said that what took place at the RIO Complex during Colomboscope was “far more than a contemporary arts show or even a multidisciplinary arts festival.

“The subtle way the curators wove together positions by local and international artists to create a journey from the darkness of the past into the light felt magical,” de Saram said. “To me it felt as if this show was exorcising the ghosts of Sri Lanka’s past by acknowledging them, speaking to them, memorialising and accepting them.”

Shadows. Ghosts. Past. Present. Future.
Reaching the top floor after all that memory and comment along the way was like coming to the end of a journey, and looking ahead to the next leg of what’s to come.
We visitors felt exorcised, and exercised.
Shadow Scenes will stay with this visitor for a long time. It was good for body, mind and spirit. The doctor would be pleased.

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