Conflict is often capitalised upon – and art is no exception. Art produced during crises tends to gather curators and collectors alike. Remarkably however, less attention is paid to the time when it all ‘ends.’ In her book “Art and War” scholar Laura Brandon tell us that artists engage with conflict as a site of [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Art as a Place: A landscape of transition


Muvindu Binoy’s Deity and the Feast

Conflict is often capitalised upon – and art is no exception. Art produced during crises tends to gather curators and collectors alike. Remarkably however, less attention is paid to the time when it all ‘ends.’ In her book “Art and War” scholar Laura Brandon tell us that artists engage with conflict as a site of spectacle and performance, document and truth, mourning and memorial. This leaves us asking: How to we process what comes next? How do artists respond to the post-conflict space? Sri Lanka is in a period of transition; in the wake of a 27-year civil war, taking stock of its past realities, while striving toward its future possibilities. It is a critical and hopeful moment. While some artists are clearly still processing the impact of the war, others are asking what shape the country will take next. Many want to challenge generalized terms such as ‘post-conflict’ itself, seeing this moment as part of a continuum where certain undercurrents remain and newer subcultures emerge.

For 27-year-old Colombo-based artist Muvindu Binoy, it was important to tap into some of the issues that cropped up after the war. Two years into peace, Binoy started a project which used black humour as a device for addressing controversial issues. “#bored without war” (2011) consisted of a series of sarcastic skits on Facebook and YouTube aimed at confronting residual intolerance and fear between Sri Lanka’s different communities. In 2015, Binoy witnessed a marked shift in the country’s cityscapes and government, which led to another satirical short film. “My Colombo: The City Dream and Dump” (2015) splices together shots of the commercial capital with an incisive commentary on its new avatar: “Elites and underdogs…skyscrapers and kades (street stalls)…joggers and coffee shops…thambili (king coconut) and Raymonds.” For contemporary artists engaging with such a swiftly changing national landscape it is clearly a lot to process in the span of a few short years.

Artist-and-curator duo, Fernando Arias and Jonathan Colin from Colombia, recently visited Sri Lanka to understand this shifting space and to draw parallels with their own post-conflict moment in the South American country. At a recent presentation at Theertha International Artists Association in Colombo, they talked of curating art projects through their organization Mas Arte Mas Accion (More Art More Action) in the tropical environment of Choco. Many of these explored tropes of displacement and disappearance, as well as the rising influence of commercialism. What struck the pair when they visited in Sri Lanka, they said, was “the human side of the war,” and how artists engaged with the subject of conflict in a more direct and autobiographical way. One suggestion was that this was because Colombia’s six decade conflict largely took place in rural areas, whereas Sri Lanka’s war affected far more urban spaces. Back in Choco, Arias and Colin have been working through the present by looking forward, and “imagining a better future.” Their decade-long curatorial project, “Utopia” involved local communities and international artists exploring deeper connections with the society, politics and environment of the affected landscapes.

Muhanned Cader is a strong exponent of art from Sri Lanka which explores the relationship between the botanical, historical and socio-political. Having practised during and after the war, his collage series entitled “Landscape Unfolded” (2014) is wonderful example of the artist’s recent work. Imagery of lush green foliage and glorious blue skies is cut out, reflected and reassembled, such that recognizable excerpts remain and other parts leave you feeling off-kilter. Cader explained in an interview that he wants to move away from “the rectangular mind…and constricted thinking,” including how we think of “divisions between countries.” In a similar vein “Flags” (2012) is a series of paintings in which three, equal bands of earth, sea and sky are positioned together to resemble national flags – again making us contemplate the connections between humans and their land. Cader is by no means an overtly political artist; instead he prompts us to reconsider our view of the present moment by momentarily tilting our understanding of art, nature and history on its axis. Over the past few years, the artist has been reflecting on much of this from afar, as he has been living in the UK.

The author Brandon suggests that being afar, stepping back and taking a wider look at things, actually gives us what she refers to as “a more valuable testimony of events.” In reference to war, she asks, “Can paintings completed away from the action with more knowledge, more truly convey the meaning and implications than eyewitness accounts?” This makes one wonder, if reflecting meaningfully in a post-conflict space is ultimately just the same as during war itself; through distance, whether it be temporal, psychological or even geographical. In the case of both Sri Lanka and Colombia, it is still very early days in terms of understanding this shift from war-time to peace-time, and it will be intriguing to see how cultural practitioners decipher, translate and mirror the moments to follow. For now examples such as Cader and Arias and Colin, show us how long-standing artistic practices can help to think through periods of intense transition – in ways that deeply engage with local histories and landscapes, but also have universal relevance.

Along with Cader, artists such as Jagath Weerasinghe, Chandragupta Thenuwara and T. Shanaathanan are part of a generation of key cultural practitioners in Sri Lanka who developed rigorous practices and pedagogies during the war. Over time, many of them have witnessed and participated in these significant, historical moments in and around the country. For younger contemporary artists, such as Binoy, who have come of age in the post-conflict period in Colombo, it feels like a more unhinged and whimsical space to be in. The artist’s latest exhibition, “Divine Thru,” is exemplary of this. In a play on the words ‘divine truth’ and ‘drive thru,’ the exhibition is a departure from his earlier short films into the more experimental realm of collage. Women resembling deities or that are semi-clad, hold mobile phones, severed heads or French fries; others cry while toiling to make commodities for global brands. Whether the work is attempting to subvert or reinforce patriarchal sterotypes, is not always clear. Binoy explains, however, that he is trying to address a few, mixed issues at the same time – such as “conservatism and consumerism” and “social schizophrenia” as he dubs it – by highlighting discrepancies and ironies between the way we live and the way we proclaim to.

Binoy’s multi-media practice is indicative of one of the many groups of artists working in small pockets and occasional collectives in present-day Colombo; representative of a more urban narrative, commenting on consumer culture and responding to the now at an accelerated speed. This latest series of work already seems very different to his earlier practice. It also has a very different approach to work produced being by artists in other parts of the country whose lives have been more directly shaped by the conflict. The former comes across as fairly hedonistic, whereas the latter often appears very cathartic. Having said that, it is important to say that it is too soon to identify such work as part of particular post-conflict trends; rather these varying practices seem to be interconnected phases of unearthed stories and emerging narratives, surfacing simultaneously in this transitional time.  It will be interesting to see where Sri Lanka’s contemporary artists take this post-conflict space next, and to what extent the war will continue to inform their work, if at all. In all of these cases, however, dialogue, exchange and taking the time to develop different bodies of work with “long view,” as Brandon puts it, will be crucial – before the market steps up its game.

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