In her monthly column ‘Art as a Place’, Jyoti Dhar looks at Pala Pothupitiye’s oeuvre The idea of remoteness appeals to many of Colombo’s artists. Performance, collage and installation artist Pala Pothupitiye is no exception. The choice to locate his studio-cum-residency space Mullegama Art Centre in the hinterland of Athurugiriya – an hour’s drive from [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Remoteness and re-invention


In her monthly column ‘Art as a Place’, Jyoti Dhar looks at Pala Pothupitiye’s oeuvre

The idea of remoteness appeals to many of Colombo’s artists. Performance, collage and installation artist Pala Pothupitiye is no exception. The choice to locate his studio-cum-residency space Mullegama Art Centre in the hinterland of Athurugiriya – an hour’s drive from the city, through winding roads flanked by paddy fields and marked by haphazard kades – is a case in point. But then this should come as no surprise; Pothupitiye is best at ease when surrounded by nature. He grew up in the southern, hill station town of Deniyaya, bordering the Sinharaja rainforest on one side and tea plantations on the other.

It was in Deniyaya that Pothupitiye first came into contact with the Matara tradition of ‘southern ritual dance;’ an art form with 2000 year-old roots, amalgamating drama, dance and drumming, usually performed using 18 different masks and characters. The act itself – which can encompass humorous mimes, political satire, folk stories and healing rituals -is not always rehearsed, but instead, morphs and materializes spontaneously depending on the given occasion. Pothupitiye, however, was always more interested in the ornate, handmade costumes worn by the performers, than he was in their improvised narratives.

When I went to meet the artist in his Mullegama studio earlier this month, the first person he introduced me to was his father, Somasiri Pothupitiye, one of the last artisans of handcrafted costume-making for southern ritual dance. Encountering them together in Pothupitiye’s work space – which is covered in ancient-looking stone statues of Ganeshas and Apsaras, metallic sculptures of anatomical parts decorated with bejewelled masks, and multilayered collages of snaking drawings imprinted on expansive maps – was key to understanding the artist’s incorporative approach to contemporary performance art.

It may seem strange then, that Pothupitiye shunned his craft and dance heritage at first. During his early years at the University of Performing and Visual Arts in Colombo, where his traditions were not always considered to be synonymous with so-called ‘high art,’ he admits to struggling with the concept of connecting his past to his present. A conversation with artist, archeologist and co-founder of Theertha International Artists’ Collective, Jagath Weerasinghe, was said to be pivotal for Pothupitiye in reconciling such inherent issues and deciding to uncover masked notions of identity and the self.

In one of his first installations, “My Ancestral Dress” (2002) the artist collected urban detritus and discarded materials, including toffee wrappers and glitter paper, from the streets of Colombo and weaved it into a decorative jacket. With the act, of both making and being photographed in the ‘costume’ in front of historical sites (such as the Houses of Parliament in London) Pothupitiye sought to critique ingrained binaries; including colonially-imposed academic distinctions between art and craft, conventional notions of fine art and non-art objects, as well as linear readings of the ancient and contemporary.

The past decade has seen Pothupitiye’s practice develop and extrapolate upon these core concerns, taking time in between to study miniature painting and traditional jewelry at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore, as well as confront local, political issues such as prevalent neo-colonialist attitudes and the institutionalization of religion. His latest performance, paradoxically titled “This is not a performance,” (2016), in which the artist paired an elaborate headdress, necklace and girdle-piece with a graduation gown, served as a culmination of his preoccupations – and a place from which to question them.

Performed during the closing party of the experimental “Theertha Performance Evening 2016” last month, Pothupitiye’s live intervention held true to the canons of performance art (in that he was playing himself and not someone else) but also detoured from them (by presenting the hybrid costume as an ‘art object’ rather than as a mere prop). By adorning the object, the artist suggested that it became activated by the body’s qualities and politics, momentarily connecting it to the current moment. In doing so, Pothupitiye proposed a fluid concept; that the performance, body and object could all be the artwork.

Another aspect which distinguished this performance from the others that evening at Theertha, was that there was no attention brought to the ‘starting’ and ‘stopping’ point; Pothupitiye simply turned up to the party, unannounced, in costume, and continued conversing with fellow artists, students and spectators, as ‘normal.’ This treading of the line between performed and everyday reality has its precedence (in the work of multiple artists from Bobby Baker in the U.K. to Inder Salim in India) but seemed to have a particular impact when incongruously inserted into the habitual framework of Theertha.

Even within the collective, certain members were not sure how to respond to the ‘non-performance.’ (Incidentally the last time I saw a ‘non-performance,’ of poet Vivek Narayanan Skyping in the dark, during “City as Studio” 02’s exhibition in New Delhi, performance artist Inder Salim came dressed as a Gulabi gang member, but continued to be ‘himself’). In keeping with Pothupitiye’s challenging of hierarchies and categories, however, “This is not a performance,” may be better understood as part of his quest for ambiguity; which constantly draws upon, amalgamates, blurs and re-invents conventions.

This simultaneous improvisation and rigour, subversion and re-claiming, fragmentation and embodiment can be seen in the work of many performance artists in Sri Lanka –including fellow Theertha members Bandu Manamperi, Pradeep Thalawatta and Janani Cooray. Though many of these practices began in response to the highly politicized and relatively isolated sphere of the late 1990s and early 2000s, today we see a more diverse aesthetic in reaction to local commercial and social issues, exchange with other regional practitioners (namely Bangalore and Lahore) and an increased global interconnectedness.

At Theertha’s event that evening, curated by performance artist Jeetin Rangher (who also happens to be a protégé of Inder Salim’s) it was interesting to witness the next generation – consisting of architecture, theatre and dance students – delve in and drive this form. For now, it is these ‘safe spaces’ such as Theertha and Mullegama Art Centre which allow for the most radical and experimental of interventions to take place, as they remain somewhat detached from urban society. This, and the comparative distance performance art has kept from the market, has made it one of the most consistently engaging forms here.

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

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