Sri Lanka’s second Biennale of contemporary art revealed an artist community fiercely engaged with the political
The recent Colombo Art Biennale 2012, “Becoming”, was a natural progression from the impulse that had driven the first-ever biennale of contemporary art in Sri Lanka, “Imagining Peace”, held a few months after the war came to an end in 2009. In the run-up to the inaugural biennale, the country was still steeped in civil war and “imagining peace was about as hard as negotiating a jungle of landmines,” as artist Pradeep Chandrasiri put it.
But, as the founders of the biennale, Jagath Weerasinghe and Annoushka Hempel, had hoped, the theme provided the country’s artists with a cathartic release that resulted in an important body of work. The resonance of the works in the original edition seemed to have gathered force in the nuanced personal and political expressions — of memory and loss, of quiet and hope — in the second.
Curated by Suresh Jayaram of 1 Shanthiroad, a studio and visual arts trust in Bangalore, and Roman Berka of the Museum in Progress in Vienna, the biennale was staged in mid-February in the Sri Lankan capital. The show was modest in scale (with about 40 artists participating, 23 of them Sri Lankan), but had its flashes of brilliance.
Take, for instance, 31-year-old Pradeep Thalawatta’s work, Disappearing and Reappearing Landscape: the image of a re-emerging landscape was drawn on paper with a soldering iron. The technique created burned dots in the paper which were then peeled off, making the work look like an intricate etching. Thalawatta, who grew up in Ratnapura and studied art in Colombo, worked in Jaffna for nine months shortly after the war ended, and “was struck, during bus rides between there and Colombo, by the sight of war-charred landscapes struggling to come alive again”.
Equally strong and provocative was An Atlas by Pala Pothupitiye, who reworked official maps of Sri Lanka with pen and ink in his novel subversive style. Jagath Weerasinghe’s The Black Egg Boxes, a sculpture of piles of charcoal-grey egg trays, seemed to confront the viewer with the disquieting question: What is black, the eggs or the boxes? Wasn’t the senior artist and scholar, whose works always hold a leashed turbulence and violence, questioning the value systems operating in Sri Lankan society ?
Chandragupta Thenuwara, 51, another veteran, produced a set of semantic paintings captioned These are not white flags, an allusion to allegations that the Sri Lankan army killed Tamil Tigers even though they were brandishing white flags — an issue that continues to make headlines in national newspapers. Each of Thenu’s delicately painted white flags held a slender jagged fringe of a different design and colour; each was as chilling as it was conceptual. “I can feel no joy, too much is lost,” the Colombo and Moscow-educated artist-academician said the evening the biennale closed. The artist has earned repute also for his ongoing Barrelism project, complete with manifesto, which derives its chief image from the brightly coloured oil drums used at army checkpoints all over the country. “What are we becoming: citizens or subjects? I will be no subject” he said.
The biennale showed that Sri Lankan contemporary art has gained in vitality in the last decade. However, it continues to remain firmly out of the mainstream, and is virtually unknown outside the country. Dearth of exposure and sale of work are its toughest problems, according to Thenu and Weerasinghe, who, along with the 42-year-old Shanaathanan, mentor the rapidly growing younger generation of artists. Most artists come from working or middle-class families and need to teach or do other jobs to make ends meet. The two editions of the biennale were the first comprehensive exposition of contemporary art in the country.
Other artists too chose serious themes for their work: Jesper Nordahl of Sweden produced a video work, Yakkuoo, on the working conditions of women employed in free trade zones in Sri Lanka; Dominic Sansoni mounted a stark photo-essay The Jaffna Home, while Kannan Arunasalam presented I Am, a multimedia exploration of identity through the life experiences of an eclectic group of Sri Lankan elders. The works were near-anthropological in approach and in depth. Humour surfaced sporadically, for instance in the playful roguery of Austrian Christian Eisenberger’s cardboard-box elephant with tusks made of white plastic cups: in Indian artist Vibha Galhotra’s Neo Monster, a giant golden balloon of an earthmover (placed bang in the lobby of the National Gallery), an ironic reference to the booming construction activity on the island.
The show carried no thread of triumphalism. On the contrary, several works, including those by Fireflies Network, a collective of women artists, boldly critiqued regional and national dialogues on issues such as “national security”, “national identity” and “development”. The Fireflies’ floor map-installation of the island as a booming construction site appeared to probe, among other things, whether President Mahinda Rajapakse’s spate of glamorous development projects (cricket stadium, luxury hotels, malls) in his poor, sparsely populated southern constituency would benefit the sons of the soil. While Chandrasiri’s A Table and Four Chairs was a symbolic allusion to the process of discussion, it looked menacing and transported one back to the extreme nationalistic agendas that blighted the island’s recent history, and, perhaps, hinted at a similarly fraught future.
By Gunvanthi Balaram, freelance art critic