Culture in the Making

'making history'
Colombo Art Biennale
31 January – 9 February 2014

The Colombo Art Biennale (CAB) opened its third edition on 31 January 2014. What was initiated in 2009, as a small local event for Sri Lankan artists, has now expanded quite substantially to include artists from the adjoining countries and those further afield. ‘Imagining Peace’ (2009), the theme of the first biennale, was launched at a time when peace was unexpectedly achieved after twenty-six years of civil conflict. The inaugural biennale was followed in 2012 with the explorative theme ‘Becoming’. Co-curator Suresh Jayaram, publicly mused in his catalogue essay on how ‘normal’ Colombo appeared to be, as there were fewer barricades, as well as significant ‘building activity’, which suggests ‘a buoyant economy’. In the event of forward looking nation-building, how does one address post-war anxiety, and how can artists temporarily provide an alternate language to communicate such tension? These were questions raised by the curators then and that still remain unresolved as we attend the 2014 biennale. However, I would have posed the question differently: How does a curator formulate a biennale in a post-war country where the art scene is still nascent and operates in the absence of formal criticism; and where the audience for contemporary art and performance as yet needs to be developed?

Facilitated by a heady mix of Sri Lankan and international curators, Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Neil Butler (UK) and Amit Jain Kumar (India) were selected to develop the third biennale theme ‘Making History’. Complimenting this team was Sri Lankan theatre practitioner Ruhanie Perera who curated the live performances and panel discussions. Curators Butler and Thenuwara acknowledged the intrinsic relationship between artists, their work, and the public, interpreting those interests in their joint catalogue essay. Amit Jain declared it to be ‘A Biennale of the People, for the People’ as his essay title.

CAB led with live performances, taking art to the street with Bandu Manamperi and Adrian Schvarzstein, or bringing performance into the exhibition space to respond to the artworks, with dance/theatre practitioners such as Venuri Perera and Thomas Pritchard. Manamperi’s Iron Man performance out on Park Street Mews, saw him taking off his formal shirt and trousers, meticulously ironing out the wrinkles and donning the outfit again. The image of the artist ironing his clothes in various stages of undress was photographed in front of various public monuments in Colombo, and was shown at the JDA Perera Gallery along with other biennale works. Performing as he does, half-dressed in front of grand neo-baroque buildings—the Town Hall, Old Parliament Building, and Colombo National Museum—Manamperi critiques these formal structures, which are representative of history and national identity, through an informal and highly personal domestic activity out in the public sphere. Satirising these lauded monuments through his simple performance, the artist, as a lone actor, contests the authority of the established power structures which dictate decisions regarding democracy, ethnic divide or even art history.

Complimenting this narrative were four works by Pala Pothupitiye. History Maker (2014) was a large monument of a nondescript male holding a degree and in full graduation regalia which partially covered his exposed lower half. Placed behind this were two paintings History Maker I and II (2014) which appropriate ready-made maps of India that have a South-North orientation. Through a mishmash of ideas and techniques, a figure in graduation cap and gown, was painted into the map. The concept was to illustrate ‘colonial education’, according to the artist, but what he meant exactly by that remained unclear. In a city where so many public monuments are dedicated to men, I could not help but wonder if Pothupitiye was making a mockery of the dominant patriarchal frame. What worked quite beautifully in terms of form and concept was his Jaffna Map. The focal point of the Sri Lankan civil war and ethnic tension, Pothupitiye drew on the Jaffna islands, transforming them into a tiger (for the LTTE) and a lion (Sri Lanka); the islands mutated into fearsome beasts, each reaching out to consume the other.

Pushpakumara Koralegadara’s Illuminated Barbwire (2014), with twinkling lights and transparent plastic tubing imitating the form of barb-wire, was intended to highlight a history of violence. However, the tubing, as a soft, transparent and almost invisible material could barely convey a sense of tension. Perhaps the result would have been different if actual wire was used, bringing together two different forms to convey two very divergent ideas at the one time. Along the same lines was Pradeep Chandrasiri’s installation of a table and two chairs surrounded with coal, Things I told, Things not heard and things I tell now, (2014).

Layla Gonaduwa’s The Silverfish (2014) had an extremely strong and potentially contentious subject, which could have been presented better. Single-handedly tackling the legitimacy of war, history, religion, racial and ethnic stereotypes, through the subversion of an historical document, Gonaduwa contested the authenticity of the Mahavamsa (The Great Dynasty), a chronicle of Sri Lankan origin documenting the rulers and their subjects, between the 6th century BC to 4th century AD. Including the beautiful and familiar form of the silverfish as an agent of decay, the document was reproduced and presented on a table ridden with holes. Key junctures in the record were subtly altered, to challenge the supposed canon, thereby raising doubt on a text that is considered sacred in Sri Lanka. Audiences who read Gonaduwa’s altered text might wonder if history has been misinterpreted.

Conceal of Marks (2012) by Dhanushka Marasinghe, another strong work, was a roughly four minute video loop of a man in army boots leaving his footprints in the sand, then gently concealing them with a rake, in turn leaving its own marks behind. Metaphorically addressing the erasure or alteration of history, Marasinghe proposed a scrutiny of historical revisionism through a layered and elegant approach. It is through the inclusion of such works that the curators of CAB took calculated risks. And there were many other artworks that stood out, showing multiple perspectives on history, which varied from the national to the personal. Nina Mangalanayagam explored her half Danish and Tamil identity through a set of nuanced photographs of a family wedding, some relaying palpable tension; Liz Fernando’s quiet publication-as-artwork recalled her father’s childhood memories of his hometown before the civil war, through photographs and anecdotes. Gihan Karunaratne, on the other hand, took the conversation beyond Sri Lanka to highlight the globally relevant topic of contested public spaces. Seemingly banal-looking maps with architectural markers of central London were coloured and outlined into zones in which protesters could be contained. Looking at these mappings, theatre practitioner Jake Oorloff commented on how theatre and art could address social or political issues by presenting a narrative far removed from the local or the familiar. Indeed, as artist Olivier Grossetête’s cardboard People’s Tower came toppling down at the Independence Square on the final day, I wondered if its political implications had been considered.

Mahbubur Rahman, Replacement, 2014. Leather from used army boots, fabric, military uniform, embroidery.

Dhanushka Marasinghe, Conceal of Marks, 2012. Video loop, 04.08min.