Conceiving Space: Colombo Art Biennale

Various Sites, Colombo

After attending a host of high powered biennales in Asia this year, I found the Colombo Biennale in Sri Lanka to be the least ostentatious. Featuring established and emerging artists from Europe and, mostly, South Asia, this low key exhibition, that was founded in 2009 by the British gallerist Annoushka Hempel, continued its mandate to bring local artists and regional concerns to an international platform.

In this fourth edition of the Colombo Art Biennale (CAB), Alnoor Mitha, the London based curator and Senior Research Fellow at the Manchester Metropolitan University, brought together a host of works that mined current and past historical events in his exhibition titled Conceiving Spaces. Although the calibre of the works in the show was not consistent, and the frustration of finding different venues was exacerbated by Colombo’s hot and humid environment, Conceiving Spaces should be applauded for the way in which works from Sri Lanka and the Pakistani diaspora excavated new ways and methodologies of presenting basic human concerns.

At the Prana Lounge, one of the quaint temporary spaces that are often used in South Asian Biennales, the works took on a more personal resonance through being outside the white cube setting. For instance, the Bahrain-born US-based artist Ghada Khunji’s photographic self portraits, The Dark Ages (2016), brought home the necessity of subverting preconceived notions of religion and identity. By presenting herself as the Virgin Mary, and as a female Christ-like figure stabbed with swords, Khunji drew attention to her own humanity as a Muslim woman feeling singled out and ostracised in today’s deeply contentious environment. In the adjacent room, UK-based Hardeep Pandhal used cartoons and prickly doodles in his Jojoboys series (2014), to recount the history of the Camp Coffee label that was first made in Glasgow in 1846. Original images of a Sikh man waiting on a Highlander drinking coffee have been revised, over time, to present the coloniser and the subaltern sipping coffee together. Pandhal’s humorous though unsettling figures and scribbled remarks raised lingering issues of class and cultural differences.

A different kind of dissonance emanated from Danushka Marasinghe’s paddy field and sound installation Walk(er) (2016), made in collaboration with Isuru Kumarasinghe. Hosted at the Red Dot Gallery that was founded by the Theertha Foundation—one of the first artist collectives whose strong response to the Sri Lankan civil war came to be known as the 90’s Trend—Marasinghe’s work echoed Theertha’s approach of questioning the socio-political climate. His room full of grown potted rice plants, not only represented Sri Lanka’s agrarian prosperity and its staple diet, but the ambient sound of insects and creatures from actual paddy fields also created a hidden, lurking sense of unease. By referencing Sri Lanka’s ostensible stability, Marasinghe pointed to the country’s current amnesia regarding years of suppression, which remains dormant in its consciousness. Similarly, Priyantha Udagedara’s eerily decorative paintings of flowers reference and camouflage the lives of sex workers from the war. Their feet and hands jut out from the exuberance of the flora.

For younger emerging artists like Savesan Nallaiah and M. Vijitharan from the northern territory of Jaffna, which was the stronghold of the minority Hindu Tamil Tigers during the thirty-year civil war, the canvas became a crucible of raw emotions. Nallaiah’s bright childlike images of unacknowledged brutal atrocities against women, and Vijitharan’s fine graphic renderings of the destruction of civilian life in Jaffna, gave voice to their unheard perspective.

Conceiving Spaces might be seen as a collection of individual expressions that dignify human existence. There was the Pakistan-born US-based artist Ruby Chishti’s delicately sewn landscape from recycled textile, The Present is a Ruin Without the People (2016), that honored homes abandoned during conflict. Or Sujeewa Kumari’s meditative installation that conveyed her longing for home, through her video of a stone Buddha that she found on a snowy day during a residency in the Netherlands. These works recast new and refreshing spaces for our associations with objects and memories. Even Liz Fernando’s fading archival images of Ceylonese people, before they were called Sri Lankans, redefined the necessity of holding on to disappearing moments from history. In this way, Conceiving Spaces helped solidify CAB’s onward journey towards gaining a strong footing in the world of Asian biennales, and becoming a place where the international community can turn to find significant regional art.

Liz Fernando, Passage of Time. Installation detail; Photograph Jonathan Wijayaratne. Courtesy the artists and Colombo Art Biennale.

Sujeewa Kumari, The timeless order of nature. Installation detail, strings, seats, coins and cloth, 9 min. video; Photograph Jonathan Wijayaratne. Courtesy the artists and Colombo Art Biennale.

Ghada Khunji, The Dark Ages, showing (left to right) That was then…. Photo montage on canvas with wood, lace and incense, 124.5 × 76.2cm. This is now…. Photo montage on canvas with wood, lace and incense, 124.5 × 91.5cm; Photograph Jonathan Wijayaratne. Courtesy the artists and Colombo Art Biennale.

M. Vijitharan, The Last Moments, 2016. Mixed media on board; Photograph Jonathan Wijayaratne. Courtesy the artists and Colombo Art Biennale.