By Sanjana Hattotuwa

Choosing four captivating exhibitions over the course of the year is inherently subjective and invariably a process that excludes other, perhaps equally compelling work. There is no escaping the fact that no matter what I choose, others will either vehemently disagree or enthusiastically endorse. Yet, knowing precisely this – that it is impossible to please everyone – makes my task easier. While I make no excuses for what follows, it is also intended to be a conversation starter around what contemporary art in Sri Lanka is and how we should respond to it.

The art I appreciate the most resonates in some way with the work I do, which is around activism, media, technology and rights. I observe and study more than I can ever purchase and collect, I speak with as many artists as I can, as often as I can about their work, I tend to avoid opening nights because they are the worst occasions to appreciate any artist’s endeavour and I speak with those who know far more than I about the art world – curators, gallerists, buyers and collectors. Through them, I discover a world that exists beyond my grasp or full comprehension, which controls and curates, and some may argue holds hostage, much of what we get to see in and around Colombo as contemporary art. And it is this context that I engage with in what follows, with a gaze that comes from a position of privilege – to critique as I do, and yet be entirely independent of the many hidden burdens that plague artists by virtue of their profession, location, subject, framing  and production.

NUWAN NALAKA’S ‘SUTRA’ in October at Saskia Fernando Gallery provided a fresh visual aesthetic that was in equal parts compelling and unusual. Using a lotus pond as a metaphor for society, the artist’s output was captured by a largely monochromatic palette. Far from stale or dull, the lack of a wide colour gamut served to focus the attention on each painting’s detail – from the key motifs to technique. The artist acknowledges the influence of Monet and far-Eastern calligraphic brush painting technique, which was most evident in ‘Sutra IV’, one of the paintings I really liked in this exhibition. If you looked and read closely the Sinhala script that was on outer frame, Nalaka’s unacknowledged influence by the likes of Magritte is also evident. Nalaka notes, inter alia, that his lotus flowers are not in fact lotus flowers, recalling ‘Magritte’s La trahison des images’, better known and loved as the painting that represents a pipe, ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’. Nalaka’s genius here lies in his interweaving of art history, the politics and metaphysics of representation and ‘Pratītyasamutpāda’, the teaching of the Buddha in the ‘dhamma’ around the nature of reality. You don’t need to know or realise any of this to appreciate Nalaka’s work, which is immediately and enduring meditative, even calming. The artist’s intent of using the lotus to represent calm and peace seems to have worked – every painting was an invitation to edge closer and observe many hidden features and figures, as well as step back, enjoying the frame in its totality as well as its juxtaposition with his other paintings. From the phallic to the feminine, from the supine to the priapic, Nalaka’s work is almost poetic, a visual treatise of sorts on karma, and the struggle of art to represent what it does, and also, cannot.

In 2017, Sri Lanka celebrated 150 years since James Taylor planted the first crop of tea. The government spared no expense in promoting this anniversary locally and globally. New websites were setup, a number of celebrations were held, new publications were released, and advertising campaigns launched. Few addressed the enduring violence around the production of tea, and the toll it takes on workers, their families and entire communities. By way of full disclosure, I oversaw a media project, using photography and other immersive, multimedia story telling techniques, to showcase throughout the year the hidden narratives and lives of the communities involved in the production of tea, whose faces, voices and stories one rarely hears about. It is in this light that HANUSHA SOMASUNDARAM’S ‘EMERGENCY’, curated by Saskia Fernando Gallery in March, provided extremely insightful, critical and compelling frames into the lives of Malayaga Tamils, of whom we know so little about, but savour and sip daily the labour of. Somasundaram’s art, displayed alongside works by Nadia de Los Santos and Mika Tennekoon, captured through tea strainers and actual time-sheets of the labourers the politics and conditions of tea production. Worth recalling here how Somasundaram frames her work, as noted in the SFG catalogue,

“My art is a representative of my society plucking tea leaves endlessly to make your cup of joyful tea. A respectable wage that is still out of sight after heart breaking efforts for generations, a life without the basic human needs and a troublesome childhood with so many barriers. No proper guidance and suffocation by leech bites are all part of my society’s routine life. My country earns from the tea plucked by my society and in return keeps my society begging. My aim through my work is to share their pain with the tea strainers and monthly pay slips as pale witnesses.”

I first saw Somasundaram’s work as part of ‘Open Space’, a collaboration between Raking Leaves and the Asia Art Archive, four years ago. Over the years, she has remained focussed on the conditions of labour in the estate sector, and in ‘Emergency’, a tea strainer becomes a symbol of the hardships of communities, an existential burden captured quite literally by how tea is strained. An everyday object is transformed into a vehicle to capture and contest the act of making a cup of tea. Like the lotus flowers in Nalaka’s verdant tapestries, Somasundaram’s use of an object renders it precisely that which it isn’t in ordinary life – a way to more fully appreciate the concerns, aspirations and challenges faced by the communities that produce tea...

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12th December, 2017 Visual Art | Paintings

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