In conversation with Anoli Perera

The term ‘memory-keeper’ may be unfamiliar as a cultural symbol, but it is one that is emblematic of the feminine role in most communities. It is an identity that characterizes a woman who passes down culture onto future generations, ‘keeping’ the nation’s legacy and maintaining its traditions. In her works, contemporary artist Anoli Perera employs the analogies of floral work to represent femininity, and their occupations as ‘memory keepers’. It is the theme of femininity and identity perceived through the subversion of floral motifs that we attempt to explore of Anoli’s works in ARTRA’s Subverted Flowers edition. The motifs applied in her work, from floral objects, memorabilia and flower-patterned symbols are those that are indicative to the connotations that have been associated with the role of ‘memory keepers’. These motifs are symbolic to her works, demonstrating the significance through which women were perceived and depicting the vitality of the essence of memory-keeping as it was a crucial medium that carried and passed down culture, while facilitated by colonial symbols that have similarly personalized the feminine stereotype through fabric and design. Thus, we find Anoli’s works subverting flowers in the environment of gendered categories, identifying communities and culture and additionally, addressing the colonial legacy of the nation through floral emblems.

Anoli Perera received her art education at City College, Santa Barbara and Artworks, Princeton, USA. Her studies in Political Science, Economics and Sociology at the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka in the early 1980s were followed by a postgraduate diploma in International Affairs from the Bandaranaike Center for International Studies, Sri Lanka. Her works have been exhibited in Colomboscope, Colombo, Sri Lanka, 2019; 4th Edition of Kochi Muziris Biennale, Kochi, India, 2018; Colombo Art Biennale, 2009, 2012 & 2014; ‘Artful Resistance’ Museum of Anthropology, Vienna, Austria, 2009 and Museum der Weltkulturen, Frankfurt, Germany, 2010 amongst others. Her work was included in the exhibition, ‘Greetings from India’ organized as part of 5th Edition of Jimei x Arles International Photo Festival in November 2019 in China. She was invited to show at the launching exhibition of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Sri Lanka, ‘One Hundred Thousand Small Tales’, 2019. Anoli Perera is a co-founder of the Theertha International Artists Collective, a progressive art initiative based in Colombo. She currently lives and works alternatively in New Delhi, India and Colombo, Sri Lanka. This edition of ARTRA Magazine, in its attempt to subvert flowers, features a collection by the artist from visual depictions of objects and paraphernalia that carrying the notions of floral imagery and patterns. In exploring the subject of subverting flowers, we converse with Anoli Perera as she dissects the ways in which she has implemented the floral motifs and what of those represent cultural and colonial nuances.

Q | Throughout your works, the motif of flowers and floral patterns have been used rampantly - in both visual and applied forms. What do they reflect, in your opinion?

A | I have used flower motifs in a series of works particularly for works done on memory. Some of them are ‘The Blue Cupboard (2012)’ and Memory Cachet (2013). In the case of ‘The Blue Cupboard’ I have used the floral-patterned cloth to refer to women as memory keepers.  The use of cotton fabric with floral patterns for clothes worn at home (lungi/ frocks and skirts/ dressing gowns) are very common among women.  As such to me, these floral patterned fabric are embedded with meanings referring to that gender context.

I have also used crochet lace with floral patterns for many of my works such as Comfort Zone (2004), Entombed: White Chair (2013), Laced (2018) and others. In these instances, I have used crochet as something that signifies women’s decorative arts. It certainly references women’s space. Crochet inherently has floral motifs and during colonial period it was an element that enhanced the femininity of women’s dress and a work of art that shows women’s skill in needle point art. Crochet is part of our colonial legacy.  By using these floral-patterned lace, it brings about many layers of historical and cultural readings to the work.

Anoli Perera, Dinner Table

Q | In ‘Dinner Table (2013)’, you have used the symbol of a rose in a rhythmic pattern. Is there a significance to its use and flow?

A | In the work 'Dinner Table' (2013) I have used a particular floral rose patterned to refer to aesthetics and cultural nuances of our colonial history. I have used it as a backdrop to a family photo of my grandfather and mother with relatives posing behind a long table.  My parents come from the Deep South 'Matara' and they had the values of Sinhala Buddhist nationalists but they also had a large portrait of King George V and Queen Mary in front of their dining table as long as I remember. I have used this very English rose pattern as the backdrop for a family photo while drawing a very Sinhala design (liya val) in the foreground to show how comfortably people use and fuse the colonial and the national when they want. In ‘Silent Sitter I-III’ too, the central figures emerge out of this rose wallpaper denoting or emphasizing the hybridity of our 'national' ancestry.

Q | What floral works intrigue you, especially those done by other local artists and why?

A | Priyantha Ugadedera’s floralscapes are quite intriguing particularly the way he uses beauty of the flowers to lure the viewer to expose them to a deeper narrative.  I remember Jagath Weerasinghe’s early works of flowers on an altar which was very powerful. Pala Pothupitiye has used fabric with floral prints as well as painted motifs in his series of headgear referencing the southern traditional dancer’s head dresses.

As we explore the subversion of flowers and floral imagery in Anoli Perera’s works of art, we find them strongly representing femininity, women’s space in society and their occupation, facilitated by the conventional perspective of flowers for the feminine silhouette. In ‘The Blue Cupboard (2012)’ on page 41 and ‘Memory Cachet (2013)’, on page 25 Anoli employs paraphernalia and memorabilia that showcase floral imagery to aid her stance on presenting women as memory-keepers, and subsequently, significant figures in communities who sustain and maintain culture. In contrast, Anoli’s ‘Dinner Table (2013)’ featured on the cover page addresses the history of colonial rule through her use of roses set as a backdrop against a photograph of her family; roses, in particular are national emblems that identify the British rule and therefore, the amalgamation of her family and the roses create a space of cultural hybridity withstanding time and space.  

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27th January, 2022 Visual Art | Paintings