Vinoja Tharmalingam

A gaping wound is sewn back together before it begins to heal, the scar then becomes symbolic to one’s struggle and suffering. Vinoja Tharmalingam weaves together the fabric of those who have suffered as she narrates their story on her canvas and tapestry. How does one begin to heal and moreover, how does art contribute to the healing process of an individual? It is through initiatives as such that the Cancerfund-Galle exhibition was founded upon; Pakistani artist and writer, Mariah Lookman established the exhibition in attempt to provide a medium through which cancer patients find solace and healing through art. The exhibition brings together twenty-four artists from across the globe to aid in this initiative. The Cancerfund-Galle exhibition will begin at the esteemed Barefoot Gallery on the 17th of November 2021 till the 28th of November 2021 and will also open at the Galle Fort Art Gallery on the 20th of November 2021 till the 5th of December 2021. In documenting the process and initiatives of the exhibition, we converse with the artist to understand how she aids this process by retelling through her works of art the tales of agony experienced by disabled individuals. She believes that in the process of creating art and relieving these memories that one allows themselves that one begins to heal.

Hailing from the Northern plains of Jaffna, artist Vinoja Tharmalingam first realized her passion for art through dance. Inspired by watching her mother sew, she began to take up a hobby in sewing and drawing. Vinoja went on to receive her Bachelor of Fine Arts at the Visual & Technological Art, Eastern University in 2017. The artist is presently an instructor of Visual & Technological Art at the Swamy Vipulananda Institute of Aesthetic Studies, Eastern University. She has been part of several group exhibitions throughout the years including ‘Differently able’ at Mullivaikkal memorial London Art Gallery in 2019, ‘Post War Struggles’ at the Art Gallery, SVIAS, Eastern University in 2017 and more. Vinoja is also participating in Colomboscope 2021 and will exhibit work that focuses on movement within the island during the civil war and how it is written on bodies through experiences of disability.

Q | In your opinion, how does art play a role in the process of healing / catharsis?

The tragedies of war and losses are often the talks of the post-war period. Art focuses on the most profound contemplative ideas, conflicts, memories, trauma, and losses. My art forms the key to express deeply the thoughts that carry hidden truths, unspeakable stories, unwritten words and events stored in wordless silence. My work focuses on the lasting impact of war, aiming at depicting the everyday hardships of wardisabled people and orphans. I channel deep empathy for such lingering memories from the experiences in my own life and living and engaging with the community. I ask disabled women about their stories in a sympathetic manner. And they will be comforted by hearing their stories and relieve their mental stress. Such discussions with them form a process of healing to me and others.

Q | Hailing from Jaffna, to what extent do you believe art has recoded and archived the grievances of individual from the consequences of the civil war? And do you find a resonance between those works of art to ones that deal with healing/ catharsis differently?

The civil war that spanned over decades, has led to a series of crises, casualties, and loss of human lives in certain regions. As a result, people have had to face all of the tragedies of a lifetime such as perpetual displacement from their homes to temporary shelters without basic amenities. There was a continuous worry to protect children when people could lose their loved ones at any moment. Living in this situation is deeply unnerving. Whom does this conflict benefit? What is its aim? How can we live again freely? Who is right, and who is wrong? Who cares about the people? Does the armed struggle respond to their suffering? Such were the questions of people who were living in the war zone. Moments of intense movement and stillness persist until today in my life and the lives of others.

I record the trauma and memories of war witnesses, that of the differently abled people, of affected people, and of people living in the diaspora. My thesis is entitled "Persisting Effects of the End of the Sri Lankan Civil War in Mullivaikkal: Bringing out Stories in Contemporary Visual Art," and my art archives the stories of war affected people. I am also a member of the group "Artists for non-violent Living," which organizes exhibitions widely in the country and seeks to engage ordinary audiences and those affected by the issues our artworks archive. Through my artwork, I also bring out the stories of people who are most affected, extremely marginalized, and I believe in both, the healing and transformative powers of visual experience and the making of a non-violent community.

Q |What inspired you to engage with art, and choose art as a means of expressing yourself?

In my childhood, I was more interested in dance, but my mother was a seamstress. I was inspired by her, and I used to sew and draw in my leisure time. Then, slowly, I realized that I was passionate about art. The passion for art continued to permeate me and further grew with the great teachers' who taught me different methods. Pakkiyarajah Pushpakanthan, one of the most inspiring contemporary Sri Lankan artists and teachers, has been my mentor ever since; I am inspired and influenced by him and his art practice. When I was teaching at SVIAS, Eastern University, I met Dr. Mariah Lookman who was an Academic Consultant SVIAS. She was also a great inspiration for me. At the same time, meeting and discussing with other artists and friends also influenced my practice.

My practice reveals war and post-war situations, which inspired me to learn more about contemporary visual art forms. I have been provoked to use visual art forms by the trauma caused by the war. Trauma affects the brain’s speech center. The plight of the disabled, the people who lost their loved ones, had a deep impact on me. I express the painful stories using a visual language that takes reference from my experience, and as well as from the experiences of other people who do not have space to speak.

Q |What are you working on/ worked on for ‘Tonight No Poetry Will Serve’ and how do you perceive it playing a role in contributing to the framework set?

My work focuses on the differently abled and war affected people and engages with affected landscapes in Sri Lanka. My project also aims at triggering a conversation about environmental issues and how they affect human lives. At the same time, it raises funds for people who are suffering from cancer. Therefore, I am keen to participate in this show with my stitching works using fabric and thread, and sharing painful memories.

I am working with this material because people used damaged clothes in their bunkers and for makeshift tents that functioned as their temporary houses during the war. I myself also have this experience to use stitched fabric and merge it to make safe bunkers. People also used fabric for immediate first aid for the wounded parts of their bodies. Therefore, I feel that cloth is another human-made organ of our body and clothing plays a role in identifying each other among different communities. For me, to experiment with tearing, cracking, fading, and constantly sewing fabric helps me to express my emotional experiences. With this material, based on the stories of differently able people, I seek to reintegrate torn bodies into broken bones and broken lands. Through my work, I overcome borders between self and others and question war and its effects.

Q |What do you hope this exhibition ‘Tonight No Poetry Will Serve’ will achieve?

The publicity of the exhibition will be an inducement for victims of war. Let them have the aplomb that we are always there for them. Art also has the power to cure depression. Trauma can be a reflection of patience with consensual tolerance. I hope this exhibition will also be a healing process and emancipation for affected people. Also, I hope this exhibition will unite different communities and effect social changes.

Are you part of an organization looking to include cultural diversity? Do you want to introduce some of Sri Lanka's finest artists and legacies to enlighten your collective?  ARTRA Services will gladly offer counsel and guidance through talks, presentations and guidance on the local art scene and all it entails. For more details, call us on +94772305054/+94114545355. 

8th August, 2021 Visual Art | Paintings