A BIENNALE OF PEOPLE, FOR THE PEOPLE
When I took up the role of the regional curator for the Colombo Art Biennale four months ago, I never thought that this would be one of the best decisions that I would be making. What looked like an uphill and almost impossible task then, was in fact a utopian journey that brought people from different backgrounds and many countries to work together. This team, led by Annoushka Hempel, had an unparalleled motivation and selfless commitment to the arts, which is required to realize and overcome the limitations of Sri Lanka’s biggest art event.
The Colombo Art Biennale (CAB) is one of the youngest and also the shortest Biennale in the world and its backbone are the artists who have selflessly contributed to making this edition happen. In it’s third edition, CAB is showing fifty-two artists from sixteen nations who have worked on the theme of ‘Making History’ within budget constraints, venue limitations and short deadlines. From creating new works to sending previous works for the five venues, the artists have always been in constant discussion with the CAB team to creatively solve the problems of a Biennale that deserves more support from the Government and patrons from across the world.
The artists, through the mediums of photography, video, installation, performances and painting have questioned history and its authenticity, given that it is written by hands that we have never met or known. In their personal encounters with history, artists have focused on revealing alternate histories or the unheard voices that work beyond the political agencies. These personal histories touch upon the acts of war, loss and nostalgia and come alive in the works of Sharni Jayawardena, Liz Fernando, Anoli Perera, Sachini Perera and Natalie Soysa as well as in the recently commissioned graphics of Herstories, a project documenting the stories of women by Radhika Hettiarachchi and Shanika Perera.
The scars of imperialism and civil war that plagued independent Sri Lanka for thirty years are still fresh and as curators we could not escape it. We were often faced with the dilemma of choosing the direction the exhibition would take – shall we focus on the war or on the new histories that were being constructed in the post war era. A few works of art, that focused on male dominance in colonial academics (Pala Pothupitiya), or the political power of the crown (Mahbubur Rahman and Manori Jayasinghe) and the impact of war that left a scar on the artist (Pradeep Chandisiri) were selected to provide the basis of developing new histories.
Creating new histories is a laborious process and thus developed a section dedicated to the narratives of fallen heroes, often unseen in larger social processes. While Khalifa al Obaidly tags the migrant force in the Middle East that is engaged in creating the new wonder cities, Rakhi Peswani’s work ‘Inside the melancholic object (an elegy for a migrant labour)’ abstracts the labour that goes into harnessing the coffee and cotton as material, both products of colonial pasts in the sub-continent. It would be an appropriate moment for me to acknowledge the unseen heroes of the CAB – Puja Srivastava, Lalith Manage, Bandula Hewage, Malith Wijesiriwaradana and Louisa Brandt; who have not only inspired me to work tirelessly but have also been the ‘Spine’ of this Biennale.
Where do we go from here? This is a question that only time will tell. The third edition of the Biennale has been organized against the tide, but what if the tide is stronger next time. It is now the time to accept and recognize this event and ensure its continuance. Venues would need to be permanent and would require to be more flexible with their rules and allow for basic alterations in their spaces, which allow for possibilities when hanging artworks, painting walls or using spaces that are beyond the white cube. Art is not restricted anymore so why should the venues work within a boundary?
Susanta Mandal in his work and in a space dedicated to the use of technology (old and new) to record history summarizes this note for me. In ‘How long does it take to complete a circle,’ he questions the idea of history repeating itself again and again. The Biennale goes through these limitations every two years and the challenges are met with enthusiastically and it won’t be any different this year. As Laksiri points out in his video titled ‘Tightrope’: it was never meant to be a walk in the park, but a well-balanced approach to seeing it through.
(As the catalogue limited my word limit, I was unable to thank many people who supported me in this project. In the next few posts on the Biennale, I will like to take this opportunity to thank them. First and foremost, UCL Qatar for supporting me to take this project, Dr.Karen Exell for being my mentor and visiting Colombo to see the event, Argyris Karapitsanis, who kept me motivated throughout the project, Dr.Dina Bangdel provided me with insights into Nepalese art, Ben Barbour and Grace Murray, who supported by coming to the Biennale, Tessel Peperkamp and QMA for supporting Khalifa al Obaidly’s participation, Allison Snead and Brianna Landes, who helped me in my research, Giorgio Piga for the many discussions, and friends at UCL who supported this initiative and sent their love all the way to Colombo.)