Writing on contemporary Sri Lankan art at this ‘moment’ in history is difficult. It seems that most of the artists that made the last decades of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century, both young and not-so-young, have begun to prowl around once again for new ways and means of making art. But when looking at this ‘moment’ from the perspective of the Sri Lankan art of the 1990s, the contemporary art of Sri Lanka seems like it is waiting on a subtle state of silence! This is a hushed moment, hence the difficulty of writing about it. This ‘moment’ in the history of Sri Lanka is difficult to define. Is this ‘moment’ both ‘post-war’ and ‘post-conflict’?
The 1990s: Pluralism and ‘para-modernism’
The decade of the 1990s was an exceptionally creative period for modernist art in Sri Lanka. During these years Sri Lankan art went beyond the cusp of high modernism and entered a phase charged with post- or late-modernist criticality.
A whole new generation of artists equipped with a range of new ideas and concepts of art, themes for artistic investigation, and especially with an understanding of the idea of the artist as a political individual, have come to dominate the art scene in Sri Lanka. What is obvious when looking at this outburst of artistic talent is that the artists of the new generation are making a major theoretical assault on almost all the established ideas and thoughts on art making in Sri Lanka. What is also important to note here is that most of the animators of this high-powered movement are a group of young men and women who were forced to spend their teenage years in a highly chaotic social and political environment in their rural villages and hometowns. These radically new, yet artfully interesting young men and women are attacking the established ideas of excellence in art from a consciousness formed within the habitus of rural periphery, by positioning their bodies and lives as the crux of the matter of art making! In other words, ‘small-town’ Sri Lanka is impacting its mark on Colombo’s metropolitan art world.
In a way, most of the works of the artists who emerged in the 1990s seem to portray themselves as a group of people living with memories of violence, dispossession, and despair on the one hand, and as if they were casualties of the alluringly strange beauty and evasive nature of urban culture on the other. At the same time, the prime force that sustains their artistic activities, I would argue, is a struggle to convert the self-realization of their oppressed and marginalized position in society into a dynamism which allows them to surmount their despair and gain subsistence in the very society that undesired them in the recent past. In their artistic constructions they have transformed the frustrations, despair, and alienation ensuing from socio-political devastation and urban misimpression and chimera into ways and methods to become consummative and acknowledged in society.
The key feature of the art of the 1990s is its conscious effort to define art as an expression of ‘now’ and ‘right here’, art and the art making process as an expression of being contemporary. A majority of contemporary artists show a common conviction in their artistic efforts by necessarily placing themselves and their creative energies within the ‘current cultural moment’ and its immediacy, and less frequently in the distant past. This necessity to be in the ‘current cultural moment’ states a common idea held, consciously or unconsciously, by most contemporary artists: the refusal of a metaphysical narrative that couches a wish to be universal in a theological and trans-cultural sense. In other words, this position negates the established conviction that a work of art is an enclosed entity with an objective self-existence.
This position has liberated artists from two historical fetters; one from a tradition which was signified as ‘genuinely Sri Lankan’ within the anti-colonial and nation-building projects of the early and mid-twentieth century, and secondly from the confusing concept of art as the ‘self’ or ‘soul’s’ expression, where ‘self’ or ‘soul’ are defined as an apolitical existence. These new ideological positions have formulated into a formal body of artistic approaches and strategies, where the sentiments and sensations of violence and frustration, the tensions and passions of consumer society, and the material/carnal and visual situations of the urban and rural middle class could be brought into the domain of high art and of contemporary affluent society. The art of the 1990s is an issue-driven art and an engagement with problems that are directly concerned with the ‘living reality’ of society at large. 2000s: New directions: the playfulness and critique of hand-made realities
If art in the 1990s made its presence felt through ‘irony–critique’, by the beginning of the first decade of the present century it is more involved with ‘playfulness–critique’.
Two important aspects characterize innovative art trends of the first years of the twenty-first century in Sri Lanka. On the one hand they present a heightened sensitivity towards popular culture, consumerism and tradition, and on the other they show a strong tendency towards making art in the manner of making craft objects. The idea of the ‘hand-made’ is a strong presence in contemporary art practice in Sri Lanka. For some of the younger contemporary artists, making a work of art has become a process in which an ‘object of art’ (as opposed to a ‘work of art’) shrouded in visual pleasure, curiosity, and surprise is being produced. The ‘object’ thus created, while being capable of imparting visual pleasure, pushes the viewer into a realm where important issues pertaining to individuals and to contemporary Sri Lankan society at large are raised and confronted.
Currently, a decade into the 21st century, with a 30-year old war having come to an end in the battlefields in the north and east of Sri Lanka, Sri Lankan contemporary art seems to have embarked upon a new phase of searching that is imbued with a certain mood of indecision. Those artists who dealt directly with issues of violence are responding to the same issues with a much subtler and a nuanced manner. The current ‘moment’ is noiseless but tuned.
Professor Jagath Weerasinghe