SEVERAL QUESTIONS AND SEVEN CONVERSATIONS
What does it mean to be a practicing contemporary artist? Beyond motivation, techniques, influences and intention what else is involved? To be an artist today involves sustaining a practice where you are actively involved in the process of art making. Though this sounds straightforward it is probably one of the greatest challenges to face any artist no matter how outstanding they may be. It is probably also the reason why so many artists end up choosing to move into more stable career paths after they graduate, favoring a job in advertising, teaching or IT rather than enduring what it means to set up a practice and sustain it. Yet why should the process of making art end up being any different to any other profession?
As an audience we are accustomed to seeing the final artwork by an artist, often in a gallery; on occasion in a studio. But what does it entail to have a studio, let alone a gallery, least one that acts on an artist’s behalf, represents you to collectors, nurtures your creativity, exercises your critical sensibilities and supports your professional development through discussion, opportunities and introductions? What are the mechanisms that encourage you to take risks when you are outside the freedom of an educational structure? How do you research your work be this watching films, travelling, reading or any other number of activities that develop ideas when you are not supported to do so? Such are the questions that face all new graduates when they complete their Fine Art training. When we decided to curate this exhibition these questions also informed our starting point.
For many years we have both talked, along with many other like-minded individuals, about the state of the art teaching system in Sri Lanka, and the lack of government support for professional contemporary art initiatives, arts organizations and grant giving. After working with several Fine Art students from around the country on an earlier project, Mobile Library1 we began to follow the progress of these young artists’ careers. Following their graduation in July 2014 we watched to see how they would sustain themselves in a country where there is little means of support for young artists. In Sri Lanka nearly 50% of artists in the country come from lower middleincome households and/or from rural areas. Our questions continued and our conversations with these artists grew. How can artists who live and work outside the art-market in Colombo be noticed was something that we encountered in our conversations with all of them.
What kind of changes must we make we were asked. Will an art teaching job in a government school further their career as a practicing artist or will it stifle the experimentation they were taught when they were Fine Art students concerned us to think about what other opportunities existed. For those that took jobs in teaching we told ourselves that at least they had a job, the same cannot be said for the others. Looking back at the teaching and curatorial work we had been involved with we wondered if all the effort directed towards helping them to develop the tools to think critically and conceptually with skill and expertise was in vain. Beyond the impact on individual artists we finally asked ourselves what was at stake for the country as a whole and if this merited trying to do something.
This exhibition is an attempt to introduce the Colombo art world to the recently passed out graduates from the University of Jaffna. All the works in this exhibition have been made especially for this exhibition as a result of over nine months of conversations between the seven artists and us. In the beginning nearly the entire batch of twenty graduates from the Art and Design Unit of the University of Jaffna showed interest in participating. In the end 13 artists dropped out due to either lack of funds to buy materials, the pressure of settling down and getting married, family interference or the offer of civil service teaching posts.
Of the 7 artists in this show only N. Savasen is represented by a series of paintings. His luridly painting canvases capture a child-like or naïve sensibility that stands in stark contrast to the graphic and explicit nature of the subject he explores. Similarly the exhibition is notable for including one video work by P. Pushpakanthan. Lasting just 30 seconds it shows the headshot of a screaming figure in a darkened confined space, howling in what appears to be pain or anxiety. The video is accompanied by three ink drawings titled Self-portrait I-III. From afar they show a series of upturned beds and tables suspended in mid air swirling in space like debris in a deluge. Up close the pieces of furniture appear to be wrapped in bandages or strips of cloth as if they have been taken hostage or subjected to torture. The mood of the work, like the video, is intentionally unsettling. By comparison G. Samvathini’s series of drawing scrolls play with another kind of psychological tension. Mapping her journey from Puttalam, where she lives, to Jaffna where she studied, the works can similarly be seen as self-portraits as she moved from one place to another back and forth over a period of 5 years. Her use of non-traditional art materials and found objects embraces an aesthetics of the everyday, where the materials and medium are already ascribed with uses and commonplace meanings. M. Vijitharan’s employment of seashells and farmer’s hoes, like S. Hanusha’s appropriation of teabags and tea strainers operate under the same aesthetic premise. Through their choice of materials both artists, introduce a powerful means via which to talk about locality and place; employing materials that are socio-politically inscribed. Hanusha’s delicately rendered drawings upon tea bags and strainers, arranged as miniature tableaus continue her interests into the plight of estate worker families. Vijitharan’s work likewise builds a narrative around a single object – the farmer’s hoe or mann vertty – as a symbol of displacement faced by the farming community during the last stages of the war.
As with much of the work in this exhibition the memory of the war looms in the shadows. In the case of K. Thabendran the memory of objects looted from his home during the war give rise to an image in which the lost object has been physically cut out of the photo-frame. The result is intentionally meant to make you aware that something has been cut, in haste, and removed in order to disturb the homestead where everything else remains in place. His photo-cut out series also capture an element of humor removing the potential of being seen as a victim of circumstance with gentle defiance as evidenced in the work that shows a well and water depicted with a missing plastic bucket. The mundane juxtaposition of what gives life – water and a well – with what makes a life, a plastic bucket, is hauntingly humorous. Amongst the many objects that were lost, stolen or damaged during the conflict in the north, was the letterpress printing blocks belonging to Krishnapriya’s father who was a printer. Her delicate, almost imperceptible, series of drawings utilize the printing blocks that remain from her father’s print studio. Using no color or inks she imprints small white sheets of paper with images and letters by hand. The resulting works recall memories of her mother’s life by blind embossing marks, dots, lines and selected motifs, drawn from her father’s print stamps. Though the paper surface is encoded with stories their visibility remains hidden.
As with any exhibition one of the most important aims is to engage with an audience. It is our intention and hope that the audiences for this exhibition will begin conversations and stimulate other questions that carry on from where we initially began.
Sharmini Pereira and T. Shanaathanan July 2015