Self Portraits: CURATED BY T. SHANAATHANAN
New material possibilities available to contemporary artists have opened up a range of new approaches, practices and choices. The activities of artists’ networks, art museums, private galleries, biennales and art fairs have become influential in shaping contemporary art discourse. This has led to the rethinking of modern and pre-modern art discourses and practices. These changes have also destabilized and challenged institutionalized art pedagogy that focused on skill training. Hence the question exists: how to bridge the gap between the art pedagogy and art world? What is the role of art pedagogy in the contemporary art world?
In Sri Lanka, art education ironically became a stepping stone to secure government employment. That reduced the scope of art education to being an agent of manufacturing “non practicing artists”. This predicament in education has more and more encouraged the amateurization of art practices. Hence the crucial question here is to how to evolve new methods in art education to facilitate a socially engaged critical practice of art? Unlike before, free education in the country has made art education accessible to lower stratas of society, entangled within the crosscurrents of nationalisms, fundamentalism, capitalism, militarization, and other social and economic inequalities. But then the question is whether this under privileged section of the society has explored the possibility of art as tool to gain new agency? If not, then how is it possible to evolve art practices that engage with the changing roles of an artist? How essential are the personal histories in approaching and understanding lager social realities? On the other hand, a city-based art market controlled by capitalist interests and elitist aesthetics continues to support formalist approaches. This confines the scope of artistic expression within a small art community. How is it possible to bridge the gap between the social realities of contemporary world and the aesthetic expectation of contemporary art markets? How to achieve equilibrium among personal interests, social responsibilities and market expectations?
By taking into consideration above questions, this exhibition of visual arts by three Jaffna University graduates marks stage on a journey that we started in late 2015. This exhibition comes as part of a process that involved training the graduates, who have an ambition to choose art for self expression, through methods of mentoring and facilitation. A Similar exhibition, titled “Seven Conversation” was jointly curated by Sharmini Pereira and myself in July 2015, at the Saskia Fernando Gallery, Colombo.
The title of this exhibition emerged from the commonalities shared by works of these three individuals. Dharshiya’s works reveal the politics of identity from her gendered position. She uses embroidery both as medium as well as meaning in her art. Here embroidery is a medium that, being identified as feminine and associated with the hobby of elite women or livelihood of the economically poor, becomes a political weapon to question the social control of women.
Similarly Nilani’s series of pen and ink drawings of fences — by mapping the shifting modes of fencing during war, pre-war and post-war northern Sri Lanka— unpacks the idea of boundaries. In a way, her works try to understand her positioning beyond binary categories such as history /memory, personal /public, special/ temporal and actual/virtual. Her drawings portray fences not only as borders but also as symbols of ownership, power, belonging, and as sites of contestation and conflict.
Inkarn was, like many others, caught in the last phase of the Vanni war and went through the cruelest experiences. His sculptures present the artist as a victim as well as a witness. By using the materials and techniques that are employed in treating wounds and healing pain, he tries to portray his wounded self.
T. Shanaathanan 2017