Serendipity Revealed: Sri Lankan Contemporary Art

5 Iron Man (2014) by Bandu Manamperi

“Now, in the aftermath of the war there is a period of silence. The sort of silence you get right after a period of intense noise. You could call that silence peace. But the noise, even though it has stopped, is still ringing in your ears. As artists we need to explore the wild past and to make people aware of what went wrong and to open up a discussion. It is difficult for this generation to talk and to remember what happened. The only place you can really talk about it is in the art.” – Vimukthi Jayasundara

SRI LANKA IS an island of contrasts. It is a nation divided. Still, five years after the end of civil war, there is a tension that exists between the north and the south of the island. It is this enduring tension that has meant for centuries that the island’s social history has been peppered with conflict. But Sri Lanka is also referred to as the pearl of the Indian Ocean, the land of Serendib … .

The works on show in London give a peacetime perspective on this war-torn country. The end of the 30 years’ civil war in 2009 provided the country with a catalyst for a major boost to its creative and artistic energy. Since then The Colombo Art Biennale (CAB), numerous film festivals, a fashion and design week, plus a host of other cultural events have capitalised on this new beginning and have contributed to an amelioration of the local population’s appreciation of the arts. But so far this has been on a domestic scale. Serendipity Revealed is about bringing contemporary Sri Lankan art to a global audience. For two and a half months the Brunei Galleries are dedicated to the work of 14 artists, all Sri Lankan by birth, or ancestral heritage. This is the second instalment of the exhibition – the first was at the China Art Project space in Hong Kong in December 2013. However, the Brunei Gallery is a much larger space so it has enabled more artists’ work to be included.

The very title of the exhibition, Serendipity Revealed, echoes the duplicity of Sri Lanka, ‘It is touching on the idea of this double-edged sword,’ says Annoushka Hempel, curator of the exhibition and co-founder/director of CAB, ‘on the one hand, Sri Lanka is a very serendipitous country – things just happen there, it is magical the way things come together. Yet there is such a paradox, it is quite violent – historically. Each artist has their own story to tell, their own take on Sri Lanka, which is in every instance candid and captivating. The stories the artists are telling are stories you will not read in the press, or even in literature. This is both because of censorship, and because these are deeply personal and emotional stories and in some cases very painful’.

One of the featured and best-known artists exhibiting is Anoli Perera. Her works engage acutely with Sri Lanka’s confused cultural heritage. First colonised by the Portuguese, then the Dutch and  finally the British, Sri Lanka’s cultural history is uneven at best. In Chair II: Entombment Perera explores ideas about national and personal identity, memory and remembrance. The bulbous organisms on the chairs are filled with snapshots of individuals’ histories, the chair, in a way, acting as cenotaph. ‘As Sri Lankans our authenticity is marked by an intense hybridity. But over the past few decades, in our eagerness to build a national image in the post- independence era, we have tried to purge this hybridity from our history.’ Perera says, ‘My work is about revisiting our history that is fast forgotten among our insecurities and misplaced nationalism.’

Female artists are well represented in this exhibition. A nomad artist, Cora De Lang spent six years living and working in Sri Lanka. In her series of embellished found objects, Envelopes, she explores the notion of journey. Each well-travelled, well-handled envelope on display has an individual history and story to be told. Of Sri Lankan Tamil and Swedish descent, Nina Mangalanayagam uses analogue photography to explore her unfixed identity. ‘My work deals with the idea of family in a world where families are dispersed over the globe.’  She says, ‘I use the personal as a starting point from where to explore wider issues such as cultural difference, belonging and questions of identity’.

Liz Fernando is also an artist of the so-called Sri Lankan Diaspora. Raised in Germany, but of Sri Lankan heritage, Fernando works primarily in lens-based media. Her work is a dramatic fusion of anthropology and modern photographic techniques. For Serendipity Revealed, Fernando presents a brand new series of photographs focusing on human intimacy, something markedly different between her native Germany and her ancestral home in Sri Lanka. ‘I am working very much from my own experiences in South Asia,’ explains, ‘Young people here rarely touch, they seem shy. It is very different from how I grew up’. The product of two years of research, these photographs take as their subject the interiors of Sri Lankan hotels where young couples often book rooms to meet each other. ‘Intimacy is such a basic, fundamental human concept and yet in this culture it is transformed into something rare and precious.’ The photographs take the pregnant space of the empty rooms as their focus; a detail such as a stain on the wall or a tear of the wallpaper hints at human presence. ‘Even though they are empty they are full of emotion. I am trying to get an anatomy of these rooms.’

Reginald Aloysius’s mysterious temples loom out of the undergrowth of his highly textured canvases – a blend of photography, painting and drawing. He intersects these ruins with a series of horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines, sometimes drawn sometimes cut directly into the canvas. These lines are based on aircraft flight paths; they are routes of migration. ‘Drawing relates to other processes of cultural mark making, including the introduction of a international style of modern architecture that inscribes itself on age-old landscapes and cultures. I reference such structures in the paintings through a series of thin lines that suggest a tension between the old and the new, between the architecture of ancient temples and modern skyscrapers, offices and apartments,’ he comments. Aloysius is presenting two new pieces for this exhibition.

Mahen Perera’s manipulated found objects demand to be touched, ‘I like the idea that they have a braille-like quality about them’, he says, ‘My process is very atomistic, very primal’.  Perera adds to and develops his sculptures using a variety of techniques. Pieces that started as debris or scraps of material take on new dimensions once afforded a highly polished surface or a textured patina. The resultant works have a residual, archaeological feel to them.

All of the artists are working with what is around them, and what is around them is often in a constant state of flux. Commercialism and industry is booming with new building projects initiated daily. A number of the artists choose to express this state of change through new media. Janananda Laksiri, for example, works with digital photography to create multimedia installations, whilst the internationally renowned film director Vimukthi Jayasundara is exhibiting a 28-minute long film entitled Light in the Yellow Breathing Space. The screening is accompanied by a projection of an analogue film projector and a soundtrack. ‘The concept is to bring back the emotions surrounding traditional cinema,’ he says, ‘Going to a cinema hall today you will not hear the sounds of the projectors because everything is digital’. It is a simple piece practically, but the emotional response Jayasundara hopes to draw from his audience is deep and poignant. This foray into video art is a first for the Cannes prize-winning feature-film director. Serendipity Revealed provides another first – two short films by the talented young filmmaker Danushka Marasinghe, who is showing in London for the first time. Eyes (2014) and Conceal of Marks (2014) both deal with an intensifying sense of oppression as a result of the increased surveillance in Sri Lanka in recent years. In Conceal of Marks we witness a leather-booted protagonist methodically creating patterns in sand with a broom, only to cover them over with new ones a short time after. The work adopts a vocabulary of tradition but smacks of an anxious political climate.

There is undoubtedly an underlying violence and sense of protest revealed in this exhibition. Barbed wire is a perennial trope in Koralegedara Pushpakumara’s work. Imagery common in Sri Lankan contemporary art. Here, this barbed wire comes in the form of flashing coloured tube lighting. Its message is direct. It is a diatribe against the civilian suffering and pain during the war and the continuing violence in Sri Lanka. ‘But it is a different kind of violence now,’  he says, ‘There is no human torturing with barbed wire anymore or disappearances … the violence is not physical anymore’.  The work of Kingsley Gunatillake echoes these sentiments. His bullet-punctured books give a stark portrayal of the agony of the war and the enduring impact it has had on the country.

Pala Pothupitiya’s decorated maps are an expression of the struggle against colonialism and the pursuit of unification of a country still smarting from decades of conflict. In the maps, land masses become tigers and lions, the seas a mass of treacherous textures.

Truly these artists wear their hearts on their sleeves. And perhaps none more so than Bandu Manamperi – a performance artist using his body to highlight Sri Lanka’s inherent paradoxes. Manamperi feels passionately that the seed of the war lies in language and miscommunication. He believes performance art has the power to transcend these boundaries. ‘Everybody has a body so it’s a means of communication that everyone can understand,’ he says, ‘We are born with a body but not born with a language’. His work Iron Man (2014) is a video performance piece where he takes an ironing board to the streets of Colombo and proceeds to iron the clothes from his back. This reconnecting idea is omnipresent in the art of Pradeep Thalawatta. Roadscape (2012), which traces the artist’s personal journey from Colombo to his teaching position in Jaffna, in the Tamil region of Sri Lanka. Thalawatta takes as his inspiration the vertiginous road to the north of the island; using collage he offers us a picture of a reconnected Sri Lanka – the two halves of the country brought together through a collective journey and shared experiences and emotions.

The word ‘serendipity’ means a fortunate chance happening, perhaps it can also be suggestive of an untroubled, carefree attitude, but in this exhibition the artists certainly care. It is a cacophony of emotion, protest, and passion. Yes, the works in the exhibition are very revealing of the internal disjuncture within Sri Lanka, but more importantly perhaps, it also revealing of a serious level of talent, as of yet relatively unheard of on the global stage. It is an exciting time for this small country. There is a maelstrom in the Indian Ocean and it is heading this way.


From 9 October to 20 Decemberat The Brunei Gallery, SOAS, Thornhaugh Street, London,
Sarah Bolwell flew to Colombo to interview artists courtesy of Sri Lankan Airlines,