Artists and archives: how art books are inspiring Sri Lanka’s young contemporary artists

Sri Lanka has launched its first contemporary art resource collection after a three month project with Hong Kong’s Asia Art Archive.

For three months in 2013, Jaffna residents in Sri Lanka have had access to books from Asia Art Archive’s collection as part of the Hong Kong organisation’s Mobile Library project. The Library will return to Hong Kong in July 2013, but local organisation Raking Leaves aims to extend the project by establishing Sri Lanka’s first contemporary art archive.

The new archive will provide an open resource for Sri Lankan artists and scholars, as well as providing Asia Art Archive with new materials.

The new archive will provide an open resource for Sri Lankan artists and scholars, as well as providing Asia Art Archive with new materials. Image courtesy Raking Leaves.

In this its second edition, Asia Art Archive‘s (AAA) “Open Edit: Mobile Library” project transported over 400 contemporary art books to northern Sri Lanka, where the materials were integrated into the University of Jaffna’s curriculum for three months. With the collaboration of Raking Leaves, a local nonprofit art publisher, over 1,500 art and design students, art professionals, teachers and members of the public made use of AAA’s contemporary art resources.

Lack of access to art resources is a problem “with no easy solution”

For local artists and students, access to such resources is rare, says Raking Leaves director Sharmini Pereira. Jaffna was once Sri Lanka’s second city, but years of internal conflict have left it depopulated and lacking in infrastructure, particularly in the arts. The lack of contemporary art exhibitions, resources or forums for critical discourse is, in Pereira’s estimation, “an ongoing problem with no easy solution.” And although the younger generation has embraced smartphone culture, Pereira points out that the internet is not a panacea when it comes to low levels of art education.

When asked if they would prefer to see the books online or in real, the overwhelming response from the students who visited the archive was to have access to the physical books. They said the internet is only useful if you know what you are looking for. Having access to the physical books gave them points of reference and provided an initial introduction into a cross-section of contemporary practice from the region.

With this is mind, Pereira and the Raking Leaves team decided to work with AAA to extend the life of the Mobile Library beyond three months, creating a “tangible output that is more than just experiential” for the local arts community.

AAA's books in the Mobile Library in Jaffna. When the project finishes the Sri Lankan archive will continue to collect contemporary art resources. Image courtesy Raking Leaves.

AAA’s books in the Mobile Library in Jaffna. When the project finishes the Sri Lankan archive will continue to collect contemporary art resources. Image courtesy Raking Leaves.

That “tangible output” is the Sri Lankan Archive of Contemporary Art, Architecture and Design, the first archive of its kind in the country. Aiming to provide a resource and record of books and other publications related to Sri Lankan contemporary art and theory, the archive could encourage Sri Lankan art critical discourse, “creating a repository of materials that might act as a catalyst for generating counter narratives,” hopes Pereira. The Sri Lankan archive also plans to share second copies of materials with AAA in Hong Kong, increasing awareness of Sri Lankan contemporary art internationally.

'The One Year Drawing Project", a previous publication by Raking Leaves which will be stored in the new Sri Lankan archive. Image courtesy Raking Leaves.

‘The One Year Drawing Project”, a 2009 publication by Raking Leaves which will be stored in the new Sri Lankan archive. Image courtesy Raking Leaves.

The three-month initiative will culminate in an exhibition of art created in response to the Mobile Library’s appearance, held in Colombo at the beginning of July 2013. Sixteen artists, selected through an open call, produced works inspired directly by their interaction with the archive and the resources it brought to Jaffna. Pereira notes that the Sri Lankan artists’ approach differed from participants in the Mobile Library’s first edition in 2011.

When Mobile Library was hosted by San Art in Vietnam the artists made work by editing or intervening into the books themselves. They took the books apart and did not shy away from working with the books in a more deconstructive or interventionist manner. By comparison none of the artists in Sri Lanka worked in this way: all the proposals were either based on responses to the content of the library or the creation of a new book.

Creating new art and new art books

T. Krishnapriya, a third year art student from Jaffna University, responded to the text Colonial Period Furniture in the Geoffery Bawa Collection by creating her own book in return. Commenting upon the looting of Jaffna’s cultural heritage throughout colonial history, Samvarthini’s book appears to be blank but, on closer inspection, each page shows “an object or curio, delineated as a hand-embossed line drawing, present but missing from view,” explains Pereira.

Internationally recognised artists have also responded to the Mobile Library’s time in Jaffna. Muhanned Cader, whose work showed at the 1st Singapore Biennale in 2006, used his established technique of collage to create a concertina or fan book filled with images of the library and its surroundings.

The Mobile Library's Jaffna appearance was the first time the project has travelled to South Asia. Image courtesy Raking Leaves.

The Mobile Library’s Jaffna appearance was the first time the project has travelled to South Asia. Image courtesy Raking Leaves.

The artworks will be presented in Colombo at the end of June, and the Mobile Library will return to Hong Kong, marking the end of this year’s Open Edit initiative. Pereira admits that it will take time to assess the impact of the project on the arts community, and says the best way to do so will be to watch how the third year students from the university develop in years to come.

In the meantime, the Sri Lankan Archive of Contemporary Art, Architecture and Design is developing an online platform and a programme of activities encouraging artists and scholars to engage with the archive. As Pereira says, “the momentum will be different to the Mobile Library, but the spirit of the project will live on.”

 Cassandra Naji

21

Related Topics: Sri Lankan artists, connecting Asia to itself, resources

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Artists and archives: how art books are inspiring Sri Lanka’s young contemporary artists — 4 Comments

  1. Pingback: Open Edit: Mobile Library in Colombo | CO-LIBRARY

  2. Pingback: How art books are inspiring Sri Lanka’s young contemporary artists | Cassandra Naji

  3. Pingback: OPEN EDIT – Archiving Sri Lanka’s books on art, a project by Raking Leaves and Art Asia Archive | KALAA KATHAA

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