London’s Brunei Gallery unveils its first show of Sri Lankan contemporary art.
Curator Annoushka Hempel talks to Art Radar about the contemporary art scene in post-war Sri Lanka and the fresh artists participating in Brunei Gallery’s first Sri Lankan exhibition. “Serendipity Revealed” opens on 9 October 2014 and runs until 20 December 2014.
Annoushka Hempel is Co-founder and Director of Sri Lanka’s Colombo Art Biennale (CAB) and proprietor of one of the island’s best-known contemporary galleries, Hempel Galleries. London-born Hempel attended the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), where she studied History of Art and Social Anthropology.
Hempel’s fourteen hand-picked artists showcased in “Serendipity Revealed” are:
- Reginald S. Aloysius
- Liz Fernando
- Kingsley Gunatillake
- Vimukthi Jayasundara
- Janananda Laksiri
- Cora de Lang
- Bandu Manamperi
- Nina Mangalanayagam
- Danushka Marasinghe
- Anoli Perera
- Mahen Perera
- Pala Pothupitiye
- Koralegedara Pushpakumara
- Pradeep Thalawatta
Art Radar asked Hempel about the impact of the thirty-year long civil war on arts and artists, the upcoming exhibition in London and what peace means now for the tear-shaped South Asian island as it bursts onto the global art scene.
Our readers may not know that the word “serendipity” was coined in 1754 and originates from an old name for Sri Lanka, “Serendip”. Is the title of the upcoming exhibition “Serendipity Revealed” in London a nod to the origin of the word?
The word “serendipity” associated with Sri Lanka is perhaps also an idealistic word representing serenity, the serenity of a perfect tropical island that lies nestled in the Indian Ocean. “Serendipity Revealed” attempts to uncover true stories.
What kind of stories do you hope to “reveal” through the exhibition?
When a country like Sri Lanka, which has had a very intense recent history, emerges out of a thirty-year armed conflict, there are many stories to be told. Not only the fight against terrorism and the huge number of casualties suffered as a result, but the events prior [to it]. History is written by some, news and events are covered by the media, but media reports are forgotten and propaganda and censorship have not been absent. Through the eyes and the hands of these artists, individuals’ real experiences and stories are told, not just as they occurred, but unfolding the narratives of the effects of those experiences.
How would you explain the current contemporary art scene in Sri Lanka to someone who is new to the country’s background and its creative traditions?
Sri Lanka’s current contemporary art scene emerged in the early 1990s as a reaction to the post-colonial modernist tradition as it attempted to seek a new identity of “Sri Lankaness”. The movement known as the “Nineties trend” was led primarily by a collective of artists called Theertha, driven by Jagath Weeresinghe and Anoli Perera. This group of artists not only paved the way for exploring new themes and media, but offered a strong support system that invited and mentored younger artists.
“Serendipity Revealed” includes Theertha artists – Pala Pothupitiya, Anoli Perera, Koralegedara Pushpakumara, Pradeep Thalawatta, Bandu Manamperi and Janananda Laksiri. Since then, and since the launch of the Colombo Art Biennale, more and more artists in Sri Lanka are developing their careers as contemporary artists using contemporary media.
You have lived in Sri Lanka for over a decade. How has the contemporary art scene changed since you first arrived?
I have lived in Sri Lanka for nearly twelve years now. When I arrived, it was not easy to get to know the art scene as there was so little available for the public to see. I spent my first year travelling and meeting artists, and then opened my first gallery space in Galle Fort. Although it was perhaps a little early to be opening an art gallery in that location, I felt it was an opportunity to invite artists to create bodies of work for exhibitions, as well as give the artists a reason to build their work. I do think that since the first edition of CAB in 2009, we have seen a massive change in artists’ works and the art scene in general. CAB was perhaps a contributing factor to giving some artists “permission” to create works beyond the conventional decorative types of works that are simply produced for commercial purposes.
What common themes are seen in contemporary Sri Lankan art? Are there many violent images and themes due to over twenty years of civil war?
It is not easy to live the life of an artist anywhere. Imagine what it must be like to live the life of an artist in a country like Sri Lanka during a civil war! Many artists put their practice on hold as it was more about survival. Those artists that continued to work during this period – of which there was not a small number, and mostly in the Colombo area – were artists whose means of outlet and expression were in visual art. All the artists had some experience of the war, mostly in the form of an injured or lost family member. Therefore it goes without saying that the themes in most of the artists’ works were very much driven by violence and war.
How did the near isolation of Sri Lankan artists during the Civil War shape the visual narrative of these artists?
The effects of being isolated from the global art scene on Sri Lankan artists is interesting. Having not been exposed to the so-called trends that circulate the contemporary art scene, the themes of these artists works are very direct and come straight from the soul. This makes these works very powerful and very moving as well as ‘fresh’.
Is there a new generation of artists creating in Colombo and beyond? Are they working with the same themes as their predecessors or something completely new? Any particular medium that these newer artists prefer?
There is what I call a new generation of artists, spearheaded by a collaboration between CAB and the Goethe Institute of Colombo in 2011. “Art Needs Space” was launched as a response to the lack of cultural spaces available to emerging artists in Colombo. 25 multidisciplinary artists were invited to participate in a one-year programme, which included workshops with artists and curators from outside the country. What emerged was a group of visual artists now known as the Collective of Contemporary Artists (CoCA). These artists have not been directly affected by the civil conflict, but are looking at socio-political and contemporary cultural themes. For the first time, in these works, I was seeing humour. They are using very interesting media in the form of new media and installation. Dhanushka Marasinghe is one of these artists.
Worldwide, some artists’ work is conceptual, others commercial. A third type of artist is a crossover artist, who does work that is both conceptual and commercially viable. What attributes make for a successful crossover artist? What artist(s) have you seen from Sri Lanka that could be considered crossover artists?
In my opinion, a successful crossover artist is one that works conceptually and is at the same time commercial without the intention of being commercial. The most obvious crossover artist in Sri Lanka, I would say, is Pala Pothupitiye.
Pala’s work is highly conceptual and at the same time quite stunning. Many of his most well-known works are done on old maps and other works are intricately put together with tremendous detail, making his work aesthetically attractive and therefore commercial as well as conceptually extremely powerful.
Briefly, please tell us more about the Colombo Art Biennale, how it began and how it is different to some of the other biennales, in that it exists to help promote local, emerging artists and help them show their work at international standards.
What makes CAB so different from other art biennales starts with the fact that it did not set out to be an art biennale. It started as a project between Co-founder Jagath Weeresinghe and myself as “let’s do something”, and moved to “art for change”. The concept of CAB was launched at a time when the country was in the midst of its most severe armed conflict, which did not look like it was going to end. This was a project seeking change through art – hence the theme of the first edition, “Imagining Peace”. It was only after we invited different curators and artists to participate that it started to look like an art biennale, and so we decided to call it the Colombo Art Biennale.
The other aim of the project was to showcase Sri Lankan artistic talent to the larger community and therefore participation was mostly Sri Lankan. The second and third editions of CAB have become international. The presence of international artists is very positive for the local artists from the points of view of both challenging them to raise their standards as well as the interaction between local and international artists prior to and during CAB. However, CAB was set up to create a platform from which Sri Lankan talent could be seen both within Sri Lanka and internationally. This remains our mission with a policy that fifty percent of participating artists are Sri Lankan.
CAB has collaborated with Hempel Galleries and other international art organisations in hosting exhibitions internationally, and so far many CAB artists have shown their work in Hong Kong, Dhaka, Delhi, Mumbai and now London.
Is Sri Lankan contemporary art gaining global attention?
The Asian art world and in particular China, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, as well as parts of India, are gaining global attention. Contemporary art in many parts of South Asia such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka is strikingly powerful and yet to be fully discovered.
Why is this exhibition being held at the Brunei Gallery in London?
The Brunei Gallery is a cultural space that also hosts “selling” exhibitions. The gallery specialises in exhibiting works from Africa and the Orient and is affiliated with the University of London’s SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies). I am an alumna of the University and they invited me to apply to curate this exhibition. The gallery has never shown works from Sri Lanka before.
The Brunei gallery is part of what is known as the London “Museum Mile”, along with the British Museum, the Courtauld Galleries, the Foundling Museum and others. It is therefore a very prestigious location to be hosting an exhibition and I am extremely honoured and enthusiastic to be undertaking this curatorial project.
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- “Readymade”: 9 Bangladeshi artists to know – August 2014 – New York’s Aicon Gallery holds first retrospective on top artists from Bangladesh
- 10 Female artists in Nepal to know now – August 2014 – top female artists challenge socio-economic and political themes in the Himalayan country of Nepal
- Artists and archives: how art books are inspiring Sri Lanka’s young contemporary artists – June 2013 – Asia Art Archive in collaboration with local art publisher Raking Leaves brings Mobile Library project to northern Sri Lanka
- Sri Lankan art on map with Pala Pothupitiye’s 2010 Sovereign Asian Art Prize win – March 2011 – Sri Lankan artist Pala Pothupitiye brings home top prize beating out field of impressive finalists
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