Saskia Fernando Gallery opened its doors on 25 March to showcase researcher and artist Abdul Halik Azeez’s solo exhibition “Day Dreamer You Are”, a visual look at Sri Lanka’s prolific urban growth.
Azeez’s Day Dreamer You Are is the parsing of a staccato urban story told in glass, cement, and fabric detritus, but also in skin, sky, and water, capturing both Colombo’s urban growth and the accompanying human growth, or lack thereof, that comes with it. Azeez shuns the projected monumentalism of Sri Lanka’s current urban development, and instead pieces together the fleeting, contrasting textures and viewpoints that make the human experience of this growth, documenting the journey of places like Slave Island that have seen communities evicted in the name of urban (and aesthetic) growth, and capturing the quiet decay and devastation that comes with rapid urban growth.
Azeez is a researcher and artist who began his career as a strategy consultant, newspaper, and citizen journalist thereafter working as an independent researcher focusing on hate speech and critical discourse analysis. His photojournalistic work began as a researcher, using social media as a platform to publish his work and narrative.
Following his exhibition in 2014, he began to merge his work as a researcher and artist using photo reportage to capture images that document the change in contemporary Sri Lanka with a focus on the social and cultural lives of minorities and urban residents residing in slum areas. The work he confronts as a researcher has become a direct influence on his portfolio, documenting the lives of those who experience first-hand the effects of development and often those involved in trades with higher vulnerability or risk. Using a critical viewpoint, he explores the environment around him to create works that frame a dialect between the real and conceptual.
Speaking to Brunch, Azeez explained that a lot of his artistic work is an exploration of Colombo, but from a non-journalistic point of view, making note of the rapid urban growth and development that Sir Lanka has seen following our 30-year civil war. “I found that lots of changes are becoming more and more unreal and fantastic, where they almost kind of escape us,” Azeez said, adding: “We don’t have a correct understanding of why, but we’re growing and developing despite there being countless political issues, economic problems, and ethnic issues. I’m not trying to say that this is bad or give an opinion as such on this, but through my walks, I have become interested in the visual statements of this need for growth and progress.” Day Dreamer You Are records the process of this urban growth, the point of this urban growth, and the hidden cost of this growth, and how lower-income communities usually get left behind while the rest of the country continues to build and build and build.
Azeez also said that through Day Dreamer You Are, he also tries to look at what “growth” symbolises for us and what that means in the bigger picture, especially in a city that sees more and more high-rises being built, oftentimes at the loss of communities and their cultures, like in the case of those communities in Slave Island who were evicted to make room for large-scale urban growth. “No one interrogates if this is what growth means and if that is what it should mean to us,” Azeez said.
Day Dreamer You Are consists of photographs documenting Azeez’s wanderings around Colombo and other Sri Lankan cities as well as five handmade zines, small self-published works circulated independently by a single artist or a small group of artists. “The zines are basically for people to read and get some added context into what I’m thinking,” Azeez explained, adding that the zines are also an experiment in texture and form. “I’m very interested in texture when it comes to my photos, as well as just building a space for people to immerse themselves, slow down, and read a little bit.”
Day Dreamer You Are also includes a piece of writing in the format of a gazette, which can be read in situ at the exhibition and also ordered as a limited edition.
Anthropologist Vindhya Buthpitiya, who composed the foreword for Day Dreamer You Are, explained that through the exhibition “we are reminded, however, of the fragility of such lofty (day)dreamscapes by the conduits of cable and tape that weakly hold these haphazard, wishful prosperities together. We are reminded also of Azeez’s hand, revealed to us in his shadowy presence in a foxed mirror, in soldering these fragments into a tactile map and narrative of who and what is trapped between dereliction and development”.
Day Dreamer You Are will be exhibiting at the Saskia Fernando Gallery until 29 April 2021. The exhibition can also be viewed digitally on the Saskia Fernando Gallery website.