- A look at Colomboscope 2022
Sri Lankan art, despite the global and local doom and gloom, pushes forward undeterred with Colomboscope, one of Sri Lanka’s largest art festivals opening last weekend. For the uninitiated, Colomboscope is a contemporary arts festival and creative platform for interdisciplinary dialogue that has grown steadily within the cultural landscape of Colombo since 2013.
This year, the festival has worked with a range of intergenerational artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, social theorists, and scientific researchers from Sri Lanka and internationally delivering a focused programme with each festival edition held at key historic sites in Colombo. Several of the cultural practitioners participating in Colomboscope have gone on to show their work within regional and international exhibitions.
The festival organisers are committed to building a sustainable and context-responsive environment for cultural producers to continue generating path-breaking, collaborative, and genre-defying approaches in the field.
Known for pushing boundaries, Colomboscope (not for the first time) takes place at multiple locations around Colombo – namely the Public Library in Colombo 7, the Rio Cinema Complex in Colombo 2, the W.A. Silva Museum in Colombo 6, Barefoot Gallery Colombo in Colombo 4, Lakmahal Community Library in Colombo 3, and Lak Cafe at Viharamahadevi Park in Colombo 7.
Brunch was taken on a preview tour of three of Colomboscope’s six locations and given a sneak peek of the festival ahead of its formal opening which took place on 20 January.
Returning under the overarching theme of “Language is Migrant”, the concept of this year’s Colomboscope stems from a poem-manifesto by Chilean artist and poet Cecilia Vicuña titled Language is Migrant. In this manifesto, Vicuna wrote: “Words move from language to language, from culture to culture, from mouth to mouth. Our bodies are migrants; cells and bacteria are migrants too. Even galaxies migrate,” and this sets the theme of this year’s festival.
Colomboscope examines how artists compose, decipher and perform as vital travellers and storytellers, often repairing relations by drawing material articulations from deep losses, silence, and erasures while inventing language forms as bridges between communal narratives, official records, and submerged histories.
The festival brings together intergenerational cultural practices from across Sri Lanka, South Asia, and varied international contexts fostering global dialogue. Curated by Anushka Rajendran with artistic director Natasha Ginwala, several commissioned artworks and long-term projects will mobilise acts of transmission that embrace collective synergies and refuse parochial attitudes that are on the rise while dwelling in place. Instead, the channelling of sonic frequencies, live acts, and spaces of reading become elemental instruments that sustain the traffic of creative processes, biographical timekeeping, engaged listening, and senses of diasporic belonging.
The Colombo Public Library
The calming facade of the Colombo Public Library serves as a charming background for Colomboscope, nestled off to the left of the main building in the Library’s auditorium, Ginwala and Rajendran have curated a space for reflection. Generously spaced out across the expanse of the auditorium, the work of Mounira Al-Solh, Pakiananthan Ahilan, We Are From Here, and Cecilia Vicuna takes centrestage.
Speaking a little on the importance of the library as a venue, Ginwala explained that part of the reasoning behind choosing the library was the fact that many people have memories attached to this building, and Ginwala, Rajendran, and the team at Colomboscope felt that within this layered official of what a library can offer as knowledge, the focus of the library, in general, is a place where the focus in on individual authors, Colomboscope offers a collective voice, focusing on collaborative work with artists locally and regionally.
One piece that draws the eye is the work of Pakiananthan Ahilan, a Jaffna-based art historian and poet, whose work is an attempt at materialising poetry. Moving away from grand narratives and mythologisation of the past, Ahilan examines how language, architecture, and living traditions perform as a multitudinous common ground of the Tamil experience. The works on view at Language is Migrant are, in his words, “poetry installations”. Layers (2021) and Muted Speakers (2021) were first conceived as part of the exhibition “One and Many – Forms of Words and Silence” organised by Kälam, a Space for Cultural Encounters in Jaffna. These works extend the corporeality of poetry from the sphere of thought into modes of civic address. Ahilan lends figuration to the silencing of speech and redressal through Earth as a healing force, while gesturing to the stirring nature of human effects that refuse oblivion.
Lebanese-Dutch artist Mounira Al Solh’s showcase for Language is Migrant is a collaboration between the artist and 20 local women – “In Blood In Love”. Mounira’s work spans performance, painting, video, and textile-based installations often drawing upon various mother tongues to bring together fiction, biography, and collective narration addressing experiences of displacement, wartime, linguistic affinity, and refugeehood.
“In Blood In Love” ( مّدلاب بحلاب ), that involves groups of women across Sri Lanka, treating as its starting point, 50 words that relate to love, compiled by Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyya, a 13th Century Islamic theologian and writer who was born in Damascus, and translated from Arabic into French by Moroccan feminist author and thinker Fatima Mernissi. For the Colomboscope iteration of this project, these expressions were translated to Tamil and Sinhala and shared with a group of 24 women who created an embroidery-based textile installation piece.
We Are From Here, the interactive visual art project that documents the development of Slave Island and how its essenece s being lost modern property development also included a feature wall Ashray. Over the past two years, the people behind We Are From Here, the collective has been working over two years collecting souvenirs, picture albums, heirlooms, and ephemera left behind, sold away as scrap, gifted, and donated, accompanied by sound recordings with community members, and thereby, conceiving an archive that not only narrates of dispossession and displacement but also brings recognition to philosophies of pluralistic living, forgotten stories, minor historiographies, and tales of places that no longer exist. Ashray offers new readings through communal testimonies, challenging the hierarchical role of “official documents” that have a menacing history in people’s lives, more often used to instigate fear and discomfort than provide rights and accessibility within the city. An interesting feature of Ashray is an old-fashioned telephone that plays audio interviews with residents around Slave Island recounting how the area has changed over the last few decades.
Barefoot Gallery Colombo
The history of the Barefoot Gallery Colombo as a venue is, to be honest, quite unparalleled. It is one of Colombo’s most prolific artistic and creative venues. Ginwala and Rajendran envisioned the Barefoot Gallery as telling a story based on textiles with embroidery practices and textile art used as a way of dealing with and documenting personal histories and biographies.
The Barefoot Gallery features the art of Areez Katki, T. Vinoja, Hema Shironi, and Abdul Halik Azeez, all of whom tell powerful stories through their medium.
- Vinoja’s work, for example, is intrinsically connected to the Sri Lankan civil war, and functions as a personal chronicle, telling stories like widowhood and the other traumatic stories of those who have lived through the war. Vinoja’s work also sees symbolism like landmines work their way into the textile. Through meticulously placed dots, cloth patches, burns, and lines, Vinoja composes an experiential ground. An installation made entirely of bandages yields a totemic form that reveals how pain memory is a place that may fall silent but never fully retreats.
Hema Shironi reflects on experiences of internal displacement and home as a state of flux. As in her series “A Bundle of Joy”, a set of embroidered cloth bundles reveals the domestic abode as a site of affect, memory-keeping, and mapping life beyond linear time. Shironi frequently returns to cloth in order to address biographical narratives, tales of homecoming, eviction, and belonging. The artist gives form to itinerancy by recomposing architectural spaces from private memories onto surfaces such as fabric, paper volumes, and metal. Her use of stitching connects with maternal links as her mother and grandmother are skilled at tailoring and always kept fragments of textiles from saris and fancy prints to furnishing cloth at hand to reuse and repair, charting an interior history of use and context, appearing in Shironi’s work as familial souvenirs patched together, and evoking communal legacies.
The translucent layers of her installation, The Walking House, create a time portal in which the entrance facade of a home is intricately mapped with various household activities, heirlooms, and other than human inhabitants, including traditional chicken coops.
Reading in Tongues: The Lakmahal Community Library
Reading in Tongues, the reading room at Language is Migrant, is a literature-based showcase at the newly opened Lakmahal Community Library. Hosted at a self-organised, family-run, community library, Reading in Tongues proposes an unbridled heterotopia for radical intimacy, care, and communal empathy in the unknowability of another’s experience of the world.
Reading in Tongues is drawn from ideas of feminist and collective literature, and features a major presentation of Cecilia Vicuna’s poem-manifesto Language is Migrant, which was what served as the inspiration for the entire edition of this year’s festival.
Creatively, this year is off to a flying start, and the power of Colomboscope’s art this year is that tells a very important story, the power of language, and how it plays a role in our development individually and as a whole, especially for those of who frequently cross borders.
Colomboscope takes place until 30 January at six locations across and comprises a variety of installations, exhibitions, performances, and events. For more information, please visit https://www.colomboscope.lk/programmes.