First-ever virtual festival comes to a close
By Venessa Anthony and Naveed Rozais
Last weekend (15-17 January), Sri Lanka Design Festival (SLDF) concluded its first-ever virtual festival, celebrating Sri Lankan design on a global scale through a variety of virtual events and unveilings.
Conceptualised by the Academy Of Design (AOD), SLDF 2021 marked SLDF’s 10th year, and amidst the backdrop of 2020 and the pandemic, the first-ever exclusively virtual SLDF.
SLDF 2021 focused on the theme “impACT”, driving home the importance of sustainable design, innovation initiatives, and the creative industries in helping Sri Lanka find its way through the pandemic and into the new normal. The virtual event showcased fashion and design initiatives in a bid to motivate the Sri Lankan design industry to act and contribute to creating a meaningful, positive impact whilst bringing in much-needed new exports through design-driven innovation.
SLDF 2021 featured initiatives and discussions on change and the power of innovation with their Fashion Innovation Showcase, which aimed to provide a platform to drive positive change in Sri Lanka’s apparel industry. The platform showcased initiative breakthroughs from the local apparel industry that combined design and technology in manufacturing to create impact. One such initiative was the conscious controlling of the excess stock of lingerie products manufactured by MAS Holdings that were used to create new collections and reduce waste.
Innovation is a war that must be fought on multiple fronts and all levels, something SLDF 2021 highlighted through “Change Makers” – a three-part discussion series hosted by design anthropologist and Without Borders Co-Founder Kavindya Thennakoon which focused on reimagining the education system, healthcare system, and modern-day technology. Through the “Change Makers” platform, SLDF looked at discussing new approaches to learning accessible, equitable, playful, and outcome-driven methods as to how innovators can rethink health and wellbeing from hospitals and care institutions to our homes, and how young people can leverage technology for good.
Also driving home the importance of innovation, the DesignTech Conference presented by SLASSCOM Women Technopreneurs Forum in partnership with Academy of Design (AOD), hosted by SLDF, discussed the role and impact women can bring towards driving innovation in terms of design and sustainability, with seven renowned speakers in the industry discussing the importance and need for equal gender representation in their field.
Shining a spotlight on Sri Lankan creatives and artists, SLDF 2021 celebrated two of Sri Lanka’s most renowned creative personalities through its series Creative Legends.
On day one of Creative Legends, SLDF paid homage to the beloved Sri Lankan artist Ena De Silva, who is credited with re-establishing the country’s batik industry with architect Channa Daswatte, exploring her designs and the mark she has left with her legacy. Day two featured gurus and artistes of Chitrasena Kalayathanaya, one of Sri Lanka’s oldest and most prestigious traditional dance schools who reflected on the ephemeral and energising nature of dance and the continuous struggle they face in order to preserve Sri Lanka’s traditional art forms while innovating for contemporary audiences.
SLDF 2021’s Artist Spotlight was celebrated artist Anoma Wijewardene, with SLDF 2021 providing an exclusive look at Wijewardene’s latest series “Vivikta: The new extraordinary” on display at her home, through a guided walkthrough of the series with Wijewardene herself and Sunethra Bandaranaike. The Artist Spotlight also included a presentation of three art videos created by Wijewardene in collaboration with musicians, dancers, writers, and poets, as well as an in-depth discussion with author Ashok Ferrey and Wijewardene on her monograph Anoma, which encapsulates 50 years of her work on sustainability, diversity, unity, and transformation.
SLDF 2021 also celebrated music and creativity, collaborating with the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) on Press Play, a series of specially curated playlists conceived by the MMCA Sri Lanka in collaboration with artists, designers, curators, art historians, and arts organisations including the art history students of the University of Jaffna; musical educational institution Musicmatters; ADM Architects; rapper, singer and lyricist Cv laksh; musician, artist, and activist Ajith Kumarasiri; and artist collective – The Packet.
Since its inception, SLDF has championed the need for sustainable thinking, especially in design.
SLDF 2021 took this agenda forward with its Designed Experiential Tourism and Sustainability Conference building on Sri Lanka’s vision of being a sustainability influencer by sharing its own island initiatives in industries such as tourism, and by sharing the impactful progress made in the South Asian region. The keynote speaker at the Designed Experiential Tourism and Sustainability Conference was former Bhutan Prime Minister Dasho Tshering Tobgay, speaking on how Bhutan, as a carbon-neutral country, builds circularity and sustainability into their daily work and plans for the future.
Another thought-provoking forum on sustainability was the Creative Economy for Sustainable Development Forum which explored the potential for the creative industries to provide new dynamism in the economy and fresh opportunities for inclusive growth with a focus on greater environmental sustainability.
SLDF 2021 also saw the launch of Sri Lanka Craft Week, highlighting the impact that can be created at the grassroots level with Sri Lankan artisans and how design can empower artisans and allow them to build sustainable livelihoods while preserving cultural heritage crafts and craft techniques.
Leading through design
SLDF 2021 highlighted what leading designers in Sri Lanka are doing today with the Design Katha series, a series of informal talks hosted by AOD to promote design knowledge and design thinking and also provide insight into contemporary design and what is going on in the design landscape. The Design Katha series featured panels of designers from various industries from advertising to architecture to gem and jewellery, coming together to discuss key design issues and how they can be overcome.
SLDF’s Featured Designers segment also talked about what today’s designers are doing with a spotlight on AOD alumni sharing their creative endeavours and how they as emerging designers are effecting change.
The Featured Designers segment highlighted five notable AOD alumni – Amesh Wijesekera, Umanga de Alwis Kulasekera, Hash Bandara, Poornima Meegammana, and Kasuni Rathnasuriya.
Wijesekara graduated AOD in 2015, after which he moved to London and showcased his graduation collection, he has also showcased internationally at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week held in Berlin and Sri Lanka. Wijesekara spoke on managing the “new normal”, stating that the last two years have been challenging for us all, but as creators and innovators, they think, evolve, inspire, and adapt to the situation and our current climate, adding that they learnt how they can branch our skills to other arenas. He also highlighted that fields like architecture, interior design, fashion design and technology all go hand in hand, and this is the time that they can all come together to make an impact in the current situation and contribute to change. He spoke on defining the undefined and breaking conventional boundaries, and highlighting cultural fusion, contemporary design, and unique aesthetics to an international audience. His brand, launched last year, is all about colour, culture, creativity, and collaboration. Through his brand, he aims to share a piece of himself to the world.
Hash Bandara shared her thoughts on creating cultures to embrace impact through design with spaces and ideas that involve individuality and authenticity, She expressed that when she’s a hundred percent comfortable in her own skin, everything that she creates with that freedom impacts her work and everyone around her. She shared her story in hopes that one would be inspired by it and achieve comfort in one’s own self. Her passion for skateboarding fuelled her desire to create a skateboarding culture in Sri Lanka, and thus her brand Push Skateboards was born. Push was inspired by Sri Lankan culture and art, combined together with modern and contemporary art to create skateboard art merch and a lifestyle centred around skateboarding. With her brand, she provided a platform for teenagers to explore their creativity and talent.
Filmmaker, animator, and activist Poornima Meeegammana used storytelling as a powerful tool to create a lasting impact detailing empathy-driven lessons, values, experiences, and ideas. She stated that, as we all know, there’s a lot of problems in the world and spoke about the importance of people working together to solve them and create a lasting impact.
In addition to the work she’s currently doing in the creative field, she also runs a few social development projects – Next Gen Girls in Technology is one of those. This project focuses on bridging more women into the technology centre and increasing diversity. They perform training programmes from students in school and university in order to create a network of females who support each other in the tech sector. Meegammana is also part of a project called Nextgen Creative Leaders which looks into bringing diversity into the Sri Lankan creative industry by providing platforms for the marginalised youth from the suburbs and rural areas.
Umanga Kulasekera, another one of SLDF 2021’s Featured Designers, spoke about her brand UDAK and how she uses her brand as a platform to give new life to heritage craft and a modern voice to Sri Lankan artisans. Kulasekera explained that it is her firm belief that humans have a responsibility to help each other and this belief in her subconscious is what led UDAK to practise sustainability in style.
UDAK works with handloom communities in Sri Lanka’s hill country who practise the Dumbara style of handloom weaving, an intricate form of handloom that works intricate shapes and motifs into the handloom textile. Dumbara handloom is a craft that predates the Kandyan kingdom (abolished in 1815 by the British), and the community of weavers UDAK works with, traces their line of descent from the weavers who used to weave cloth for the last King of Kandy, Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe. The weavers have been taught their craft from generation to generation, perfecting their technique over the course of their lives spending more than 50 years weaving in many cases.
As a brand, UDAK works to build awareness of a dying craft that is also an environmentally sustainable form of textile making. Kulasekera shared that handloom’s impact on the environment is very limited because the textile is handmade and uses no electricity or washing in its construction. She also commented that UDAK as a brand will continue to be a voice for these artisans, using this timeless craft to create contemporary clothing for the modern, conscious consumer.
Another featured designer whose works revitalises ancient craft through meaningful, timeless fashion is Kasuni Rathnasuriya with her New York-based brand KUR. Rathnasuriya was born and raised in Southern Sri Lanka, an area of Sri Lanka whose culture is heavily introduced by the Portuguese and Dutch who once settled there. KUR works with beeralu lace, a bobbin lacemaking technique introduced to Sri Lanka by the Portuguese, developed by the Dutch, and a craft that has grown into a quintessentially Sri Lankan textile.
Rathnasuriya explained that beeralu lace, like every other craft in the world, is on the verge of extinction. Through KUR, Rathnasuriya includes beeralu lace on her signature looks, using the craft to create timeless crafted pieces for the international consumer. She explained that she works the beeralu lace in its traditional form because she feels it is very important to maintain the aesthetic of the craft and showcase the craft on a modern platform while maintaining its heritage. KUR’s collections often feature beeralu lace with motifs that have been made for centuries.
Nurturing future talent
SLDF 2021, like all its previous editions, embraces the powerful role that design plays in the future as a platform that launches future-ready designers into the local and global design market.
SLDF 2021 saw Reveal, AOD’s 2020 Graduate Exhibition, taking place both virtually and physically. The exhibition, held annually, sees AOD’s newest batch of design graduates exhibiting their work for the Sri Lankan design industry with the view of securing jobs and internships as young designers.
Underlining the power and importance of future talent is Mercedes-Benz Fashion Talents, part of a long-standing partnership with AOD and Mercedes-Benz, designed to amplify the power of Sri Lanka’s new fashion designers. Mercedes-Benz Fashion Talents was AOD Fashion’s Class of 2020 presenting their final-year fashion collections virtually through a series of individual fashion show video presentations curated by the team at AOD.
Through all their events this year, even though most were online, SLDF successfully managed to showcase the impact they generated over the years.