The Cargills International Women’s Day Festival – The Changemakers, presented by Table by Taru and Kaleidoscope with Savithri Rodrigo in partnership with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), successfully conducted their third session on 15 March.
Day three of the four-day-long festival celebrated women who have revolutionised the creative arts under the theme The Creative Forces.
Introducing the panellists for the evening, host Savithri Rodrigo said: “Art is an expression of oneself. The women here today have each captured their own unique essence in the creative field today, and are currently renowned for the work that they do.”
The panellists featured were undoubtedly forces to be reckoned with, each having succeeded greatly in their respective fields. Author and publisher Ameena Hussein,
interdisciplinary artist and Pro Helvetia awardee Layla Gonaduwa, and Chitrasena Dance Company Principal Dancer Thaji Dias were the esteemed panellists for the evening, with Rodrigo as the moderator.
Starting off the session, Rodrigo threw a few interesting questions to ponder upon, such as: “Do women in the arts have a voice? How do women navigate spaces where there are cultural barriers and various norms that they have to adhere to? How do these women become champions of change while inspiring others to move with them? How do we get out of that box of being objectified and subjectified?” All of these and more were the main point of focus at the event.
The norms don’t apply to me: Ameena Hussein
Ameena Hussein gets personal, speaking about how she navigated her creative space in the context of gender bias, and the general perception that women in the arts field are always battling reputational risk, or being objectified. She commented: “I remember with my first book, Fifteen, it dealt a lot with sex and lesbianism. I was really naive when Fifteen was published; I thought that because the book was out there anonymously, nobody would know me. Very quickly, people came up with questions like ‘who is this woman?’, ‘what is she writing about?’, and a lot of people believed that I was writing about my personal experiences since they do not understand the notion of fiction.”
She went on to explain that over time, she had to develop thick skin to be a writer in the Sri Lankan industry.
In this day and age, writing is seen as an appropriate avenue for a woman, especially in a conservative country like Sri Lanka, because it is quiet, solitary, and you can do it at home while looking after your children. Hussein stated that in her case, she is exactly the opposite, so these norms don’t apply to her.
Giving us some insight into her creative process when writing, she detailed that her writing has a lot to do with research, stating: “It is important to know what you are writing about, especially when it comes to history or religion. If I’m sloppy with my research and cannot recall where a certain fact is from, it doesn’t go in my book.”
She also shared an anecdote from her very first publishing experience, in order to disregard the fact that her fictional writing is based on experience, where she revealed that her editor disregarded her first draft because it was too opinionated, and focused on herself and her thoughts.
Speaking about why she tends to write from a woman’s perspective, she said: “I am a woman, so my whole landscape, my whole world is coloured by that fact. I want to portray key cast women because I don’t think I’m the only person around.” She revealed that her next book may be from the perspective of a man.
Everything depends on how you perceive the world: Layla Gonaduwa
Touching on the subject of politics within the creative industry, Gonaduwa commented: “I think artists do have a platform to be within their political stance, but it has to happen organically. When you look at my work through an ecological sense, it all depends on how you perceive the world, how you take it forward, and how you act on it, in a very individual sense.”
She also opined that after university, many don’t choose to pursue their dreams in the art field. Commenting on how much that has to do with gender and finance, she stated: “I won’t say it’s financial, because then it affects both male and female. What happens is most of them get married to people within the university, and there is a conscious decision that the male will take on the artist’s role, and the female takes on the nurturing role.”
She added that she understands that women are naturally drawn to the nurturing role, but having said that, she added: “When you look at people that I come into contact with, they’re struggling to find the time to even engage in that activity, because they have so many other things to do while supporting the husband to be an artist.”
She also explained that when it comes to single women, they prefer to go into teaching. “The highest number of female graduates go into teaching, and they don’t practice art at all. So, it is very discouraging. Actually, the numbers are not neat when it comes to females,” she observed.
Reputational risks were the norm for me: Thaji Dias
Thaji Dias began by stating that reputational risks were the norm for her, as she grew up with a family of dancers who were all strong women that poured their lives into their career in the dance field. “I have never been questioned whether dancing is demeaning, because it is an art form that comes with a lot of respect.”
There is this general perception that women come with a lot of baggage, because of the multiple roles that they have, Dias opined, and said that this is true because women have multiple roles to fulfil. Speaking on women in the art field, she said: “I think there are more artists who are recognising that there is definitely a disparity, because when you look at the numbers, the percentage of females that are eligible for university, and the ones who enter the finance stream with 75% eligibility, is almost more than 50%.” Despite that, she explained that there are a handful of artists who practice and engage in art, after being in university.
We are just recovering from a global pandemic, and now is the time to heal. Dias highlighted that healing is what dance is all about. “It began as healing, and we continue to do it, even on stage as healing for people. But I think for us as a company, right now it’s about also helping out the artists themselves, because we have a lot of artists who are struggling and depend on the rituals to earn their living.” She added that the academy would not exist if artists hadn’t paved the way for them, and that’s why it is their turn to help them.
Photos Saman Abesiriwardana