In many countries and cultures, modern art tends to fly under the radar, with attention paid more to classical and 19th-Century art.
This is not to say that modern artists aren’t recognised, but that sometimes their work isn’t treated in quite the same way as older art is, especially when it comes to preservation, documentation, and exhibition. There can often be an exclusion of sorts. Perhaps because modern art is not as easy to understand as older art, and also possibly because we don’t yet know which artists will stand the test of time to become legends along the lines of Van Gogh or Vermeer (whose work, incidentally, only gained recognition after their deaths and has been preserved only because of museum collectors and the like who saw the need to preserve and protect such work).
The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Sri Lanka (MMCA Sri Lanka) is Sri Lanka’s first museum dedicated exclusively to modern and contemporary art. Launched in December 2019, the MMCA Sri Lanka has been quietly working towards establishing a public museum dedicated to the display, research, collection, and conservation of modern and contemporary art for the benefit and enjoyment of the general public, schools, and tourists.
Most recently, MMCA Sri Lanka collaborated with Sri Lanka Design Festival 2021 (SLDF), creating Press Play, a series of specially curated playlists conceived by the team at MMCA Sri Lanka in collaboration with artists, designers, curators, art historians, and arts organisations from Sri Lanka.
The Sunday Morning Brunch connected with MMCA Sri Lanka Chief Curator Sharmini Pereira for a look at the MMCA Sri Lanka story and Sri Lanka’s contemporary art scene.
Tell us about the history of the MMCA and how it came together.
In 2016, a group of artists, museum professionals, art historians, collectors, and art supporters had a conversation about the need to establish a museum that was dedicated to modern and contemporary art. Our efforts were originally driven by the need to preserve and conserve modern art which, if we think about it today, is art nearing 100 years old, when you think back to works made by artists like Lionel Wendt in the 1920s.
As our conversation continued, we also recognised that museums in Sri Lanka have sought to serve the past at the exclusion of the present which leaves out vast areas of cultural production in terms of modern architecture, design, art, craft, and film.
Our next step involved setting up a founding committee, which brought together a group of people that recognised that, above all, an art museum needed to be a place of learning and enjoyment where all communities were not only welcome but were reflected as active participants in its decisions and activities. The challenge was to make this a reality and to deliver a museum of modern and contemporary art where everyone feels welcome and leaves wanting to return.
What is the MMCA’s larger vision for Sri Lankan artists?
Our larger vision is to build a collection of modern and contemporary Sri Lankan artists. Building such a collection, which is long overdue, involves considerable costs and expertise. An art collection of this nature requires building a temperature-controlled storage environment – a must in a climate such as ours. It also requires having a trained staff of museum experts such as registers, conservators, art handlers, and curators.
Moreover, whatever is collected will need to grapple with an acquisition process where priorities need to be set and collection policies established. One of the most interesting tasks in building a collection of Sri Lankan modern and contemporary art will be to identify artists that have been forgotten or overlooked, including those who do not reside in Sri Lanka.
I think many artists will be interested in being part of the collection because they will not only have the assurance of knowing their work will not only be looked after, but that it will also be shared with the public and students through collection displays, exhibitions, talks, and loans to other museums. This is not the case when their work is bought by a private collector. Several private collectors in Sri Lanka see the pitfalls this presents for artists and are keen to see how their collection can have a greater public benefit. Collectors of all levels have a huge role to play and contribute. Our larger vision relies on the entire art ecosystem being involved, which is why we see this project as a long-term initiative. Delivering a world-class modern and contemporary art museum might be 10 years away, but the work starts now.
What is Sri Lanka’s contemporary art scene like? How does it compare internationally and what sets our contemporary art apart from that of other countries and cultures?
Sri Lanka’s art scene continues to grow given the size of the island. What sets us apart at this point in time is knowing how much work there is that needs to be exhibited, collected, written about, and discussed. Not surprisingly, research and training is a huge part of the MMCA Sri Lanka’s activities over the next five years.
Rather than comparing ourselves with what goes on internationally, I think we have more to gain by focusing locally. Becoming acquainted with what is on our doorstep forces us to look deeper so that we have a more stratified understanding of art histories in the country. Without this, what else is there to distinguish us from any other art scene?
How does the MMCA curate its offering?
The MMCA Sri Lanka opened in December 2019 with its inaugural exhibition “one hundred thousand small tales”, which showcased 150 artworks by 45 Sri Lankan artists, including legendary figures from the ‘43 Group. The exhibition attracted 3,502 visitors, of which 970 were tourists. Due to the high visitor numbers, we planned to keep the exhibition on for longer but then the pandemic hit and we had to close on 13 March. We briefly re-opened in August after the first lockdown and finally deinstalled the exhibition in September.
We have a three-year exhibition programme which sees our next large-scale exhibition opening mid-2021. Each show takes approximately one to two years to put together and is curated by a member of the MMCA Sri Lanka team or an invited curator.
Between the large-scale exhibitions, we also have programmes that are not exhibition-related such as Press Play, which was part of the recent edition of the SLDF. We are also doing a lot of work with schools and the education sector, including a deep dive into the national curriculum to see what is being taught. The way we curate going forward will be informed by such research along with conversations with focus groups. Ultimately, the MMCA Sri Lanka needs to be relevant to the art histories that are rooted here or that have been re-rooted here. This is what will make the MMCA Sri Lanka distinctive.
What was the pandemic like for the MMCA and contemporary artists?
As for everyone, the pandemic hit us financially, programmatically, and emotionally. What it taught us, however, was the value of collaboration and of working together to get through adversity, which is what our small team did by putting its head down and ploughing through research and development across a raft of projects, including the creation of a trilingual website.
Artists have a more singular existence, and for many of them, the pandemic only underscored the isolation of what it means to be an artist. That said, many took advantage of the downtime, and in all honesty, I have probably not heard or seen so many artists speaking about their work due to the explosion of online programming that the pandemic gave rise to. It has, however, been a welcome relief to return to doing in-person studio visits with my colleague Assistant Curator Sandev Handy at the MMCA Sri Lanka.
What does 2021 hold in store for the MMCA? What do you have planned and what are you hoping for this year?
We are hoping to welcome back all the teachers and kids that visited our last exhibition as soon as it becomes safe to recommence field trips again. The plans of our next exhibition will be released shortly and will include some exciting news.