There have been several little rivulets of enterprise seeking to further amity an mutual understanding among the four major ethnic communities residing in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lanka Unites movement and the Trails Charity Walk organised by Sarinda Unamboowe and aides in 2015/16 are good examples. So too the Murali Cup and the work of the Foundation of Goodness. They have now been joined by a tiny band of Sri Lankan artists from the Tamil and Sinhalese communities seeking to transcend the island’s diversity via ethnographic visits meant also to stimulate aesthetic products embodying these exchanges: amity and respect in art-form. Abstract art is alien to my capacities and temperament; but I am certain that it is a medium of echange which can encorage amity and respect for difference. So I trust corporations and foundations will delve into their philanthropic pockets to encoruage this line of cross0-cultural reconciliation. We need such efforts so very badly. There are thickets of forest and loads of swamps in this scoiety and amongst migrant Sri Lankans devoted to concoction and fabrication, hadr-nosed chauvinism and ideological rigidity, Michael Roberts as Editor, Thuppahi
ONE. T. Shanaathanan: C/A/M/P – An alternative method of learning
In comparison with many art initiatives in the recent past such as artist residencies, workshops and curated exhibitions, the CAMP project conceived and organized by Vibhavi Academy was unique in many ways. Where other initiatives have focused on practice this project was fore-grounded dialogue and studio conversation. Choosing artists from many diverse backgrounds who lived in many different parts of the country as opposed to Colombo made this conversation into a kind of field meeting amongst artists. The findings of the project provide crucial insights into thinking of alternative methods of knowledge production and understanding the situations faced by different communities of artists in the context of the post war Sri Lanka. A field meeting of this kind allowed artists who would not otherwise meet, to spend time in each other’s company on their own terms, over a sustained period of time. The almost ethnographic nature of the artist’s travelling around and being strangers in their own country, seeing, tasting and hearing things that were foreign introduced the idea of ‘field-work’ to a fine art community. The contrasting nature of how all the artist’s lived and worked along with their backgrounds to becoming artists underlined the fact that while Fine Art learning can be structured by a syllabus learning to be an artist required thinking from outside the so called syllabus.
The project involved three interconnected activities. The first involved developing an understanding of the socio political context of the artist by visiting their studios or villages. These visits, the journeys they involved along with the practical arrangements required to host fellow artists introduced those involved to a larger reality of Sri Lankan society where the exchange of personal stories was intermingled with the sharing of personal space, food and basic comforts. To host each other amounted to a conversation that went beyond discourse, because it involved building relationships of trust and comfort. The second and the third elements involved producing work and an exhibition in response to the field meeting preparation.
A total of 18 mid career artists, joined by two facilitators, a translator and supporting staff of Vibhavi visited the houses and studios of each participant to understand the local context and the conceptual basis of their work and research interests. The travels covered areas from Batticaloa to Puttalam, Jaffna to Mathara, Ragama to Hatton making it one of the largest initiatives to take place outside Colombo. For most of the artists selected living and working on the so called periphery either socially, economically was something that connected them and bought shared concerns. Fascinatingly, within a short span of time the team visited different landscapes, climates, foods, hospitalities, cultural sites, personal narratives, political ideologies and art practices, all of which were outside the art-centric capital of Colombo. The experience of these field visits led gave rise to conflicting political stand points, experiences of violence and trauma, love and hate and loss and pain which were just some of the many subjects discussed, shared and acknowledged. Above all, the discussions bought to light a plurality of art practices and the approaches that felt fresh and unburdened.
As someone fully engaged in the first phase of the project I was particularly drawn to several issues that the group of artists either shared or returned to again and again in their open discussions with each other.
- The value of art education in facing the challenges in contemporary art world
- The conflict between artistic intention and economic need within the available job market.
- The difficulty of leaving a village or native town which gives context and meaning, to be part of an anonymous network in a city in order to further a career, satisfying the expectations of one’s family while engaging or in the process of establishing a career in art. Social recognition of artist and carrier in art Social control and artist. The lack of peer contacts after graduating from university.
Through this project, identifying these commonalities of experience and the peculiarity of lived individual responses helped to create a collective energy to support the group both emotionally and professionally. Beyond recognizing these human relationships matter as much as the quality of an artist’s work, the CAMP project revealed a new method of learning through sharing. This method should be allowed to evolve through similar future experimental works to create a society where art with social responsibility and meaning can be allowed to flourish alongside other more commercial forms of practice.
TWO. C/A/M/P (Contemporary Artists’ Meeting Point)
This was a result of the residential programme held in three major cities of Sri Lanka. Visual artists who belonged to various ethnic communities met in Colombo (24 days), Jaffna (3 days) and Batticaloa (3 days) to share their experiences and the cultural diversities. They took part in theoretical and investigative workshops, brainstorming exercises and reviews. The aim was to awaken their creativity through the experiences of these engagements. They were encouraged to engage themselves in meaningful peace and cohabitation while safeguarding their ethnic identities.
The artists of Northern, Eastern and Southern provinces (18 participants) visited their colleagues of the other communities at their homes. They engaged with their artistic and personal lives. They were expected to learn about the background factors of the creation of the art from one another and eventually they created their own work of art through that experience.
Renowned artist Chandraguptha Thenuwara came up with the idea of this programme and coordinated the entire programme. The coordination of the artists from Northern and Eastern provinces was done by renowned artist T. Sanathanan.
The programme had been sponsored by Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development. It was conducted by Vibhavi Academy of Fine Arts and the Neelan Thiruchelvam Trust. This Exhibition organized by VAFA.
Curators of the exhibition: Chandraguptha Thenuwara & Udaya Hewawasam, C/A/M/P Organizing Committee
ALSO SEE: A CONVERSATION WITH T. SHANAAHTANAN, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SqyUCTBEeHw