Feb 07 2014

Making History: Colombo Art Biennale

by Kurchi Dasgupta

The third edition of the Colombo Art Biennale (CAB 14), “Making History,” opened on the balmy afternoon of January 30. Spread across seven venues, filled with thought-provoking sculptures, photographs, texts, installations, drawings, videos, performances and paintings, the works of 59 artists from 16 countries explore art’s relation to history. War, power, gender and violence are recurring themes that weave the exhibits together—not surprising given the host country’s recent war-torn history. In a way, this biennale seems a conclusive remark to its previous iterations, including the 2009 “ Imagining Peace” and 2012 “Becoming.” “Making History” can be praised for its well thought-out curatorial strategy. It takes you across the scenic city of Colombo into the classical architecture of colonial buildings and reinvigorated warehouses in one breath. Exciting artworks abound, frequently breaking into performance and sidewalk improvisations.

All photos by Kurchi Dasgupta for ArtAsiaPacific.

Dhaka-based Mahbubur Rahman’s Replacement (2014) is an overwhelming presence on the floor of JDA Perera Gallery, the biennale’s main venue, which sits in the heart of Colombo. Life-sized bridesmaids crafted out of army-boot leather wear exquisitely embroidered dresses fashioned from army fatigues and surround two royal uniforms on stilts that spew glistening red tentacles. Presumably meant to resemble King George V and his Queen, the work is a commentary on cultural colonialism’s continued grip South Asian reality.

TV Santhosh’s Effgies of Turbulent Yesterdays (2011–13) dominates the Park Street Mews. The work is a critique of monuments that valorize state heroes and violence. Random LED lights immerse viewers in a feeling of impending of doom.

Qatar’s Khalifa al-Obaidly explores the dehumanization of  migrant workers across the globe with his series “Tagged” (2009) in which nine individuals (out of Qatar’s 1.2 million laborers) have their forheads stamped with ink barcodes.

Migration is also the theme of Nepal’s Sunil Sigdel’s Spine (2014) , a mixed-media installation involving used construction workers’ gloves—a paean to those whose toil sustains economies.

Pala Potupithiye’s massive metal sculpture History Maker (2014) rises 257 centimeters high. With knives covering the shadowy figure‘s  eyes, and the national song inscribed on Sri Lanka’s map peeping from between its thighs, the work insidiously punctures the masculine project of national history-making.

Jo Hodges and Robbie Coleman of Scotland put together a participatory, one-off performance Witness:Remember:Forget (2014) asking random participants  to write down their responses to a given scenario. Later displayed, the resulting texts became the event’s only documentation highlighting the precarious nature of memory, imagination and loss and de-glorifying the process by which official history is created.

From Sri Lanka, Radhika Hettiarachchi and Shanika Perera teamed up to bring “Herstory Archives” to the biennale. Part of a larger archival effort, the project records the traumas experienced by ten different women during nearly 30 years of civil war in Sri Lanka thereby giving viewers a peek into life in wartime.

Tristan al-Haddad’s Womb/Tomb (2014) is an architectural piece that both represents and recognizes an interplay of resonances. The use of local terracotta bricks reinforces the material’s aesthetic relevance.   

Italy’s Pietro Ruffo brings us his version of the American flag with his trademark paper cutouts cut from various treaty documents between the US and South America. Not in My Backyard (2008) interrogates how power controls the interpretation of texts.

Live Art Moment was a central feature of CAB 14. Both Sri Lankan and international performance artists took to the streets of Colombo. Eugene Draw played the violin as Eva Priyanka Wegener responded through movements while Adrian Schvarzstein led local enthusiasts through exciting routines. Here, veteran Sri Lankan performance artist Bandu Manamperi irons out the creases in his clothes in a state of public undress, hinting at official history’s tendency to gloss over the ravages of war.

Performance artist Thomas Pritchard responds to Thor McIntyre-Burnie’s heart-wrenching installation I Can Feel The Pain And Anger in That Mother’s Heart and I Am Glad That I Feel It (2014).

Sri Lankan Janananda Laksiri’s video Tight Rope Walk (2012) is a remarkable take on French writer André Malraux’s 1933 novel La Condition Humaine in the form of a three-and-a-half minute recording of the artist trying to walk across a mesh of electric wires midair.

Anthony Haughey’s monumental documentary work explores the aftermath of the conflict between Bosnia and Northern Ireland.  The slippages between video, reportage, found material and documentary photography retrieve suppressed histories while rechanneling memories back into the mainstream.

Sri Lanka’s Anoli Perera materially grasps at notions of feminine time through her Memory Keeper: Red Cupboard (2014) in which a woman’s hands ceaselessly perform genteel chores, such as polishing china and serving tea behind a lace screen which itself sits atop a bulging wave of fabric balls and china cups, materially transposing memory onto reality.

The Colombo Art Biennale “Making History” runs through February 9, 2014. 

Kurchi Dasgupta is an Indian painter, writer and translator based in Nepal.