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The Colombo Art Biennale & "Other" Artists

It was invigorating to visit the exhibition space of the Colombo Biennale recently. The high ceilinged warehouses on Park street were a new experience in Art Space in Sri Lanka for me and the energy of the organizers and curators and the creativity of the artists was wonderful to see. “Imagining Peace” was the theme, coming of course, after a long, painful war and a continuing time of trouble that is not yet over.

As Jagath Weerasinghe, one of the curators explains in the “manifesto” of the event, “The most challenging endeavour was putting artists of different temperaments, beliefs, and politics (politics is considered here in its fundamental sense) under a single thematic engagement such as ‘Imagining Peace’…” I think that’s well put, but I would have added ‘location’ as one of the registers of difference/diversity. All no doubt difficult to actualize.

That having been said, I would add that I missed,  to my disappointment, the work of an artist like Thamodarampillai Shanaathanan, whose location, sophisticated political orientation to question like identity and unique iconographic vocabulary would have added so much to the Biennale. Shanaathanan, who was born and raised in Jaffna is not an unknown in national or international circles; he has exhibited several times in Colombo and abroad and his work is an integral part of the One Year Drawing Project, an innovative intervention in the fractures and faultlines of the postcolonial Sri Lankan aesthetic tradition. But perhaps more importantly, he was central to the Jaffna library exhibition/installation that took place during the ceasefire in 2004. The vibrancy of the work of Shanaathanan and his colleagues, demonstrated very sharply, I thought, how different peace might be when imagined from another location and the strength and depth of the artistic tradtion in which he locates himself.

At a time like this, when debates rage about what constitutes ‘Sri Lanka’, and nationalisms still confront each other along contested divides, even after the guns have ‘fallen silent’, it is most important I think, to try harder, in the world of aesthetics at least, to allow differently located imaginations to flourish in the same space.

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