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Artists speak the language of identity at Colomboscope

The seventh edition of Colomboscope has 50 artists looking at complex ideas of language, loss and hybrid belonging

Shailesh BR, ‘Page Turner (Ulta Pulta)', 2019 - 2021, Books, Arduino, stepper and servo machine, 12V power supply. Courtesy of the artist and Vadhera Art Gallery
Shailesh BR, ‘Page Turner (Ulta Pulta)', 2019 - 2021, Books, Arduino, stepper and servo machine, 12V power supply. Courtesy of the artist and Vadhera Art Gallery

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At the Colombo Public Library, a truly spectacular work is on display—it stands out not just for scale but for its medium and message too. All Nations are Created Special is a woodcut print on fabric by Pangrok Sulap, a collective of artists, musicians and activists from Sabah, Malaysia. Together, they work on woodcuts as a “slow, performative and process-based form of resistance to the rapidity of digital methods and circulation of information in the present day,” as mentions the artists’ note. All Nations are Created Special looks at the migration of people from Malay to Sri Lanka since 200 BC, and “simultaneities between the 1983 riots in Sri Lanka based on ethnic differences and the politics of Malay supremacy entrenched in the Malaysian constitution.”

It is works such as these that form a part of the seventh edition of Colomboscope—a contemporary arts festival and creative platform for interdisciplinary dialogue held in Sri Lanka since 2013. To be held between 20-30 January 2022, this iteration has been curated by Anushka Rajendran, with artistic director Natasha Ginwala, and is themed around ‘Language is Migrant’. It draws from the poem-manifesto by Chilean artist-poet Cecilia Vicuña, who writes: “Words move from language to language, from culture to culture, from mouth to mouth. Our bodies are migrants; cells and bacteria are migrants too. Even galaxies migrate.”

The text resonated with Ginwala as it brought together, in a compelling way, the complexity of language, loss, as well as the idea of hybrid belonging. “It also brought to the fore the problematic burdens of citizenship, the exclusionary mechanisms that drive us towards aggressive nationalism all over the world. The text addressed the question of displacement, language-based and ethnic violence,” she says. Inspired by this, the festival started to look at language as a space of mobilization, as perceived by artists, researchers, theorists and storytellers.

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Pangrok Sulap, ‘All nations are created special’, 2021, Woodcut print on fabric. Courtesy of the artists and Colomboscope
Pangrok Sulap, ‘All nations are created special’, 2021, Woodcut print on fabric. Courtesy of the artists and Colomboscope

In the works for the past three years, the seventh edition of Colomboscope has attempted to configure a space for oral history, poetic expressivity and for performance cultures that have put new roots into narrative-building and chronicling of alternative histories. To achieve this, Rajendran and Ginwala have been working with 50 artists from across the world, including India, such as Abdul Halik Azeez, Shailesh BR, Liz Fernando, Aziz Hazara, Baaraan Ijlal, Omar Kasmani, Areez Katki, Marinella Senatore with Hasanthi Niriella and Ashley Fargnoli, and more.

The festival is spread across six venues in Colombo—the Rio Cinema Complex, the Colombo Public Library, Barefoot Gallery, Lakmahal Community Library, Lak Cafe and the WA Silva Museum. The story of each space serves as a backdrop to the works on display there. “Take the WA Silva Museum, for instance, named after a famous Sri Lankan author. It has a beautiful letter press, so the works look at the history of print culture,” elaborates Ginwala.

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The Lakmahal Public Library plays host to ‘Reading in Tongues’, Colomboscope’s reading room, which seeks to form a bridge between official ways of learning and ways of unlearning or emancipatory ways of learning. It has been influenced by ‘Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to 3rd World Women Writers’, drafted by Gloria Anzaldua in 1979 and published in her feminist anthology, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Through the lens of this seminal text, the team has looked at books, poetry and magazines made by artists, which focus on creative expression, anti-systemic modes of writing histories from a feminist perspective, and more.

The Barefoot Gallery serves as a space of reflection, with artists looking back at memories of growing up in a diaspora. “Hema Shironi is working with thread and embroidery to look at external and internal displacements prompted by the civil war in Sri Lanka. Abdul Halik Azeez reflects on his Muslim identity and stories that his family would tell him,” says Ginwala.

Colomboscope hopes to bring in non-hierarchical ways of learning and strong feminist vocabularies as well. One example of this is Marinella Senatore’s School of Narrative Dance, a project that has taken place across the world and is steeped in a collective practice of learning through choreography as a part of everyday life. “It also involves unlearning of what we have been told of as the limits of the body, and othering of certain kinds of bodies. The School of Narrative Dance is a liberating and emancipatory space,” explains Ginwala. Due to the pandemic, this project couldn’t be realised in a physical form at Colomboscope, as Senatore was unable to travel from Italy. But in collaboration with her, two choreographers—Hasanti Niriella and Ashley Fargnoli—have been carrying out virtual workshops, open to those on the island and abroad to think of ways in which the school can be activated as an online site of release.

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Both Rajendran and Ginwala look at Colomboscope as not just a festival—which spans a couple of days—but as a consistent engagement with artists in the context of the Global South. ‘Language as a Migrant’ has served as a larger premise for Colomboscope’s activities in the past three years, ever since the sixth edition, Sea Change, culminated in January 2019. “We have been working as a small team to reinterpret our roles as cultural organisers in Sri Lanka, where there is a lack of cultural infrastructure for contemporary artists, who are engaged in process-led, experimental, genre-defying art,” says Ginwala. “We also found that we need to work beyond the timelines of a festival. We all know the problems of mega formats that appear and disappear.” 

Hence Colomboscope has been working with artists on projects that can travel to different locations after the festival. In the past, the organisers have found that some of the works become the basis for artists to progress in their careers. Through the pandemic, between lockdowns, the team has found ways to have residencies, workshops for artists on professional skill-building, artist publishing and digital media formats. “During the last lockdown, when the festival was postponed, Anushka curated a small exhibition, called Anatomies of Tongues, which travelled to Chobi Mela in Dhaka, which included a few of the artists from this edition of Colomboscope. So, we are looking at building bridges with other points of south Asia as well,” she concludes.

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