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Songs from the sea

  • Sri Lankan arts festival Colomboscope shines a light on the country’s location, maritime legacy and colonial past
  • The current edition, titled Sea Change, features artists from 15 countries, including India, Germany, the UK and Mexico

‘Climavore: On Tidal Zones’ (2017) by Cooking Sections (Daniel Fernández Pascual & Alon Schwabe), commissioned by Atlas Arts.
‘Climavore: On Tidal Zones’ (2017) by Cooking Sections (Daniel Fernández Pascual & Alon Schwabe), commissioned by Atlas Arts.

The sixth edition of Colomboscope, the only interdisciplinary arts festival of its kind in Sri Lanka, opened on 25 January. Since its inception in 2013, the objective of the week-long event has been to critically examine the shifting sociocultural landscape of the island country. The current edition, titled Sea Change, features artists from 15 countries, including India, Germany, the UK and Mexico. Over 30 intergenerational visual artists, film-makers, musicians and scientists have delved into the maritime history, oceanic ecology and shipping infrastructure of Sri Lanka. “As the island coastline rapidly transforms before our eyes, festival artists will engage with a spectrum of utopian and dystopian scenes in dialogue with the oceanic frontier," says the festival’s curator, Natasha Ginwala.

Sri Lanka has held a unique position for several centuries in international trade. England occupied Colombo in 1796, ending 140 years of Dutch rule. Colombo became the capital of “Ceylon"—its location made it ideal for building modern harbours during British rule. The port functioned as trans-shipment when ships passed through the Indian subcontinent on the way to Australia through the Suez Canal, which was opened in 1869. Over the course of a century, the country changed from a colony to a site of commerce.

Layered with the narratives of favourable avenues for global trade, its history has also been shaped by chronicles of hard labour and punishment, disease and overcrowding, regulation on movement and curbed freedom. Additionally, involuntary movement into the island included slaves, convicts and political prisoners, from as early as the 17th century.

Ginwala invited artists to adopt a nostalgic approach to Sri Lanka’s maritime history. She hopes this local and international union will help mount a critical reassessment of South Asia’s collective future and buried histories in relation to the Indian Ocean. “This edition addresses oceanic ecology and Sri Lanka’s strategic location and maritime legacy, but also the coastal development that has been increasing in the post-war years (since 2009). By involving a wide range of cultural practitioners, we address urgencies from this coastline while prompting conversations that are internationally relevant and reconsider the Indian Ocean not only as a realm for geopolitical and economic exchange but also as an artistic meeting point," she says.

‘Nocturnal’ (2019) by Mahen Perera, a mixed media installation. Photo: Mahen Perera
‘Nocturnal’ (2019) by Mahen Perera, a mixed media installation. Photo: Mahen Perera

Participating from India, with support from the Goethe Institut, is the Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective, comprising Monica Narula, Jeebesh Bagchi and Shuddhabrata Sengupta. Raqs follows a “kinetic contemplation" in the work they produce. Their practice is restless in its forms yet concise with the procedures it invents. In the past, the collective has collaborated with architects, computer programmers, writers and theatre directors, and has made films.

At Colomboscope, RAQS’ work will consider disruption and desire at sea through the lens of shipping infrastructure and the figure of a sailor, as entwined travelling bodies across the ocean. While the multimedia work Shore Leave explores a story about the threshold of forbidden attractions and the incalculability of longing, The Knots That Bind Are The Knots That Fray follows the journey of Titan cranes from the Tyneside Swan Hunter shipyard in northern England to the Bharati Shipyard on the western coast of India. Through found footage of this voyage, shot by an engineer and amateur shipyard enthusiast, the shipbuilding cranes morph into the labour chain, circuits of material value and economies of reuse. A press release by the collective says, “This work reveals the emotional undertow of Capitalism’s wake as it traverses continents and histories. The North East of England and the West Coast of India are drawn together experientially through industrial and geographical change. Like on-shore sweethearts bidding farewell to men in sailing ships, the world watches its own histories float away. Sometimes, when finally falling in love, only the silences of loss and longing remain."

On the other hand, Delhi-based Anoli Perera’s work engages with the socio-historical landscape of Sri Lanka. Perera is a visual artist and co-founder of the Theertha International Artists Collective. She was among the artists in the 1990s who professed an ideological inclination to a socially engaged contemporary art practice. Her work outlines communal narratives at the intersection of colonialism and feminist legacies and thereby injects a personal reading into often generalized cultural memories.

At Colomboscope, Perea’s Laced combines fort architecture and lace, two disparate motifs of maritime history, to map colonial traces and their contemporary permutations in Sri Lanka. Rooted in Dutch and Portuguese cultural heritage, lace and lace-making was brought to the island by the colonial powers, to be used as a method of “civilizing", and instilled as a preoccupation for upper-class women. This imperial artefact has now transformed into a lavish local commodity, while lace-making is now practised as an occupation predominantly by women from the low-income strata of Sri Lankan society. Perera explores the ways in which the legacies of maritime history have reversed the functionality of the artefacts, made using lace-making techniques, as well as their sociocultural meaning. They exist in the realm of commercial exchange, yet operate along new economic circuits and reworked trade priorities. Much like the marriage of materiality between lace and the fort, her work acts as a crossroads where past and the present associations of oceanic trade meet.

What would it mean to consider the Indian Ocean as more than a realm of what resources we may extract and what economic growth we might achieve through it? “The narratives that emerge from the sea take us back to centuries of maritime trade, networks of slave labour and the future of prospecting the oceans through deep-sea mining and the building of transnational ports. Sea Change invests in the artistic imagination to harvest these stories which enable shuttling back to cosmopolitan and imperial pasts as well as a future horizon shaped by the water’s edge," explains Ginwala.

As the ocean’s intertwined peoples, can we cultivate a new collective imagination of this region through cultural affinities, linguistic confluences and shared potential as a vital artistic meeting point? The festival will directly aim at exploring these alternative and imagined possibilities.

Sea Change is on view till 31 January at Grand Oriental Hotel, Colombo, Sri Lanka.

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