Surreal and bewitching blend of art and photography
by Namini Wijedasa

Haunting music. Sad eyes. Hopeful gazes. Riveting images of war and destruction. Careful smiles, whispering tears. Life and death.

Anoma Wijewardene’s latest work of art took me back. Away from our worsening crisis to those early days of the cease-fire when men and women laughed with the sheer joy of being released from worry. It made me yearn again.

‘Quest’ is an exhibition that defies description. A must-see. It is not art or photography. It’s a harmonious blend of both -- a multimedia installation that opens the soul and awakens the senses in the gentlest possible way.

Glimpses of Sri Lankan life are captured on film, deconstructed, layered and manipulated to create works that range from stark reality to the abstract, expressionist and the surreal. As Anoma herself explains, the images are of Sri Lanka but they could also be of anywhere, everywhere. They are not titled. The exhibition includes visuals that are disturbing, simply because reality is, but alongside are images of hope and tranquillity and images of devastation which have been transposed into images of harmony.

"Just let yourself go with it," Anoma advised, before loading on the DVD and darkening the room. Melodies filled the room and colours undulated slowly on the television screen. Slowly they turned into pictures -- sometimes distinctive, sometimes illusory. Men and women from different corners of the country faded into each other, uniting in a common grief, a universal joy and a familiar hope.

The snapshots are gripping. A distraught woman searching urgently among the ruins of her tsunami-ravaged house, trying to salvage a few household items. The shell of an empty, bombed church on the road to Jaffna. A gate. A security fence. A memorial for an assassinated president. Everything and nothing.

The display ended and I tried to shake off the aching feeling. The longing for those days of peace when the barriers between human beings had been dismantled and those on the roads put into cold storage. I was struck by the relevance of Anoma’s work. At a moment when mistrust is eating into human relations on all sides, she speaks convincingly of peace and reconciliation.

Intermingling with the images are evocative quotes from personalities like Nelson Mandela, A T Ariyaratne, Mahatma Gandhi and Jayantha Dhanapala. Some of the most beautiful lines are from Arundhati Roy, uttered on the first anniversary of 9/11: "Loss and losing. Grief, failure, brokenness, numbness, uncertainty, fear, the death of feeling, the death of dreaming. The absolute, relentless, endless, habitual unfairness of the world. What does loss means to individuals? What does it means to whole cultures, whole peoples who have learned to live with it as a constant companion?"

It is not easy to describe ‘Quest’. It isn’t conventional. It isn’t a painting that can be dissected into layers and analysed. It isn’t a photography exhibition either. It is digital art and video. It is sound and sight. Silent, powerful portraits speak a thousand words, telling us much about ourselves that we had forgotten. ‘Quest’ awakens us to the futility of returning to where we had been. To the sound of wailing ambulances and daily war funerals.

In Anoma’s own words: "This is a collection inspired by and dedicated to those women and children who through disaster, manmade or natural, are left without their loved ones, their homes, their hopes, their future.

"We yearn for a way to mourn but, even more, we yearn for a way to heal. As a painter, I turn to art for both. Art can offer us that new perspective, that glimpse of the possible."

Anoma explains that the images in her collection are digital photographs which she has altered either minimally or drastically. "The form varies from vastly manipulated images which are abstract, expressionist, impressionistic and beyond recognition, to hardly re-touched photo-realism," she elaborates.

What she isn’t making, she stressed, is a documentary or reportage. Instead, it is an artist’s response that isn’t focused on casting blame. Neither is it a political statement.

"It is about taking personal and collective responsibility," she says. "It is about questioning why we are still so far from reconciliation despite the longing for healing and renewal that we as a people and nation share."

Anoma pays credit to the talented team that helped put her exhibition together. For three years, she worked with Kirby de Lanerolle, graphic designer and teacher. And during the last ten months, she was joined by a group of individuals whose skills and commitment helped her through. "They include a political analyst, a banker, a social anthropologist, a writer, lawyers, multimedia experts, a composer and a student," she counts.

‘Quest’ is open to the public from 2-4 June 2006 at the National Art Gallery at Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha. It starts each day at 10 am and ends at 6 pm. The exhibition will be displayed in Sinhala, Tamil and English.


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