A Stunning Piece of Art in Search of a Space


Anoma Wijewardene’s installation for the 2016 Biennial is truly mind-blowing. With the input of interior and sound designers, metal workers, researchers, writers and thinkers from different parts of the world Anoma has produced an inspired installation: a thoughtful, provocative, artistic statement of a historical moment in our world and our time – 2016. It is a moment that seems to have crystallized issues of war and violence, home and exile, ethnicity and nationalism,’ us’ and ‘them’, for vast numbers of the world’s populations.

It is perhaps particularly apt that a creative artist from Sri Lanka, a country that has barely emerged from thirty years of ethnic strife still struggling for reconciliation, should seize the moment to make this artistic statement. How does one, how should one respond to these issues? Should we give in to deep subliminal fears of the need to preserve ‘me and mine’ against a possible influx of ‘the other’? Such fears have surfaced in unexpected ways, in unexpected places and produced unexpected responses across the world. Europe faced with millions of refugees driven by war and poverty and the loss of home and country, moved from initial sympathetic openness to now quotas and a closing of borders. America under Trump is planning to build walls to keep out Mexicans from across the border or Muslims who they fear may be terrorists. Then there is the inexorable push already evident of climate change with foreboding prospects of more aridity, more poverty and disastrous starvation; the melting of the polar ice caps, rising sea levels and submersion of lands. All this is the moving subtext of this installation aptly entitled in the simple phrase "Mi Casa es Tu Casa" (My house is Your house).

The first frame is painted on cloth — cloth that man associates with warmth, home and shelter, or now tents for the displaced. For me the painting evoked a sense of the earth, moving upward in warm brown tones and soaring lines. The cloth was perforated and the light refracted through onto the wall behind. Anoma says she wanted to suggest that life and everything in it was porous, leaked through, cast its shadows, and affected the world around it. The next frame had a blood red map of Sri Lanka centered against a background of a whirling world of movement and colorless and chaotic forms. The blood red island also cast its reflection in the mirrored surface below. That was the ‘here and the now’, the present moment of chaotic movement and fluidity of a world in turmoil. The next frame has downward reaching forms that seem searching to root like the roots of the Banyan tree. Finally the eye moves into the last frame. It is a stunning painting of ice blue serenity, silence and emptiness. I felt as if I had moved into a world of melted ice where all was cold, silent and in a strange way beautifully serene.

Yet in the middle of the installation is a small golden bowl, symbolizing water, compassion, love and the possibility of ongoing life – perhaps. Above it hangs a crystal ball, twirling and twirling — to ask the question —- "Is this the way the world ends, not with a bang or a whimper —but into a cold, lonely, serenely beautiful silence.

What does one do with a breathtaking installation such as this? In any other part of the world a museum would grab it. In Sri Lanka we cannot even maintain the beautiful museums and artwork that we have – as in the case of the Japanese funded environmentally exquisitely designed Sigiriya museum, or the University of Peradeniya which owns a fabulous art collection donated by its former librarian but still has not had the money to build a museum to house it; or the Colombo Art Gallery or the Kandy museum which are dust covered and leaking spaces hardly visited by the public.

A tourist hotel may have the space and the money to house and care for such an installation; but the hurly burly of tourist traffic and luggage is not the environment for the kind of contemplative viewing such an installation demands. In today’s world perhaps only some big private company or better still a bank, can create a foyer where people can sit and contemplate a creative piece such as this. Perhaps one can urge some such Sri Lankan company to save this piece for posterity, not only as the work of a renowned Sri Lankan artist, but as an artistic statement of our world and time.


Ranjini Obeyesekere


December 2016

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