At the Colombo Public Library, a truly spectacular work is on display – it stands out not only for its scale, but also for its medium and its message. All nations are created special is a woodcut printed on fabric by Pangrok Sulap, a collective of artists, musicians and activists from Sabah, Malaysia. Together, they work on woodcut as a “slow, performative and processual form of resistance to the speed of today’s digital means and flow of information”, as the artists’ note mentions. All nations are created special examines the migration of Malays to Sri Lanka since 200 BC, and “the simultaneities between the 1983 riots in Sri Lanka based on ethnic differences and the politics of Malay supremacy enshrined in the Malaysian constitution”.
It is works like these that are part of the seventh edition of Colomboscope, a contemporary arts festival and creative platform for interdisciplinary dialogue held in Sri Lanka since 2013. From January 20-30, 2022, this iteration was curated by Anushka Rajendran, with artistic director Natasha Ginwala, and has the theme “Language is Migrant”. It is inspired by the poem-manifesto of the Chilean artist-poet Cecilia Vicuña, who writes: “Words go from language to language, from culture to culture, from mouth to mouth. Our bodies are migrants; cells and bacteria are also migrants. Even galaxies migrate.
The text resonated with Ginwala as it cogently brought together the complexity of language, loss, as well as the idea of hybrid belonging. “It has also exposed the problematic burdens of citizenship, the mechanisms of exclusion that push us towards aggressive nationalism everywhere. The text addressed the issue of displacement, linguistic and ethnic violence,” she says. Inspired by this, the festival began to consider language as a space for mobilization, as it is perceived by artists, researchers, theorists and storytellers.
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Pangrok Sulap, ‘All Nations Are Created Special’, 2021, Woodblock printed on fabric. Courtesy of the artists and Colomboscope
In preparation for three years, the seventh edition of Colomboscope attempted to configure a space for oral history, poetic expressiveness and performative cultures that gave new roots to narrative construction and the chronicling of alternative histories. To achieve this, Rajendran and Ginwala have worked with 50 artists from all over the world including India such as Abdul Halik Azeez, Shailesh BR, Liz Fernando, Aziz Hazara, Baaraan Ijlal, Omar Kasmani, Areez Katki, Marinella Senatore along with Hasanthi Niriella and Ashley Fargnoli, and more.
The festival is spread over six venues in Colombo: the Rio Cinema Complex, the Colombo Public Library, the Barefoot Gallery, the Lakmahal Community Library, the Lak Cafe and the WA Silva Museum. The history of each space serves as a backdrop to the works displayed there. “Take the WA Silva Museum, for example, named after a famous Sri Lankan author. It has a nice letterpress, so the works look at the history of print culture,” says Ginwala.
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The Lakmahal Public Library hosts ‘Reading in Languages’, the reading room of the Colomboscope, which seeks to bridge the gap between official ways of learning and modes of unlearning or emancipatory ways of learning. He was influenced by ‘Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Writers, written 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 foundational text, the team examined books, poetry and magazines created by artists, which focus on creative expression, anti-systemic ways of writing stories of a feminist point of view, and more.
The Barefoot Gallery serves as a space for reflection, with artists reminiscing about growing up in a diaspora. “Hema Shironi works with thread and embroidery to examine the external and internal displacement caused by the civil war in Sri Lanka. Abdul Halik Azeez reflects on his Muslim identity and the stories his family told him,” says Ginwala.
Colomboscope hopes to provide non-hierarchical learning methods as well as strong feminist vocabularies. An example of this is Marinella Senatore’s Narrative Dance School, a project that has taken place across the world and is rooted in a collective practice of learning through choreography as part of everyday life. “It also involves unlearning what we have been told as the limits of the body and altering certain body types. The School of Narrative Dance is a liberating and emancipating space,” says Ginwala. Due to the pandemic , this project could not materialize physically at the Colomboscope, because Senatore could not travel from Italy. But in collaboration with her, two choreographers – Hasanti Niriella and Ashley Fargnoli – conducted virtual workshops, open to those on the island and abroad, to think about ways to activate the school as an online exit site.
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Rajendran and Ginwala see Colomboscope not just as a festival – spanning a few days – but as a cohesive engagement with artists in the context of the Global South. “Language as a Migrant” has served as the larger premise of Colomboscope’s activities over the past three years, since the sixth edition, Sea Change, which culminated in January 2019. “We have worked as a small team to reinterpret our roles in as organizers in Sri Lanka, where there is a lack of cultural infrastructure for contemporary artists, who are engaged in process-driven, experimental and genre-defying art,” says Ginwala. “We have also found that we have to work beyond the deadlines of a festival. We all know the problems of mega formats that come and go.
That’s why Colomboscope works with artists on projects that can travel to different places after the festival. In the past, organizers have found that some of the works become the foundation for artists to progress in their careers. During the pandemic, between shutdowns, the team has found ways to have residencies, artist workshops on professional skill building, artist publishing, and digital media formats. “During the last lockdown, when the festival was postponed, Anushka organized a small exhibition, called Anatomies of Languages, which traveled to Chobi Mela in Dhaka, which included some of the artists from this edition of Colomboscope. So we also plan to build bridges with other points in South Asia,” she concludes.