THROUGHOUT SRI LANKA’S ART HISTORY, the people have been the keepers of knowledge. In place of national institutions and collections, artists, collectors, scholars, and gallerists have acted as repositories of artistic traditions, preserving mini-archives of an invaluable heritage. Until now, much of this cultural production has been neither publicly available nor permanently preserved. The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Sri Lanka (MMCA), a newly launched, cautiously optimistic initiative in Colombo, seeks to redress these issues of national and historical significance, one project at a time.
Curated by art historian and publisher Sharmini Pereira, the museum’s inaugural exhibition, “one hundred thousand small tales,” manifests this drive to redistribute knowledge. Though first shown at the Dhaka Art Summit in 2018, the survey focuses entirely on Sri Lanka, tracing its expansive artmaking roots from the prelude to the country’s independence in 1948 to the present day. Pereira juxtaposed rare finds with well-known pieces by Jagath Weerasinghe, Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Anoli Perera, and T. Shanaathanan. Some, such as Muhanned Cader’s “Nightscapes”, 1999—a series of haunting horizons painted in the middle of the Sri Lankan civil war (1983–2009)—had hardly been seen in the country for the last twenty years. Despite its broad remit (included are more than one hundred and fifty works by forty-five artists), the show achieves thematic clarity and coherence through its emphasis on the book form—here deployed as a metaphor for multiple, diverse, and nuanced narratives of statehood and the self.
This is evident from the beginning of the exhibition—where dozens of copies of Pereira’s own book, The One Year Drawing Project: May 2005–October 2007, an exchange she staged between four artists, are splayed open on shelves—to subtler encounters tucked away in corners. Pristinely displayed in vitrines, for example, are thirty-five editions of Alai (meaning “wave,” a nod to the French Nouvelle Vague), a Tamil arts journal self-published by four men in Jaffna from 1975 to 1990. Possibly the first vehicle for art criticism in Sri Lanka, Alai offers a poetic and adversarial view on the political and artistic landscape of Colombo and Jaffna at a time of heightened nationalism and polarization. It continued to publish during the eventual outbreak of the civil conflict, despite one of its members having to leave the country. Other literary materials—a first-edition compilation of cartoons by Aubrey Collette depicting historical moments in the lead-up to independence from 1945 to 1947, a book that conjures up an imagined collection of artifacts looted from Jaffna during the civil war, a sculpture of a Sinhala-English dictionary by Kingsley Gunatillake, a film that shows the printing of news publications despite an embargo on materials, figurines of soldiers emerging from between the pages of a printed text, photographs taken from two volumes of war photography from Sri Lanka, and ghostly images of washed-up photobooks found after the final stand of the conflict—fill the exhibition, whose inviting ethos at times feels more bibliothecal than museological.
Despite quibbles from various pockets of the local art community, namely that the museum’s launch show should have represented a broader range of artists and perspectives, the general response to the opening was overwhelmingly positive. “Every curator has a position,” gallerist Saskia Fernando told me. “But overall the museum is going to be good for all of us.” Pereira curated her first exhibition of contemporary art at the (now moribund) National Art Gallery in 1994, and has been central to conceptualizing the MMCA along with current committee members Channa Daswatte and Suhanya Raffel and former founding committee member Jagath Weerasinghe since the end of the civil war in 2009. Ten years later, the museum has found a temporary home in Colombo Innovation Tower (CIT), a design hub that opened in July 2019. Located in the heart of the city, the building houses a number of creative start-ups and educational spaces, including Sri Lanka’s Academy of Design.
The Academy has agreed to support the museum for the next three years by giving over the entire seventeenth floor of the CIT: 5,000 square feet overlooking the Indian Ocean. Critically, however, the MMCA only has the budget—20 million LKR, or $118,000 (half from its board, half from the John Keells Foundation)—to sustain its programming and team until April 2020. As there is little state funding for the visual arts in Sri Lanka, the scene is driven by private initiatives, artist-led spaces, international cultural bodies, and nonprofit foundations. Ephemeral exhibitions like the Colombo Art Biennale and Colomboscope festival persist, despite budgetary struggles and a lack of infrastructure. Till now, the best place to view modern art was the Sapumal Foundation, a house whose precious collection of works on paper and canvas is in dire need of a more temperature-controlled environment. If it can raise the funds necessary to survive, the MMCA has the potential to be a game changer in this scenario. “We have no cultural institute telling us the history of the twentieth century in Sri Lanka—why we are who we are,” said Weerasinghe. In “one hundred thousand small tales,” a remarkable set of four untitled photographs from the 1930s by W.J.G. Beling—a cofounder of the Colombo ’43 Group, and better known as a landscape painter—reveals traces of these untold histories. The ethereal images portray the artist, his aunt Ethel Swan, and his peer Lionel Wendt, a highly influential figure in Ceylonese society who cofounded several artistic endeavors and explored early solarization and photomontage techniques in his own photographs. In one of Beling’s pictures, Swan and Wendt are superimposed onto each other to create an otherworldly hybrid portrait of an intersexual figure with four arms sitting in a liminal indoor-outdoor space, evincing experiments in abstraction and photography in Sri Lanka coeval to those in Europe. Many local artists and scholars have expressed that it’s time such practices are no longer labeled as other—e.g. as alternative, indigenous, or contextual modernism—but simply as modernism tout court.
Art, of course, can only be canonized if conserved. The MMCA plans to house a permanent collection once an adequate storage facility is built and, in the meantime, aims to foster a culture of museumgoing by offering trilingual pedagogic programs and hiring a cohort of art and art history graduates from local universities as visitor educators. The museum’s overarching focus on conservation includes establishing a dedicated course with the Academy of Design, and though this approach may be deemed conservative elsewhere, it’s a crucial first step in Sri Lanka toward growing enduring institutions, professions, audiences, and research. Daswatte told me, for example, that studying historical migration and trade routes shows us that Sri Lanka would actually be better understood as part of a wider Indian Ocean culture. “With this museum we can begin to tell the people of our country that we’re more than monocultural. We need to talk more about our plurality,” said Daswatte. “For that, we have to build our own story.”
That such major institutional exhibitions are finally being homegrown, rather than taking place abroad as geographic surveys in art centers in the Global North, is a significant step in decolonizing and deepening our understanding of Sri Lankan art, which is often conveniently classified under the generalized heading of South Asian art instead of read on its own terms. The MMCA is in a strategic position: It has the chance to begin again, to reanimate the past century in a way that is relevant to the current one. With a new decade underway, the hope is that strong support and accountability will ensure it can survive.
Jyoti Dhar is an art critic based between New Delhi and Colombo, Sri Lanka.