Stronger where broken: Anoma Wijewardene interview story

We have been working with the prominent contemporary Sri Lankan artist Anoma Wijewardene for years. Anoma’s commissions for stories are always a challenge because they need to capture the complexity of her art and the emotions behind it. From a professional point of view, it was important for Anoma to bring in her future work, collaborations and partnerships to stories, and it was part of the writer’s challenge to incorporate these without compromising the flow and emotion of the story on Art. This particular piece was on Anoma’s latest international show during the legendary Venice Biennale. The monumental significance of the Biennale and a Sri Lankan artist’s presence there made the story an important one, and was featured on The Sunday Times in June 2019.

Life can break us; But, courage allows the healing that makes us stronger where we were once broken. When Anoma Wijewardene was invited to exhibit at the European Cultural Centre’s Personal Structures: Identities, a collateral exhibition of the Venice Biennale, it was her series Kintsugi, which explores the search for harmony and renewal in a world of unconscionable intolerance and division, which she chose to submit. True to Anoma’s artistic voice that has always commented on what goes unnoticed despite it burning in our very midst, these works were a reflection on fragmented and wounded societies, and reflecting upon our common humanity in the face of conflict, misguided religious fervour and human insecurity—a conversation that is more relevant to Sri Lanka than ever before. The installation Kintsugi invites us to accept the stewardship we share of our fragile planet. Within days of returning from Venice, Anoma Wijewardene joined for an interview about what it meant to have ‘Kintsugi’ shown to a global audience at a time when the emotions behind it returned in full force after Easter 2019, and how she sees art as a crucial part of our cultural and social dialogue.

It was 2014 when Anoma started painting the series that will be viewed by thousands over the next five months of the duration of the legendary Biennale in Venice. At the time, she was dealing with her emotions on the racial tensions mushrooming around Sri Lanka. Longing for a real reconciliation and ‘togetherness’, Anoma was drawn to the Japanese art of restoration ‘Kintsugi’—which translates to golden seams. Here, shattered fragments are fused with gold enamel, revealing and embracing, rather than disguising the mistakes. It is a concept which calls for seeing beauty in the flawed and imperfect and celebrates reconstruction and re-unification. She found a powerful message in this statement on the necessity of reconciliation for survival, and the strength in embracing our history and our differences. She found that perceiving breakage and repair as part of life that needs no disguise and must be central to the attitudes that make for reconciliation and renewal.

Half a decade after the series was originally created and the work was being reconstructed to be a part of ‘Identities’ Anoma was struck by how the relevance of ‘Kintsugi’ also resurfaced. “Easter was just ten days before I flew out. The work had been shipped already but I couldn’t help but notice how apposite it was” she says. But, this is precisely the power of art; artistic work that stems from the human core will always move parallel to our own evolution, and even collective destinies. The ringing relevance that ‘Kintsugi’ bore to critical social issues resonated with the curators, and the overall theme—‘May You Live In Interesting Times’; a title encompassing the highly polarised and turbulent times the world is currently experiencing.

Speaking about being invited to show at a collateral show of the Venice Biennale—or the Olympics of art as Forbes deems it—Anoma was both humbled and grateful. The last time that Sri Lanka had the honour was seventy years ago, with the inclusion of the 43 group at the Arsenale. “The project’s complexity and the scale itself had me taken back a little, but at the same time, I knew it was a collateral exhibition of THE Venice Biennale! A six month viewing period, close to an estimated 500,000 visitors, and most importantly, an opportunity for Sri Lanka to share a voice on diversity, unity and healing—something I felt the world really needed right now. I am so grateful to the curators of the European Cultural Centre for including my work in their exhibition.”

Anoma said that showing in Venice, at the Palazzo Bembo by the Rialto Bridge on the Canale Grande, was daunting; but she felt that the entire Biennale was a collective statement from the world’s artists, looking to stimulate an understanding on how we relate to each other and the planet across the social and cultural divide. “Borders are powerful symbols, whether political, religious, cultural or psychological. The Personal Structures curators were focusing on how division forces us to look closely at our own identity and distinguish between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’; the ‘us’ and ‘them’. But, how do we find beauty in our differences and cherish our cultural commonality? Kintsugi is a work that invites us to embrace our diversity and understand how it makes our experience richer.”

Kintsugi installation has a quiet intensity; it grows on you, and takes hold of you with a ‘broken togetherness’. This quiet intensity is elevated with the inclusion of powerful poetry and haunting music to create a book and a video installation. “Multimedia, mixed media and sensory immersion with a video installation, and a book…..it was a mix of all these that completed Kintsugi.”

The poetry followed the art when Anoma’s childhood friend writer and poet Romesh Gunesekera visited her in 2015 while she was painting the series. He was moved. “I just mused out loud about him writing a paragraph or two for it; and some months after, out came this incredible poetry that was crafted using shards and fragments, just like my art. They examined the fundamentals of the paintings in a parallel process of separation and renewal. I felt that ideas like isolation, conflict, displacement, as well as reconciliation, healing and harmony, were expressed even more profoundly when the images and the words came together.” When Anoma went still further to incorporate music and video into the art, she was opening the experience out to yet another dimension. What grips you in the video with Anoma’s art and Romesh’s poetry, is the music. So precisely composed, so hauntingly evocative, the music was specifically created for the art by Sharon Smith who synthesised the words recited by Romesh with tones from several cultures and music genres. The Canadian music editor and composer based in Los Angeles has worked with Hollywood directors, playwrights and choreographers. “All these collaborations evolved organically, through friendships. I was so fortunate to have the wonderful response from Romesh to Sharon, and so many others whose input was so crucial”, Anoma says. Despite her true love being pure painting, Anoma has clearly never been afraid to explore other realms. Even in Venice, Anoma’s installation carries a another element, with the scent of cinnamon—a fragrance so closely linked to the spice island of Sri Lanka—incorporated into the work;  “ Spices must have traversed the Silk Route from ancient Ceylon to the emporia of the City State of Venice for centuries; and so it seems I have naturally now moved into the realm of olfactory art,” she says.

Kintsugi will remain in Venice for another five months. During this time, five hundred thousand minds are expected to encounter and engage with the art at the European Cultural Centre’s two palazzos. And to them all, Anoma’s art will present a brave new perspective on what hopes there are for reconciliation and harmony—a viewpoint that comes from Sri Lanka, an island struggling to heal, yet trying nevertheless.

Taking this powerful story out to a global audience was made possible by a collective of patrons who understood the significance of art in crafting Sri Lanka’s international image; “The John Keells Foundation and Cinnamon Life, Ceylon Tea, the National Lotteries Board, AOD, Etihad Airways and a few amazing individuals were part of taking this work to Venice. They were so incredibly generous and progressive in their thinking to understand the importance of a Sri Lankan presence there. I am deeply indebted to them for believing in my work and understanding its message. Thank you!”

Anoma’s work over the last two decades has extensively covered topics like climate change and the call for a collective harmony and peaceful coexistence. Her last major international group show was in 2016 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, where Anoma was the only South Asian artist in the exhibition ‘One Belt One Road’. Her monograph was just launched in London in March 2019 and will soon be released in Sri Lanka.

The story is also available on The Sunday Times online edition here.

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