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.

The knight with the pearl earring: Deloraine Brohier memoir

When the writer, Burgher cultural authority and researcher Deloraine Brohier passed away, we penned a tribute to her. The memoir was published on the Sunday Times as the official feature to celebrate Brohier’s life and work. This piece was written as a personal memoir to a friend, and captures the significance of Brohier, her work and life. It touches on her work’s significance to culture, writing and women in general as an example of a woman who did not live her life conventionally, but was loved and celebrated nevertheless.

The piece was published on The Sunday Times in 2017, following a week after Brohier’s passing.

‘Red for her funeral dress? No.’

‘It’s too bright!’

‘Isn’t it inappropriate?’

‘But, she was very clear in her instructions. She wanted to go in the red dress.’

‘We must respect her wishes, but it’s definitely not ordinary.’

Well, neither was Deloraine Brohier. Nothing about her life stood out as ordinary. All too often ‘women’ and ‘empowerment’ are mentioned in the same sentence, but too few women really lived the philosophy before it became a hashtag, a movement and another over-coffee conversation. Deloraine Brohier was one of them. A historian, writer, and encyclopaedic authority on Burgher life and customs, she lived her life as a gutsy response to what was considered ‘female’ in an orthodox society.

Educated, and more importantly, rich with a prevailing sense of intellectual curiosity and wonder, her lifetime was one long pilgrimage consecrated to the arts, history and culture. She possessed a refreshing confidence in her own intelligence and abilities as a single being. She travelled all over the world for work, for pleasure, all on her own, with family and similarly curious friends, gathering an incredible string of experiences that shaped her person. All this through the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, in Sri Lanka’s conformist society where a single woman living alone, travelling and working at her free will, was rare.

She was her father’s daughter. The searching spirit of that great historian and explorer R.L. Brohier lived in his youngest child- Beryl Deloraine Brohier born April 13, 1927. She watched her parents and how they moved about life as her father served in the Survey Department pre and post-Independence. The way he and her mother continued their search for answers to satisfy their own sense of wonderment in nature and human culture, unfettered by the ordinary weights of life, such as children, their schools, moving homes etc. She graduated from the University of Ceylon- Colombo in 1950, was involved in education and broadcasting before working with the United Nations.

Deloraine was the closest to her father’s heart after his wife’s somewhat early demise. In the years that she cared for him and assisted him in his last works, she became the sole custodian of a vast ocean of historical research and knowledge that Dr. R. L. Brohier left behind. This was the beginning of her lifelong mission to preserve some of his works through reprinting, editing and publication. At the same time, she found his legacy guiding her to discover the expansiveness of this world and the human experience, through her own research too.

Deloraine Brohier dressed impeccably. Her treasured wardrobe pieces were scarves, clothing and jewellery sets entwined with exotic stories from the faraway places. She loved wearing a certain pearl set not for its monetary value but because it was fished in the Australian seas by an indigenous people who possessed a fascinating art of pearl harvesting. For Deloraine, her possessions were always special, a part of her voice, her persona and her worldview. She collected such things as her personal tribute to human craftsmanship which she regarded so highly.

Deloraine thought the arts to be the most profound expression of emotion. The painting ‘The girl with a pearl earring’ by the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer was one she often spoke of with reverence as an example of the power of art to transport us to intellectual reverie. Hers was no blind fascination with the arts for the sake of arts, but a true all-embracing appreciation stemming from the understanding of its role in our evolution. This allowed her to fall freely into experiencing the arts and their materialisation throughout history without inhibition, going from orchestral music and traditional dance to the irrigation heritage of Sri Lanka, the secrets of Burgher culinary history and the trinkets made by the forgotten Boer prisoners in Diyatalawa who etched their nostalgia for home onto their crafts during their lifelong entrapment. Her many books and the editorial republications of her father’s work wove in and out of such incredibly diverse historically rich stories that reflected her breadth of interest and knowledge.

Deloraine was committed to being in a state of ‘wonder’. In our discussions about creativity, inspiration, curiosity and education, she shared little gems of her knowledge embellished with her twinkling wisdom. “If you don’t teach children to love that emotion of conscious, questioning wonder, through whatever medium- history, music, art, literature…they will never learn to chase a muse, to search for answers. And they will always be disinterested in everything including themselves,” she lamented the ineffectiveness of traditional education systems and the mindless drowning into digital screens.

Deloraine often spoke about how she and her siblings were not allowed to sleep during their many travels with their parents- her father gave them a continuing commentary on the history of sites and towns and her mother on the flora and fauna en route. From this early inception into the sense of wonder, ‘living’ as her interpretation, was to ‘follow this sense of wonder we have in us, because it simply makes you happy or because it can even give you the answer to life.’

She was hungry for inspiration, and meticulous in recording it. After seeing how one of her traveller-friends dedicated an entire day after the journey to record-keeping, she adopted the habit and stuck to it faithfully over the years writing down the notes of her expeditions in detail: a trait she advised on cultivating in order to make the most out of our experiences. Her hurriedly scribbled notes on rock formations, landscapes, stars, types of trees and animals crowded her books and photographic recollections that she shared with us. ‘Don’t wait too long to clear your desk, and put your mind to rest with what you have seen. It stays somewhere in your memory and comes back when you need it. Our mind is the most amazing thing.’

She was a rebel, a quiet female revolutionary in a sense: Deloraine knew that the only sure way to bring about a change for the way women lived in our society was by simply going out there and living the life of a free woman. ‘People must see how you live and what it does to you, to change how they would live,’ she insisted, staying true to her intuitions until their time to become widely accepted would come.  ‘I shall maintain’ is also the motto on the badge marking one the greatest honours she received in her lifetime- Knight of the Order of Oranje-Nassau by Queen Beatrix of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Her bright red funeral dress that caused miniature uproars, was a memoir of this treasured occasion when she was awarded the knighthood.

She was 89 when she passed away last Monday, but she hadn’t even considered slowing down. Her last work on the Ceylonese women doctors, which she discussed with me at length with shining enthusiasm, sits ready for its final edit. Her work remains, speaking to masses, changing minds, uncovering knowledge both old and new.

She will be remembered for her incredible contribution to researching and recording the arts, history and cultures that are part of our existence. Deloraine Brohier was sent off from our world in her vivacious red dress, attesting to her spirit, her wonder, her guts and her glory; the knight with the pearl earring rode on to her next expedition.

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

Urban Island; city stories product series

When Urban Island commissioned our studio Public Works to design a product series that captured some of Sri Lanka’s most iconic cities, we were excited for two reasons; it was a project that combined both our individual expertise in writing and visual art, and it was an opportunity for us to crystallise some of our favourite experiences and places in Sri Lanka. The series was to target both Sri Lankans and travellers. We understood that for travellers, the city stories series should be about taking back a fond memory from their time in Sri Lanka. Our strategy for the Sri Lankans, was to make the series about celebrating a memory about their hometown, or a place they have a connection to in their country.

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The challenge for the writer was capture a special story, feeling, icon or an experience about each city, in just a few words; and, because we wanted to make the writing for this project to take the form mini poetry, the challenge also meant there had to be some form of rhythm or rhyme. 

The project was fun to work on, and from what we hear from the Urban Island team, the series is becoming somewhat of a cult favourite among their shoppers.

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The success of the series had Urban Island creating a larger product series going from pillow cases, T shirts and bags, to notebooks, mugs and aprons. The city stories series by Public Works is still going strong at the Urban Island outlets.

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#ReadyforTomorrow: film script

 

This video script was commissioned by Sri Lanka’s leading design college AOD. The brief was to capture the energy of young people who aspire to change the world with their creativity. The video script was given a tone of rebelliousness that syncs with the undercurrents of youth culture, while embracing the potential held by young people to build a different tomorrow, by nurturing their skills. The words were carefully chosen to be aspirational and positive connecting to the idea of the future and tomorrow, while also bringing in word choices that hint at being courageous. This video played a critical role as a powerful social media advertisement, and the client succeeded in making its recruitment targets expected from this campaign.

 


Tomorrow is a new place.

The rules have been remade.

Innovation, radical thinking and creativity run the world.

New ideas make the world.

Ideas like clothing that enhance lives.

Languages that break boundaries

Spaces that influence human wellbeing


Stories that change the way we see the world


Businesses that build new parallels in our experience.

This tomorrow needs a different kind of person at the lead.

The kind that believes,
the kind that thinks different,
the kind that dares to dream big.

(Dramatic pause)

What about you?

(Pause)

(The music and film recommences with new and intensity)


Get #readyfortomorrow with AOD.

www.aod.lk/readyfortomorrow

Island experiences + enterprise must-knows: international prospectus

This editorial project was commissioned by the Sri Lankan design college—AOD, as part of its international campaign to attract students from overseas. Considering the target audience, the words, tone and the ideas brought into the text were carefully considered. These elements were crafted to be in line with the thinking and aspirations of twenty-something-year-olds in predominantly European markets. At the same time, content was also developed with the idea of presenting a modern design education destination out of Sri Lanka, bringing in strategic direction to the writing.

Click here to view entire document