Anoli Perera examines how artists-led initiative Theertha responds to sociopolitical circumstances and the art ecology in Sri Lanka on the collective's tenth anniversary.
The Colombo-based Theertha International Artists Collective celebrates its tenth year of existence in 2010. An ideologically-based organisation that is managed by a group of seventeen visual artists, Theertha supports and propagates the experimental and socially critical/interventionist art that emerged in Sri Lanka in the 1990s, and is now popularly known as the ‘90s Trend.
Nearly fifteen years have passed since the emergence of the ‘90s Trend, which came out of a situation of political anarchy and social chaos. Sri Lanka was grappling with a legacy of postcolonial problems; in 1988, a violent youth uprising in the southern part of the country and a long drawn armed conflict due to ethnic issues. These dynamics have left their mark on all aspects of life in the country.
The art of the 1990s emerged in the context of this chaotic and complex sociopolitical situation. The new art reflected an insistent interest in sociopolitical narration, documenting the violence and destruction of war, and treated subjectivity as a casualty of the urban myth, with feminist criticality and identity politics also discussed. Artists were intensely engaged in socio-cultural critiques on the effects of globalisation, extreme consumerism and the emerging youth culture. Its evolution saw a complex set of dynamics at play within the visual art field, giving room to the popularising of the idea of "alternative" as the "critical other" to the conventional and established art. Within this, many attempts were made by artists and individuals to support the newly-emerging radicalism and root its corresponding ideologies of contemporary art by establishing alternate art spaces, alternate art educational institutions, and alternate group efforts. The ‘90s Trend was thus seen as a serious epistemic break in Sri Lankan visual art history.
If one were to try to locate Theertha in this contemporary art history, then it would be placed at the point where the ‘90s Trend completed its first phase as a movement; where its primary ideological positions were firmly established and the art of the future—and the new millennium—awaited new interpretations and directions.
Theertha was initiated in 2000 by a congregation of eleven artists, many of whom had spearheaded the ‘90s art transformation. As such, these individuals and Theertha automatically became the bearers of the ‘90s art legacy, with Theertha’s vision invariably holding the same liberating stance of the ‘90s art that leaned towards the experimental. The collective worked with a mission to stimulate the art community into engaging in a broader spectrum of creative possibilities that were opened up with the shift in thinking in the visual arts. Theertha was also the logical next step in the culmination of activities by many restless artists who were finding ways to deal with their own sociopolitical dilemmas, the anxieties of taking a different position to the officially sanctioned art, and an urgency to connect with the outside art world.
There have been other important moments where radical artists have rallied together to illustrate their stance. As early as 1992, a group of artists who were also main proponents of the ‘90s Trend established the Vibhavi Academy of Fine Arts as an alternative to the well-known government art school, the Institute of Aesthetic Studies (now known as University of Performing and Visual Arts). It was a bid to confront the latter’s archaic curriculum and parochial methods of teaching. In the mid-1990s, the philanthropist and patron of the arts Ajitha de Costa initiated the alternative art space Heritage Gallery, which for several years showcased the experimental art of the 90s, which became a place where radical artists congregated. In 1997, Sharmini Pereira, a young curator based in the United Kingdom, curated a collection of ‘90s art and presenting the works as emerging new trends in contemporary Sri Lankan art in the exhibition New Approaches held at the National Art Gallery of Colombo. In 1999, artists closely associated with the ‘90s Trend formed the No Order Group, which organised a seminal exhibition of their work and issued a manifesto declaring their position on art.
The efforts of these artists were supported by other institutional structures and individuals, such as the Goethe Institut and its director at the time, Stephan Dreyer, who is credited for introducing and supporting the idea of international workshops—which generated considerable enthusiasm for international exchanges. Gallery 706 (now known as Barefoot Gallery) and its directors Dominic and Nazreen Sansoni supported the new art by sponsoring a number of innovative exhibitions of artists such as Jagath Weerasinghe, Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Anoli Perera, Mohanned Cader, K. Pushpakumara, Kingsley Goonatilake and the important exhibition Made in IAS which showcased cutting-edge art by students of the Institute of Aesthetic Studies, curated by Jagath Weerasinghe. The Sansonis were also the primary art collectors at the time who endorsed the new art, and purchased most of the key artworks of ‘90s Trend for their private collection.
Theertha emerged as the next phase of this history, as a response to the immense need to connect with the outside world and to carve out a space, literally and metaphorically, which supported and nurtured the innovation, experimentation, theorisation and criticality that the art of the 1990s introduced. Theertha began its journey with the intention of facilitating international art exchanges, and the first two years were devoted to this purpose. Theertha’s initial break into the funding of culture and art came with the International Art Workshop in 2001, where a substantial grant from the Prince Claus Fund supported art exchanges across artistic, geographic, and ethno-religious boarders. The success of this workshop energised the group dynamics of Theertha, and inspired them to continue their cause for a more engaged practice of art.
Although Sri Lankan art had changed ideologically by adjusting to contemporary anxieties, and the art community had expanded over the years, the infrastructure, art education and the overall perceptions and attitudes towards the visual arts did not change to accommodate the demands of the new art. Neither the government nor private patrons were forthcoming in a progressive way. The state sponsorships were embroiled in politics and corporate attention was directed at high visibility events such as cricket matches. A handful of art galleries had emerged since the 1980s, although they mostly functioned as retail shops to sell art rather than representing artists in an organised way. At the same time, the state was not interested in art other than what was defined as "traditional" or as related to "heritage". Furthermore, art education had a very low priority within the state’s education and cultural policies.
Within this complex context, the new art that was being produced in the 1990s and which was presenting a different aesthetic sensibility to the conventional, did not find enthusiastic endorsers. In many ways, Theertha’s art activities were shaped and defined in an attempt to navigate within this retroactive environment. Therefore, while the initial objectives primarily focused on art exchange, Theertha has over the years also engaged with other aspects of visual arts.
The primary concern for Theertha was to build its own art audiences and to expand its ideology so that a large support base for its kind of art could be found. The gap that had grown between the conventional art patrons—largely from the English-speaking and Colombo-based cultural elite—and contemporary artists, who mostly come from non-elite, non-English speaking and difficult economic backgrounds and who make art that is alien to the norm, guaranteed a disconnection from art-buying audiences. The disillusionment that the ‘90s artists felt within the art community energised groups such as Theertha to look for endorsements outside of Colombo and outside of Sri Lanka. Hence, its heavy involvement with programmes such as art teacher training and art workshops in regional areas within Sri Lanka and their commitment to networking internationally.
One of the important steps for Theertha in its historical trajectory was its involvement with the South Asian Network for the Arts (SANA). In 2004, the progressive, New Delhi-based arts initiative Khoj was instrumental in setting up a network for the arts within South Asia, to connect artists involved in experimental and dynamic art within the region. Khoj managed to harness the group energies of Theertha, Vasl (Pakistan), the Britto Art Trust (Bangladesh) and Suthra (Nepal), which were all alternative art initiatives, to work towards creating a collegiality and cooperation that later became known as the South Asian Network for the Arts. With SANA in place, Theertha found its own peer community within a regional/international setting that understood their anxieties, frustrations and aspirations, and which in a way was being misunderstood in its own country. Its art found endorsement and appreciation within these groups. With eruptive geo-politics and developmental anomalies sweeping across South Asia, most of the experiences of groups within SANA had similar bearings. Art that was produced by them engaged in parallel themes and approaches. The initial years with SANA intensified Theertha’s energy and credibility. Activities such as international residencies and workshops increased, and international art exchanges strengthened within member groups. The international art residencies and workshops regularly held by Theertha showcased its experimental approach to art. Performance art, earth works and installations, which were relatively new art forms to Sri Lanka, also had the opportunity to expand and evolve at Theertha-sponsored events.
Born out of a chaotic situation that resulted in civil war, the ‘90s art ideology and Theertha were sensitive to volatile ethnic issues, which had from the early 1980s evolved into an armed conflict between the Tamil Tigers guerrilla group and the Sri Lankan government. While it did not associate with political regimes either as an endorser or opponent, Theertha was concerned with the effects of war and conflict on society and its human predicament. Coming from the south and predominantly with a Sinhala and Buddhist membership, Theertha was burdened with the same guilt that most progressives and liberals in the country were feeling in the face of the intense violence inflicted by the conflicting parties (the Tamil Tigers and Sri Lankan military) and with no real solution in sight. The emergence of extreme ideologies of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in the south and the general intolerance of Tamils as ‘enemies’ within the dominant national psyche, demanded counter discourses from groups such as Theertha who were critical of chauvinist politics and its representations in the cultural domain. This situation probed Theertha to initiate publications on art and culture with a critical edge. Published in Sinhala, Tamil and English, much of the content of these arts and cultural publications (such as Patitha, Panuwal, Artlab and South Asia Journal for Culture) have become key texts presenting alternative readings of culture and art for students at the university level.
The long-term friendships with members of the Tamil artists community in Jaffna, and the sympathies towards the predicament of Tamils as an ethnic community in Sri Lanka, Theertha continuously maintained collaborative art programs with Jaffna artists. These collaborations allowed it to organise the seminal exhibition Aham-Puram in 2004 at the newly rebuilt Jaffna Public Library, where seventy-two experimental artworks were shown amidst a war-torn area partly run by the state military and partly by the Tamil Tigers. While such attempts were seen by some as anti-patriotic and Theertha was castigated as traitors by extreme elements in the artist community and elsewhere, these remain Theertha’s intensely cherished, ambitious and most impacting activities.
In many ways, Theertha’s numerous activities have managed to propel the ‘90s art into other directions. Many of its members, some whom were instrumental in initiating the ‘90s Art Trend, have been active in sustaining the criticality and experimental nature of their art-making, presenting extremely innovative and seminal exhibitions. Jagath Weerasinghe’s latest exhibition, Celestial Fervor, presented a deeper and more sophisticated elaboration of the thematic he has engaged with since his 1994 show Anxiety that essentially provided the new parameters for ‘90s art. Similar attempts have been seen in recent exhibitions by other Theertha artists such as Sarath Kumarasiri (Kovils Temples) and K. Pushpakumara (Goodwill Hardware) as well as the younger generation of artists, Anura Krishantha (Chairs) Bandu Manamperi (Numbed), Sanatha Kalubadana (My Friend the Soldier) and Pala Pothupitiya (My Ancestral Dress and My ID).
One can now see these younger artists taking art into other dimensions, while acknowledging the roots of their practice in ‘90s art. In the 1990s, the representations of imagery with new methodologies manifested in a somewhat raw form because of the immediacy of the artists to the events they were narrating, and also because the aesthetic vocabulary they opted for was still evolving. This is very clearly seen in the early works of Theertha artists Jagath Weerasinghe (Who Are You Soldier/Broken Stupa), Pradeep Chandrasiri (Broken Hands) and Sarath Kumarasiri (No Glory). What is being seen now in the younger breed of Theertha artists is this aesthetic vocabulary developing into more subtle aesthetic formats, discussing micro themes at a deeper level and investigating intimate and highly personal experiences. If the ‘90s Trend opened up the possibilities of “aligning personal pain with that of society, and thus the artist portrays himself/herself as the suffering individual on behalf of others implying a self-inflicted, vicarious punishment,”1 the present art moves towards a tendency where the personal is investigated within an intimate mood, and the "suffering" is replaced by "curiosity, self-reflection and self-enjoyment" which predominates a rational consciousness rather than "perplexity and tragic irony" towards social chaos.
Theertha also continues to push the idea of art forging alliances with other discourses such as feminism, cultural studies, archaeology, human rights, and post-colonial studies. This liberality in the fusion of knowledge has allowed boundaries of conventional art hierarchies as well as perceptions and ideologies of art and craft to be redefined, and for younger contemporary artists to draw from a much larger pool of knowledge. Popular culture, mundane objects, profound subjects of heritage and national politics are discussed with equal seriousness, sanguinity and criticality.
In particular, the feminist criticality in art that started to emerge with the ‘90s Trend in particular found continued support through Theertha. The exhibition Reclaiming Histories: Retrospective Exhibition of Women’s Art (2000), curated by Anoli Perera and showing works by 50 female artists under the patronage of the Vibhavi Academy of Fine Art, can be seen as one of the early attempts at building awareness of women’s art influenced by the ‘90s Trend. While the feminist lobby in Sri Lanka has been active for a long time, their involvement with visual art has been somewhat aloof. As such, even if thematic investigations of women’s issues were attempted by artists, there was no consistent discourse or an orientation where women’s art could find role models, guidance or cues to indicate a particular direction to a locally-rooted feminist approach. Due to this, during the initial period some women’s art reflected ad hoc appropriations of theoretical elements from Euro-American feminism without really reworking it to merge with local experiences. Theertha’s contribution to the evolution of contemporary women’s art has been to provide the much-needed intellectual basis and the subaltern/localised approach informed by feminism to women’s art that goes beyond the theoretical definitions presented by Euro-American feminism and its art trends. The personalities and works of female artists associated with Theertha and its overall support for women’s art through exhibitions and art publications have also helped to establish a certain identifiable particularity associated with women’s art that has a critical edge. Many female artists of the younger generation are influenced by this particularity and the thematics of such art.
Between 2005 and 2008, Theertha’s art programmes gave emphasis to supporting young female artists who were graduating from art colleges to continue their practice and experiment with new ideas. This allowed them to initiate a process of forming their own identities as artists. The Women Artists’ Colloquiums and International Women Artists Residencies were initiated during this period.
In 2007, frustrated with the lack of flexibility in private galleries and their inability to understand contemporary art needs, Theertha transformed part of its office building into an art space. Over the past three years, Theertha has been concentrating on establishing Red Dot Gallery as an experimental art venue and to build its audiences and patronage. Concentrating on keeping certain established standards in its gallery practices, curatorship and presentation of exhibitions; the Red Dot maintains a selection process privileging experimentation and innovation. It has introduced the annual gallery season Pradharshana Wasanthaya to showcase innovative solo exhibitions, and present new and cutting-edge works of young and mid-career artists.
The evolution of contemporary art in the post ‘90s decade has also seen a particular role emerging for the artist, a role that is combined with a sense of social responsibility and a belief that art is a civilisational tool, and therefore that artists have the power to transform and intervene in the perceptual process of art audiences. The massive emotional and physical destruction of a long-drawn-out ethnic conflict, as well as the extensive need for developmental activities and a heightened awareness of human rights and cultural rights have dictated the overall public debates in Sri Lanka. Being inheritors of an art ideology that equated "personal" with "political" and by considering critical engagement as an integral element in its art, Theertha was highly receptive to the nuances of these debates. This receptivity is reflected in Theertha’s myriad activities where it has combined certain aspects of social services with art, thereby producing a unique image of the artist as a socio-cultural entrepreneur.
Anoli Perera is a founding core group member of Theertha, a visual artists-led initiative in Sri Lanka, which, like AAA, celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. Born in Colombo where she currently lives, Perera is a self-taught artist who was part of the wave of Sri Lankan artists in the 1990s who professed a new ideological position through their art production, in relation to contemporary art knowledge and the social context of their country.
1. Weerasinghe, Jagath. "Contemporary Art in Sri Lanka." In Art and Social Change: Contemporary Art in Asia and Pacific, edited by Caroline Turner, 188. Canberra: Pandanus Books, 2005.