Smriti Daniel

Natasha Ginwala, Menika Van Der Poorten, Jan Ramesh de Saram, Thenuwara: Shadow Scenes at The Rio

In Activists, Artists, Scroll.In on September 30, 2015 at 12:12 pm

32 years after the riots of Black July engulfed Colombo, there is perhaps only one place in the city where you can still see traces of the fires that were set that day. But that is not the reason why tuk-tuk drivers will throw you an assessing look if you ask to be dropped off at the Rio in Slave Island. For most part, the once luxurious, 60-room hotel is forgotten, as is the adjoining Navah Cinema. It is the third member of that complex – an adult film cinema, also called the Rio – that has earned the venue its notoriety. But today, walk past the box office (unless you would like a ticket to watch Pussy Cat), take a right, brave a dark corridor and you will find yourself at the threshold of the city’s most unusual art exhibition.

From August 21, a festival called Cinnamon Colomboscope has brought visitors pouring into the once abandoned hotel for the exhibition Shadow Scenes. About 40 local and international artists have created 51 pieces for the show, which occupies all seven of the hotel’s floors and is on view till August 30.

Natasha Ginwala, who curated the show with Menika Van Der Poorten, said that the building itself was one of the reasons she was drawn to the project. Born and raised in Ahmedabad, Ginwala moved to Europe five years ago. For this project, she found her memories of the Gujarat riots of 2002 influencing her response to the space. “It became quite personal. I had to think about this as a living ruin and an archive that had endured this kind of history.”

The history she’s referring to is the anti-Tamil pogrom in Sri Lanka that was launched in July 1983 after an ambush by the terrorist group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam claimed the lives of 13 soldiers in the Sri Lankan army. Mainly Sinhalese mobs led a week of rioting that left some 150,000 people homeless and anywhere between 400 and 3,000 people dead. The numbers remain disputed.

Today, the area around the Rio is also contested, but for a different reason. The neighbourhood of Slave Island, known in Sinhala as Kompannaveediya and in Tamil as Kompani Theru, both meaning Company Street, was marked for a beautification drive under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government. In a controversial move, some 582 families were evicted two years ago to make way for a $429.5 million development project in the area by Tata Housing.

Now, work there has been suspended while Tata Housing negotiates with President Maithripala Sirisena’s new government. Meanwhile, the affected families wait in an uneasy limbo.

The first floor of the Rio and the opening of the exhibition attempts to introduce viewers to this context with a series of photographs of the communities affected by the beautification drive. In subsequent levels, artists have been assigned rooms in which to create individual scenes.

The approach has paid off, with diverse responses across a range of media, including film, photography, sculpture, audio and paintings. Room has also been made for foreign perspectives, from the quiet sophistication of Indian artist Rathin Barman’s brick dust and ink in Documentation of Architectural Reconciliation to the Karachi-II series, Pakistani artist Bani Abidi’s meditation on the cinemas of Lahore.

Bani Abidi: Funland, Karachi Series II, 2013-14, film and photographic prints. 

At the very top, in what once housed the nightclub Eagles’ Nest, an audio installation by Colombian artist Pedro Gómez-Egaña, and a panoramic view of the numerous development projects dotting the city greets visitors. “From up there you can hypothesise what future can be composed from the present of the city,” said Ginwala, “while in the interior you move through the past, shuttering across time and temporalities.”

Pedro Gómez-Egaña: The Vimana Kiranaavarta Observatory, 2015;  sound installation. 

Preparing the decrepit building for this exhibition has presented its own set of challenges. Jan Ramesh De Saram, cultural affairs coordinator at the Goethe-Institut in Colombo, says the entire structure first had to have electricity put in. Sections with broken roofs, which were open to the elements and frequently flooded, had to be repaired, he added. Undaunted, artists Mahen Perera and Janananda Laksiri actually took advantage of the stagnant water in their rooms to create a reflective surface for suspended, site responsive installations.

Mahen Perera: Things, 2015; site-responsive sculptures.

Taken together, the 51 exhibits have in common an approach that emphasises participatory, research-based, highly personal and socially responsive works, said Van Der Poorten. She took particular care to include pieces by artists such as Pakkiyarajah Pushpakanthan, Thavarasa Thajendran, Mariya Thevathas Vijitharan and Thujiba Vijayalayan, who live and work in Jaffna. The region felt the full brunt of the war, and as a consequence has been traditionally underrepresented in the country’s art scene.

Among the participating artists are those who have been internally displaced or imprisoned both during the war and in violent insurrections such as those staged by Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna in 1971 and again in 1987. The artwork that arises from this lived experience is powerful and emotive.

In T Shanaathanan’s Nation for instance, a barricade of traditional sand bags is interspersed with sacks made from lavish wedding sarees – the last resort of people who had run out of other materials from which to build their defences. The barricade is circular, and the space around it, representing civil society, is narrow and cramped.

T Shanaathanan: Nation, 2015; installation.

Prominent artist Chandraguptha Thenuwara is one of those whose works are on display. Since 1997, Thenuwara has staged a brave annual one-man exhibition in memory of Black July. Until 2009, when the conflict was brought to a brutal conclusion, his works were determinedly anti-war but in the post-war years he took to grappling with contemporary issues related to ethnic divisions in the country.

Since a change in government in January, there is a sense that there is now more room for national introspection. Thenuwara is pleased to see something on the scale of Shadow Scenes take place. “This might be the only space remaining that is related to the 1983 riots; beautification and development have erased a lot of memories,” he said of the Rio.

Chandragupta Thenuwara: Lotus Zone, 2015; drawings and installation. 

Some of the young artists engaging with these issues weren’t even born in 1983, but Ginwala said the curators made a determined effort to ensure the exhibition wasn’t mired in the history it was grappling with. “For us it was not about looking back and being immobilised,” she said, “but saying, this happened and now what can we do from here.”

A few other works from the exhibition.

Kavan Balasurya: Capital Complex, 2015; acrylic, graphite and pastel on paper.

Pradeep Chandrasiri: Inside the Charcoal Mountain, 2015;
installation with charcoal wall drawing. 

Agnieszka Polska: The leisure time of a firearm, 2015; mixed media. Photo courtesy of artist and Żak | Branicka Galerie, Berlin.

(Above and below) Pala Pothupitiye: Borakakul & Borakakul, 2004; installation.

Published on on August 27, 2015. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Ruvin de Silva. 

Salman Siddiqui: The drone buzz over Sri Lanka

In SciDev.Net, Scientists on September 30, 2015 at 11:44 am

[COLOMBO] High spatial resolution images captured by drones are bettering those generated by satellites, and enabling researchers in Sri Lanka to study crop health and irrigation in greater detail.

A team of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) has been testing the Swiss-manufactured eBee, or Electronic Bee in the skies above the Anuradhapura district, this month (September). “Usually, the clear sky window doesn’t coincide with a satellite pass,” says Salman Siddiqui, head of the organisation’s geographic information systems.

“With a near infrared sensor on board, the eBee can help us or farmers identify stress in a crop 10 days before it actually shows up physically,” says Siddiqui. Multiple images taken by a drone can be stitched together to produce a digital surface or elevation model in virtual 3D. These can, for example, help identify areas vulnerable to flooding.

Ranjith Alankara with the IWMI drone for a test flight near Colombo, Sri Lanka Credit: Neil Palmer / IWMI ENLARGE ICON Click on the image above to enlarge

The 16 megapixel camera on-board the eBee boasts a spatial resolution of up to three centimetres which is significantly more detailed than images generated, for instance, by Google Earth which clocks in at five metres.

The drone also allows scientists to determine the frequency with which images are updated. In contrast, satellites data is usually refreshed only every 15 days or so. “Of course another major factor is the cost of satellite images, particularly when the area has to be covered several times,” says Siddiqui.

The eBee can spend up to 45 minutes in the air on a single charge of its batteries. Its sensors keep it stable through shifting winds and allow it to avoid other objects that might be sharing its airspace. On completion of mission, the eBee lands automatically, guided by its artificial intelligence module and the global positioning system.

P.M.P. Udayakantha, Sri Lanka’s surveyor general, expects that the eBee will come in useful in developing a national cadastre and doing strip surveys along road traces, canals and highways. “We are planning to do a survey of Badulla town with the UAV — this can expedite most of the work,” he tells SciDev.Net.

 Siddiqui says that because drones fly below the clouds they have a clear view of the terrain even in bad weather. “It is an important advantage in emergencies — heavy rain and cloud cover can make it almost impossible to use a (satellite-based) earth observing system, to assess the flood extent or damage.”

Published on SciDev.Net on September 19. 2015. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy IWMI. 

Asoka Obeyesekere: an ‘MP monitoring scorecard’

In Activists, Innovators, Politicians, SciDev.Net on September 30, 2015 at 11:41 am

Online scorecard for Sri Lankan MPs

[Colombo] In the run-up to critical parliamentary elections on 17 August,, a parliamentary performance monitoring website, is providing unprecedented insight into the workings of Sri Lanka’s government.

Asoka Obeyesekere, leader of the team, says the site was created to bridge the information gap “between the parliament and the public.” The site is run by Verité, a non-partisan Colombo-based think tank in partnership with Saberion, a transnational web and mobile technology provider. It is accessible in Sinhala, Tamil and English and aims to promote transparency and good governance.

Billed as an ‘MP monitoring scorecard,’ the site ranks Sri Lanka’s 225 MPs on productive time spent. The impartial classification coding system is based on data collected from a comprehensive analysis of the Hansard, a verbatim record of parliamentary proceedings. MPs who are active and contribute to Parliamentary proceedings in a procedurally correct manner are rewarded, while those who disrupt Parliament and impede its functions are penalised. The system is entirely non-partisan.

Obeyesekere explains that each minister is assigned a number within the system, allowing for a record of every contribution he or she makes in Parliament. Statements are qualified by methods of contribution, topic, type of debate and the language that the contribution is submitted in.

The site’s new ‘Election Hub’ allows visitors to see how MPs voted on key pieces of legislation, and offers additional rankings based on the minutes of the influential consultative committees. There is also a comprehensive list of candidate names and numbers which are otherwise hard to find in one place.

Obeyesekere stresses that’s rankings are not definitive, as an MP’s value to his or her constituents might be determined by grassroots work undertaken outside Parliament. Information is also lacking, with MPs educational qualifications, Parliament attendance, and assets records not available in the public domain. “We have to rethink these arcane secrecy provisions that stop people from disseminating this vital information,” says Obeyesekere.

Policy Analyst Rohan Samarajiva says the site’s most important contribution is that it has given mainstream media information to work with but that the format may still be “a little too techy” for the average user.

Sanjana Hattotuwa, editor of the citizen journalism website Groundviews, agrees that the site is yet to see wide usage, which he says is unfortunate: “The value of such a site is that it allows that citizens to keeps tabs on who they have elected into public office and parliament and to see if their representatives have lived up to their promises.”

Published on SciDev.Net on August 15, 2015. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Sven Torfinn / Panos.


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