Colombo, Sri Lanka

Venuri Perera, I dance for , 2019. Performance view, B52 at the Grand Oriental Hotel, Colombo, Sri Lanka, January 25, 2019. From left: Rebeka Dilrukshi, Hasanthi Niriella, Venuri Perera, Kanchana M. Shani. Photo: Ruvin de Silva. From Colomboscope.

Venuri Perera, I dance for , 2019. Performance view, B52 at the Grand Oriental Hotel, Colombo, Sri Lanka, January 25, 2019. From left: Rebeka Dilrukshi, Hasanthi Niriella, Venuri Perera, Kanchana M. Shani. Photo: Ruvin de Silva. From Colomboscope.

Colomboscope

Various Venues

This past January, the artist and raconteur Firi Rahman gave a series of informal talks in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s Galle Face Green, a seaside park flanked by the colonial-era Galle Face Hotel and the futuristic megaproject Port City Colombo. During these events, he stood in front of Taste Karaththé, 2019, a street seller’s cart he had converted into a mobile phenakistoscope display featuring animations of sharks, coral reefs, and lighthouses. Speaking in Sinhala, Tamil, English, and Malay, Rahman drew a diverse crowd. He told stories of people from his neighboring community (called Kompannavidiya, or Slave Island) diving for turtle eggs and shark bones, running their laundry businesses in front of parliament, and building their mosque from local limestone. As we watched, we could sense the fragility of this community, its traditions and livelihoods, as it is displaced by the city’s rapid development.

Presented as part of the sixth edition of the interdisciplinary festival Colomboscope, Rahman’s work was not only timely, it was also among the most accessible and moving on view. Last year, Sri Lanka went through a state of emergency, a constitutional crisis, and an economic slump. At the same time, Lonely Planet named the country the top tourist destination for 2019. The country’s nonprofit art exhibitions, such as Colomboscope and the Colombo Art Biennale, which began a decade ago, have often addressed such contradictions, collectively tracing Sri Lanka’s trajectory since the end of its twenty-six-year-long civil war in 2009. Colomboscope in particular has long been associated with a provocative talks program, the reclamation of abandoned spaces, and an effort to reflect the city’s zeitgeist via local artist commissions. This year, the works reflected the ephemeral and draft-like nature of a festival in transition, as it moved away from corporate sponsorship and ultimately struggled to secure local patronage.

This edition’s main exhibition, “Sea Change,” organized by Natasha Ginwala, who cocurated Colomboscope in 2015, spread across several venues, including the semi-derelict Rio Hotel (a last-minute choice due to logistical issues). The festival included thirty-five artists or collectives and a program of performances, such as Venuri Perera’s I dance for _, 2019, one of the few entries continuing Colomboscope’s tradition of mounting site-specific works. Over the course of four nights, Perera and several actors convened at the night club B52 at the Grand Oriental Hotel and gyrated seductively to hip-hop beats and Bollywood songs. This work in progress untangled power relations operating via gender, sexuality, and class: The presence of women spectators and the participation of the artist Vicky Shahjahan, who identifies as third gender, subverted the conventionally heteronormative space of the dance bar. Working with local collaborators such as the Women and Media Collective and artist-curator Sandev Handy, Shahjahan also contributed to a discursive project by Emma Haugh and Suza Husse of experimental publishing collective the Many Headed Hydra. The fluid conversations exploring “how the ocean can act as a place to land on for queerness (and) decolonial and feminist thought,” as Handy described them in interview, included a reading, an installation, and a zine about serpents and shadow beasts, otherness and tenderness, rituals and mythology, and “un-bordering and dis-identification.” The Many Headed Hydra’s project exemplified the potential of cross-cultural collaboration within this edition.

Numerous topical issues, including oceanic ecologies and trans-national histories, were certainly important to regional practitioners. However, local audiences could have benefited from more work that engaged with the depth and urgency of Sri Lanka’s complex communities and rooted realities. One hopes that Colomboscope can find more alternative and sustainable models of exhibition making in the future.