January 2017

Colombo Art Biennale
January 2017

The Colombo Art Biennale (CAB) was held with the theme of Conceiving Space, where artists displayed powerfully illustrative messages of social justice and political rightness, envisioned art from the most unusual to the conventional that, upon deliberation beyond the mundane, mirrored a deep sense of artistry shrouded in a compelling message. Here are five artists who used their work to reflect socially provocative yet inspiring imagery at the Colombo Art Biennale 2016.

Jennifer Paldano Goonewardena | Photography: Menaka Aravinda

Faiza Butt

Using art as a language and a powerful tool of communication, artist Faiza Butt grew up in a Pakistan that evolved under totalitarianism and Sharia Law and her work has been deeply influenced by the changing social situation of her native land. She explores social prejudices, hypocrisy and stereotypes in Pakistani society and the world in general, while examining identity and gender and world politics. "Artists are educated to be liberal and fair-minded" said Faiza who is based in London. Educated in Eastern and Western art, she has often questioned the hierarchy of Western art history.

Departing from her work with pointillism, Faiza had used the technique of paper marbling for her paintings shown at CAB. Inspired by popular culture and a desire to create utopian images, the paintings illustrated children role playing as heroes, a reflection of the conflicts at large and the battles fermenting in young minds, a state imbued by the adults around them and a reflection of the conflicts blighting society at large.

Reena Kallat

The role of memory and how humans remember and reflect on the past, resonated in the works of Indian artist Reena Kallat. Working with salt to showcase her work, Kallat used the poem, ‘Where the Mind is Without Fear' by Rabindranath Tagore, written on sand to articulate the notion of freedom from the bondages of mind and memory. The ongoing series, Saline Notations from Kallat, a departure from her usual work with paintings, conveyed multiple themes of salt as the preserver of life, healer and symbol of purity, yet arranged on sand, is open to the vagaries of nature, to the delicate waves of the sea that seem to caress the shore, but rises to erase the words etched on sand. Kallat's latest project is like a tapestry of manifold designs that emerged to remind of the fragility of life and the delicate relationship with the natural environment; the erasure of the poem by the rising tide on the other hand was an artistic presentation of the internal battle to forget, as opposed to remembering.

The journey from New Delhi to Colombo was comfortable and the passengers were taken care of by a helpful cabin crew staff, said Reena Kallat.

Mithu Sen

New Delhi based artist, Mithu Sen, extended her interactive display of art and her role of provocateur to an assemblage of domestic articles that ranged from religious images, paintings, sculptures, wooden stands, rugs, soft toys to the most run-of-the-mill objects. It was a body of expression examined under the theme of Radical Hospitality. The perceptive and feisty creator intruded into the space of daily living in the Sri Lankan social milieu to borrow artefacts that were used to create a utopian fantasy of coexistence between different social classes.

For someone who does not nap even on a long flight, Mithu Sen’s journey on Sri Lankan Airlines from Delhi to Colombo was made enjoyable by the wide selection of entertainment options, especially movies that had helped her catch up on the latest flicks that she otherwise does not have the time to watch. “The service was excellent. The attire of the female crew members was so pretty that I would love to have a similar sari.”

The over-crowded urban setting in Slave Island and the urbane households of the city were chartered to borrow, as described by Sen, an object of value to the householder. "Every object in my display possesses a history, reflects a sense of attachment despite being stratified as banal and gaudy, or refined." Sen's exhibit also demonstrated a temporary migration from the owner, to a new space that juxtaposed the conventional norms of social restriction that disallows the intermingling of classes; an idealistic yet oft non-existing relationship between the marginalised and the privileged. Sen's project was fundamentally a delicate disparagement of the hierarchical conventions and controls imposed by society, while ascribing a sense of dignity to every object that has its unique functionality or artistic value to its owner.

Ghada Khunji

"These pieces are my self-portraits, they are a reflection of myself and my thoughts and the world I encompass," said Bahraini born Ghada Khunji. Having lived and worked abroad for 25 years, Khunji who returned to Bahrain four years ago, has turned the lens on herself in depicting the ‘Dark Ages' of our times. Somewhat grotesque in imagery, some photographs evoke metaphors from the Christian faith, but upon closer inquiry, reveal the artist's mind, grappling with a complex thought process in deciphering the world.

In this new series, Khunji had explored her vantage point on Islam and how human minds have become accustomed to certain symbols, thereby blinding them from seeing what is on the surface. "Most can identify a Mc as burgers, blue cans as Pepsi and red cans as Coke. But, it is easy to misjudge an appearance." Through her lace-edged pictures, Khunji offers her viewpoint, personal menagerie of moments, thoughts, fears and experiences that have steered her along.


A feminist, a role reflected powerfully in her work, Pushpamala N began her career as a sculptor. Today, she is well known for her work as a producer, director and actor in performance photography and video, where she has cast herself in many roles and personalities. What makes her work interesting, apart from them being feminist experiments is, the fact that she metamorphoses herself into the subject of enquiry in her own projects. She has examined and questioned archetypal images of the Indian woman depicted in stereotypical tones, with emphasis on recreating history and popular characters.

“My journey from Bangalore on Sri Lankan Airlines, although short, was indeed a pleasant experience with a friendly cabin crew at our service.”

As an artist who has put on many masquerades for her work, Pushpamala had chosen two early 20th century photographs of a Tamil theatre group in Sri Lanka to create her work for CAB, where she recreated the picture with striking sets and melodramatic characters. The two photographs that were placed facing each other, showed a group of hunters pretending to aim a bow and arrow at a mock tiger. Her re-creation transcended the simple tableau to show the creativity ascribed to the attentive yet impassive hunters and the comical representation of the tiger. Like in all other projects, Pushpamala, was dressed alternatively as a hunter and the tiger, using her own body to construct different roles.