Public Art in Sri Lanka | The Architect

Much of the history of public art lies in government­ initiated programmes in the US that began in the 1930s. It is often strongly connected with campaign goals but nevertheless aimed at providing an open and interactive space for art to be displayed. Over recent years, with the growing interest in interactive art installations and the interpretation of art by an audience less familiar with certain practices, public art spaces top the priority list for any emerging art scene.

In Sri Lanka, we have experienced an increase in international interest being directed to Sri Lankan contemporary art, and often the question arises as to the number of public art spaces that exist locally.These presentations, often site­ specific, prove to both the local and outside world that efforts are being made to further the expression of artists across a spectrum of the mediums that exist Public art is often funded purely because of its non-commercial nature and thereby the artist, while often working within a certain framework, is set free with an allowance to express beyond the intention of creating a work that is commercially viable.

Public art spaces themselves cannot be narrowly defined. They range from site-specific work, to pop-up spaces, to permanent installations that can focus on the conceptual to the educational to the decorative. The common factor is that they prioritise interaction with their audience.In Sri Lanka, the most reputed contemporary artist known for his activist public art installations is Chandraguptha Thenuwara. He completed his education in art in Moscow in the ’90s, and has today attained a position in the local art scene as the most reputed activist artist to continuously work on shows presenting the political situation on the island through conceptual art in varying mediums.

The Theertha International Artists Collective was established by artists Jagath Weerasinghe and Anoli Perera. Considered two of the island’s most established contemporaries, the collective was founded in 2000 and continues to be the leader in experimental public art that more often takes the form of performance art. Their new gallery space in Borella presents shows by the collective as well as works of their colleagues from regional collectives that work on residential collaborations. In March 2015, the Theertha Performance Platform was set up by their younger members. The performances that took place at Borella junction provided an interesting reaction in both enthusiasts aware of this form of expression as well as bystanders whose reactions varied from interest to absolute repulsion.

‘Raking Leaves’ was founded by Sri Lankan curator Sharmini Pereira in 2008. The organisation works specifically on book projects and special editions that aim to replace the gallery space and provide a wider platform on which current contemporary art is presented internationally. As a Sri Lankan, many of Pereira’s projects have focussed on the work of Sri Lankan artists and in 2013, she collaborated with the Asia Art Archive to bring a mobile library to Jaffna and Colombo, alongside a call for submissions by artists to present works inspired by the mobile library.

This created an awareness of the growing need for such a library to expose those, particularly in the north, to the history of contemporary art in Sri lanka.The archive now stands in a donated ancestral house of architect Anjalendran, and presents collaborations and initiatives in the space named the Sri lanka Archive of Contemporary Art, Architecture and Design.The public art presented during events in this space have provided an immense amount of information to the growing number of art students currently attending the University of jaffna’s fine arts programme.

Words by Saskia Fernando

Photography Saskia Fernando Gallery

As featured on the magazine The Architect

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