Photo courtesy of Suntharam Anojan

A common theme running through this year’s Colomboscope, entitled Language is Migrant, is the enduring consequences of Sri Lanka’s civil war as seen through the eyes of several young artists based in the north and east. As part of several exhibitions spread across many venues across the city, they explore what is was like to live under bombardment, siege and multiple displacements through drawings, paintings, sculpture, embroidery, videos, documentaries, photographs and installations as well as plays, readings, poetry and discussions

Suntharam Anojan’s artworks depict the browns, ochres and greens in the landscape of the Vanni where he lives. He portrayswar atrocities through what the ground, humans and other living species have witnessed including burnt forests, remnants of explosives and flattened homes.

For Colomboscope, Anojan produced a 20-foot-long canvas that undulates and spreads across the space with vignettes of mass destruction that marked the landscape of his childhood. The distortion and mobile contours represent the feel of living without a permanent residence for years, moving from shelter to shelter amid dangerous terrains.

Groundviews asked Anojan, a freelance artist and designer, about what inspires his work. 

What experience in your life influence your art?

I was born in Mullaitivu in 1991 and since I was ten years old, I lived away from family for my studies. I thought about the war affected landscape, people, animals and even plants. I visited Mullivaikkal where I could see how the landscape was distorted by violence and war. I felt the trauma on it and on myself too. It felt like a disabled land and I, who was from that land, was also disabled. From this experience I started to paint on the concept of disability and being disabled. Disability is a physical or mental condition that means you cannot use a part of your body completely or easily or you cannot learn easily. The civil war affected people physically and mentally. It destroyed the land and the social fabric. My experiences of war made me feel as disabled even though I did not lose any organs. The greenery of the landscape reminded me of the human bodies that were burnt, buried and decomposed during the war. Hence I paint black landscapes; landscapes of my psychological being. Art heals my trauma.

What do you want people to learn from your art?

When I create art, I don’t think about the audience. I see my art as an experimentation and part of my life; it’s an expression of my mental state. I draw for me, I paint for myself. I share my experiences and stories through the distorted forms and colours on canvas. I am not fluent in English or Sinhala but I am fluent and comfortable in art, which is a common language. It’s a very powerful and political language too. I choose painting as my language to share experiences and stories. I don’t think that art should share the idea of reconciliation or should lead to reconciliation. I don’t create my work for the purpose of reconciliation.

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Vinoja Tharmalingam’s delicate embroidery is in stark contrast to her subject matter depicting loss, abandonment and shattered realities in the form of wheelchairs, bunkers and disabled bodies. Living between Kilinochchi and Batticaloa, where she teaches, Vinoja has written her thesis on the effects of the war in Mullivaikkal. For Colomboscope she has explored the themes of disability and war widows through dots, cloth patches, burns and lines.

Her paintings and embroidery represent experiences of disabilities that are embedded into everyday life. Despite the war’s end, the area is still populated by landmines. The embroidery on fabric emerges as a metaphor for healing and mending. For those who live with disabilities, the war has not ended and this history continues to be written on their bodies. The works also articulate the transitory lives that many of those who were affected by the war lived, between home, bunker and refugee camps as well as memories of constant migration.

Vinoja answered questions from Groundviews about what inspires her work.

What did people in Mullivaikkal experience during the last days of the war?

During the last days of the war, my family and I were in Mullivaikkal. From  January to May 2009 was a very difficult time.We lived in tents in a very narrow area with bunkers for security. We had no basic amenities and were in a constant state of fear and anxiety. There was no food or medicines for patients. We thought we would lose our loved ones at any time and prayed that this would not happen. There were attacks coming from all directions and exploding bombs claimed many lives. There was the smell of  blood and rotting corpses in the air. The land appeared to be erupting, hot, eroded, decomposed and polluted.

What experiences in your life influence your art?

I am influenced by what is happening around me and what experiences I had in my life, living and engaging with the community. When I was six years old, our family went to India. In the evening while waiting for a boat, we heard people crying loudly – a boat had flipped and people fell into the water. Twenty-five people died. This incident will always stay in my memory. The next day, we went in that same boat to India. When we returned to Sri Lanka seven years later, the war was intense. The memories that arise from that time are full of pain. These are the images that are in my art work – anecdotes of lives experiencing hell.

Do you think art has a healing aspect?

I definitely hope so. Art heals because it creates a connection between the artist’s mind and body and stimulates innovative thinking. When I stitch or draw I use mental processes that are physically involved. When creating art, thoughts in the subconscious mind are revealed.

What do you want people to learn from your art?

My art focuses on ideas, conflicts, memories, trauma and losses and people learn through the expression of my art forms that thoughts carry hidden truths, unspeakable stories, unwritten words and events stored in wordless silence.

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