Jaffna to Vauniya division map (left) and a Matara and Hambanthota division map (right) (2016)
An exhibition of book art, which includes work from Sri Lanka, is currently on display at the prestigious Saffronart Gallery in New York from 13 September to 14 October 2016. The exhibition is presented in New York in collaboration with the Delhi-based gallery Blueprint 12. Titled ‘The Reading Room – An Exhibition of Book Art from South Asia’ the exhibition showcases four prominent contemporary Sri Lankan visual artists – namely; Liz Fernando, Pala Pothupitye, Jagath Weerasinghe and Kingsley Gunatillake. This particular exhibition, which showcases contemporary South Asian artists, marks its first appearance in New York after critical success at the Colombo Art Biennale (2014), Kochi-Muziris Biennale (2014-2015), the Winchester School of Art Gallery (2015) and private galleries in Mumbai and New Delhi (2014).
War Texts (2007)
Book art, as exemplified through the work in the exhibition, is an experience through which the art of reading and interpreting a book is brought to life in its most visceral form. The practice of book art plays on conventional narrative and form by presenting a story to the ‘reader’ through the use of visual images. This was done at the exhibition by deconstructing the physical make-up of the book itself and conceptually redefining it by expressing emotion through an aesthetic narrative.
Causes of Illness (2011)
The Sri Lankan artists chose to infuse their work with political, cultural and personal representations of the ravages of the civil war. Liz Fernando, in her work titled ‘Trincomalee’ chose personal experiences of growing up in a multi-ethnic family, in a predominately Tamil dominated area of Sri Lanka (Trincomalee) and depicted this through her work. Pala Pothupitye in ‘Jaffna to Vavuniya Division Map and a Matar and Hambantota Division Map,’ took the idea of geographical divisions in Sri Lanka and literally mapped the ethnic divides onto the surface of a book. Other Sri Lanka artists on display included Jagath Weerasinghe, who illustrated the ‘Cause of Illness’ through the charcoal black depiction of figures drawn on the pages of books. One of the most poignant works of art was the exhibit entitled ‘War Texts’ by Kingsley Gunatillake. His work intervened with the original form of the book by scorching its pages and embedding soldiers in the midst of the pages. The symbolism illustrated Sri Lanka in the midst of the ravages of war, whilst simultaneously imbuing the book with a new conceptual life.
Trincomalee (Digital photographs in book format)
‘The Reading Room’ showcases contemporary visual artists from the South Asian region, and thus reflects the range of concerns within the region. One of the Indian artists whose work ‘Letter for Today,’ ‘The Pathology of Peace’ and ‘Illusion and Enchantment’ is featured in the exhibition, Ms. Samanta Batra Mehta (in conversation with Ms. Ruhanie Perera at Saffronart on 28 September 2016) narrated her personal story of moving from India to New York through the chronology of the pages of a book. Her journey through life was thus mapped onto a book through her illustrations over the words on the pages of that book.
It was noted by Ms. Perera, who has been involved with ‘The Reading Room’ as a researcher alongside curator Amit Kumar Jain, that “book art demands …both an aesthetic engagement and a critical conceptual inquiry into the work/form. An aesthetic engagement with book art demands a paradigm shift to reading a different logic in the book: the logic of the visual and textual.