How do you translate the word ‘juxtaposition’ to Tamil and Sinhala?
When a team of art curators set up Sri Lanka’s recently-launched Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), they had many decisions to make, including on questions like this, pertaining to language.
The museum does not limit itself to a particular type of art work or exhibit. There are sketches and paintings. There are photographs in black and white, and in faded colour. There are archival digital prints from decades ago that serve as a stark reminder of the many phases of state repression and violence — against minority Tamils, or against rebel Sinhalese youth. For instance, one print is of a masked supporter of the Janata Vimukti Peramuna from 1987, when the leftist party launched its second armed insurrection. Or, another visual of a check point in Pallai in Jaffna peninsula, taken in 2007, two years before the civil war fought by the Sri Lankan armed forces and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended.
Maps, cartoons — including by renowned satirical artist Aubrey Collette — and book collections are part of the exhibits that offer snippets of a leisure that a few could afford, of the lives that many lost. Some tell tales of the country’s resilient women, powerful men, and those on the margins. The exhibition is suitably named ‘One hundred thousand small tales’, after Tamil poet Cheran’s lines.
It was first held in Bangladesh and commissioned by the Dhaka Art Summit in 2018. Some of the works, like Jaffna-based artist Thamotharampillai Shanaathanan’s ‘Cabinet of Resistance’, have been featured at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. In a shade of light brown, that tints golden-brown under yellow lights, the cabinet holds about 30 drawers. In each of them are cards, with little stories or messages telling us something someone felt during the country’s three decade-long war.
The art displayed offers a glimpse of some of the troubling chapters of Sri Lanka’s past and the newer battles. “It has been an invaluable learning curve,” says Ruhanie Perera, a curator in-charge of education and public engagement. “One of our main objectives is to explore the museum’s potential as an educational tool… to see how students and young adults can relate to the art here.” And for that, her team not only went through existing high school curriculum while putting together tours and talks tailored for students, but also began building a team of editors who will make the space trilingual (English, Sinhala and Tamil). “We are seeing how we can bridge the gap between translation and discourse creation,” Ms. Perera said.
A suitable home
Walking around the 17th-floor space in the heart of Colombo that features art and exhibits from or about different parts of the country, it seemed that the questions — of possibly losing something in translation or silencing another without it — were as much a part of the exhibition as the works displayed.
There were other challenges too, according to the exhibition’s chief curator Sharmini Pereira. “Finding a suitable first home from which to launch our initiative and mount the first exhibition was our first challenge, along with securing funds. Trying to persuade people that modern and contemporary art needs to be preserved and collected is also a challenge because most people do not see heritage as being about the last 100 years,” she says.
Currently in a temporary space, the MMCA-SL is free and open to all. The initiative is being funded by private individuals and the John Keells Foundation that supports various efforts in arts and literature, while the Colombo Innovation Tower and the Academy of Design have offered the space temporarily.
For now, the museum will be open for three months, until early March. But the curators are working on making this a long-term feature. “We want to establish a permanent museum because modern and contemporary art needs to be preserved before it perishes, disappears into private collections or leaves the country,” Ms. Pereira notes.
In her view, establishing a permanent museum might encourage young people to think about professional careers in the museum sector.
“Today museum spaces need to be more than galleries showcasing art but spaces in which discussions about justice and equality take place. This is after all what most artists have been trying to tell us for decades. A permanent museum will need to recognise the art histories across the country for it to be relevant.”