Colomboscope: Sri Lankan biennial to explore the intersection of language and migration

The August event will examine the fluidity of words and meaning

‘When the Sea Looks Back, A Serpent’s Tale’ (2017) by Berlin collective The Many Headed Hydra, at the 2019 Colomboscope. This year’s event will be part in-person and part online. Ruvin de Silva
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"Words move from language to language, from culture to culture, from mouth to mouth," wrote Chilean artist and poet Cecilia Vicuna in her essay Language Is Migrant. Few areas in the world exemplify this statement like that of South Asia, a region of overlapping dialects, languages, accents and script.

Take, for example, the word "Miyah". It means "gentleman" in Urdu, and in 19th-century Assam, it was used as an honorific, such as "Sir" in English. When Assamese Muslims emigrated to the Brahmaputra River plains at the end of the 19th century, they brought the word with them. During the decades of persecution that came after, such as the Nellie massacre of 1983, miyah shifted in meaning. It became a slur, a means of mocking the Assamese arrivals.

It has now been reclaimed. A group of poets in Assam call themselves the Miyah Movement, exploring the violence that has accompanied the subcontinent's internal migrations. Writers affiliated with the movement will be featured as part of Colomboscope, a small but increasingly influential biennial arts festival held in Sri Lanka's capital. It takes place from Thursday, August 12, to Sunday, August 22, this year.

The exhibition was initially scheduled for January, but – like so much else – was delayed because of the pandemic. When it launches in August, audience engagement will be part in-person and part online.

Borrowing Language is Migrant for its title, Colomboscope's artistic director Natasha Ginwala and curator Anushka Rajendran emphasise the essay's play on words, referring to the historical waves of migration in South Asia and the proportion of the country that lives abroad.

Natasha Ginwala co-curated the 2015 edition of Colomboscope, and was appointed artistic director in 2018. Mathias Volzke

Many young people from Sri Lanka travel to study in places such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Pakistan. A substantial part of the population is employed as migrant labourers in construction and domestic service – including a large percentage in the UAE. This global outlook informed the partnerships the organisation forged under Ginwala, who joined as artistic director in 2018 after curating the 2015 event.

The festival's collaborators now include art organisations in the UAE, where about 300,000 Sri Lankan migrants live. In 2019, Art Jameel supported one of the festival artists, and this year, Colomboscope is working with Warehouse421 from Abu Dhabi and Ishara Art Foundation from Dubai, among other partners across South Asia and Europe.

For us, we do not want the festival, when it thinks of the 'international', to be only looking towards Europe

“In Sri Lanka, a large part of the population was forced to migrate during the time of the war,” says Ginwala, who grew up in Ahmedabad and Pune in India, and now lives in Colombo and Berlin. “There is economic migration that goes hand in hand, and we find it extremely important to open up the complexities and the productive aspects of what cultural exchange can mean.

"For us, we do not want the festival, when it thinks of the 'international', to be only looking towards Europe. What the art community is doing in the UAE is very much part of our interests. And we feel there's a lot to learn in that as well, in terms of what kind of institutional models are being facilitated from the UAE today." Ishara is supporting Reading in Tongues, a programme being held at Colombo's public library. Colomboscope are collaborating with the organisation's new curator, Sabih Ahmed, who, incidentally, studied at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi at the same time as Ginwala. Ahmed, who taught at Jaffna University in Sri Lanka, has a particular interest in the intersection of art and language from his previous work at Asia Art Archive in India.

“There we did projects translating journals and magazines from at least 13 different South Asian languages,” he says. “We created databases to map them, not just to read what was written, but also to understand the debates in different historical moments – around modernity, around abstraction, around figuration – and the pressure points in different languages. We realised that the field of art is configured differently in different languages and in different regions.

Ishara Art Foundation curator Sabih Ahmed is curating "Reading in Tongues" together with Colomboscope for their Reading Room this August. Photo Anusha Yadav 

"In Tamil-speaking regions, there's a strong confluence between art and cinema, because a lot of the artists were contributing to cinema-poster-making. In various parts of Punjab and North India, you can see as an intersection between art literature, where artists work often quoting or even illustrating for poets. The practice-based alignments are not the same as institutions have laid out – as art being one thing, cinema being another, theatre being another and literature being yet another. They intersect in various ways. We have so many artists in Asia who wear many hats."

This interdisciplinary mode is also replicated at the biennial, which has become home not only to artists, but also to writers, performers, filmmakers, architects, and city planners.

Zimbabwean writer Belinda Zhawi, for example, is holding workshops with local spoken-­word artists in Sri Lanka. As part of the event, she'll contribute to A Thousand Channels, a radio programme that Colomboscope is launching – a kind of analogue version of the ubiquitous Zoom model – to discuss her research into South Asian Swahili speakers.

Firi Rahman addressed the gentrificaiton and ecological change occuring in the Colombo suburb of Slave Island, in his performance installation Taste Karaththe, 2019, for Colomboscope 2019: Sea Change. Ruvin de Silva

The festival will also focus on the medium of print publications. These have a particular resonance in Sri Lanka, the organisers say, because of the history of self-published books and wartime newspapers that continued throughout the island's conflict. Here, the context of Vicunas's manifesto comes full circle. The piece was written during the poet's exile from Pinochet's Chile. She conceived of language not only as something connected to a home community, but as a weapon in itself. Her well-known series of concrete poetry, Palabrarmas (1977-1978) – a portmanteau of "palabras", Spanish for words, and "armas", meaning weapons – featured words drawn in the shape of guns to protest against the entwinement of propaganda and militarism.

The connection between words and conflict is something many artists are keen to explore.

Aziz Hazara, an Afghan artist, is due to spend a month in Jaffna, Sri Lanka’s northern capital, researching the demotic literary forms by which the community there process conflict and migration – a subject he hopes to relate to his own home context of war along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Colonialism also appears through language, traced by Thisath Thoradeniya. The Sri Lankan artist is looking into familial archives from the interior Kandy region, to which many families fled to avoid Portuguese control. Once there, the migrant families were denied the precious commodity of salt – a deprivation that still shows itself in their largely salt-free culinary traditions.

Warehouse421 is supporting the inclusion of six young artists as part of its Project Revival Fund, which launched in September and helps mitigate the effects of the pandemic on emerging artists. Its partnership with Colomboscope shows how the Abu Dhabi gallery has been increasing its programming over the past two years. For Colomboscope, the collaboration fulfils an important role for the festival: its orientation towards young artists.

"We're much smaller than other biennials," says Ginwala. "A lot of our function is mentorship – being in dialogue with the youngest generation of artists in Sri Lanka. We're very conscious of the fact that a lot has been denied to them in the form of cultural education and exposure.

“That’s why we have artists like Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Dora Garcia, Agnieszka Polska, but you also have these young artists who have never shown anywhere outside the island. There’s not a hierarchy.”

Colomboscope will be held from Thursday, August 12, to Sunday, August 22