Some colours and sounds are indicators of past moments and former experiences, memories coexisting in the same space as the present. Susiman Nirmalavasan attempts to recapture, record and remember the memories through ‘Reminiscence’ as he takes us back in nostalgia to memories long past of his home and experiences he outlived. Much like the name indicates, the artist’s most recent exhibition depicts a journey of memories while alluding to subjects of the civil war and intersectional feminism depicting mothers as pillars of strength amidst the war as they navigate through a patriarchal society. Nirmalavasan works with various mediums, including oil, clay, dye methods on cloth and canvas. Without easy access to materials in the North and East and his own findings of a lack of relation between his narrative and oil paint, the artist uses clay, gravel, sack coal, ash and tea dye in his paintings.
Born in 1982, Susiman Nirmalavasan is a visual artist from Batticaloa, Sri Lanka. Nirmalavasan’s fervent passion for art began at an early age and he has since been creating works of art that speak of his experiences, political transgressions, and societal concerns. Susiman Nirmalavasan has held several exhibitions both as a solo artist and in group exhibitions throughout his career. ‘Reminiscence’ was the artist’s most recent exhibition, taking place at the Saskia Fernando Gallery from the 29th of April and continuing till the 2nd of June, 2021. We conversed with the artist to understand his beginnings and inspirations while discerning the concept of ‘Reminiscence’ and what it means.
Q | What inspired your journey in the arts?
A | When I was a child, I saw a collection of paintings kept in a pot in my neighbour’s house. I believed that is the way to store paintings and I was fascinated by the idea. I too started to paint and store them. I used to show those paintings to my parents, brothers, friends and relatives. When they introduced me, they said, ‘he paints well’. I was very glad to be introduced as an artist. Paintings kept me happy. At some point I started to believe that the purpose of my birth is to paint. I feel guilty when I do not get to paint. While using different tools in paintings, the touch of those made me feel a soul inside those and I felt alive. Later, I started to exhibit my paintings in small towns and villages. The conversation I had with the attendees of the exhibitions gave me an unforgettable experience. I realised that I am doing important for the community through art. Those conversations gave hope. It led me to the next exhibition.
Q | Can you explain the concept behind 'Reminiscence' and what inspired the collection?
A | One of the main characteristic of art is reminiscence. The past and its memories are important. Installation art can be used in many ways. However, I think it has a vital role in reminiscence. It is the best tool which takes past to the next generation easily. And most of the time it can be documented. Through memorialisation you could get comforted, counselled, happy, and celebrated. My art had done this in the past. In particular, most of the exhibits here are connected to my childhood war memories such as the death of my relatives and friends, displacement and conflict. Like how a song, a smell or a story reminds us our past, I have painted the memory from my past which was triggered by some biblical words. However, the paintings are neither an explanation / illustration nor they do resemble Christianity for those words.
Q | Tell us about the colour palette you have used as well as the thematic significance of elements such as the fish?
A | I am an installation artist from Batticaloa. It has another name ‘Meen paadum thaen naadu’ which translates to ‘a place of singing fish’. There are many paintings and sculptures of fish and mermaid in several places in Batticaloa. This made me think, ‘Am I living somewhere similar to heaven where fish are singing and dancing?’ As a result, I started to include dry fish in my paintings. The first painting of a dry fish was done in 2003. It has continued in different forms until today. At the beginning, they were mostly symbolising human beings. However, it had many other meanings later.
When I was living in Jaffna (2006), the closing of A9 road, made it very difficult to find food items. At this situation, it was unimaginable to get oil or acrylic colours. I was pushed to use what was available in my environment. I’ve always had a natural thirst to create art without any limitation using whatever was available. When these two joined together I was easily moved to other mediums. At the same time, when using the familiar and available tools from my environment, it felt so close to my hands, mind, eyes and brain. However I am not against oil colours or any other colours in usage.
Q | What mediums have you used for 'Reminiscence' and how does it contribute to the concept?
A | Many other issues connect with the paintings of 'Reminiscence'. Our childhood village had beautiful landscape with river, mangrove and paddy fields. The landscape can be noticed in the paintings. The colour of tea dye and charcoal remind of our childhood paintings with charcoal, tender mango and immature coconuts drawn on the back wall of the house and yard. Since our childhood, we had been hearing and witnessing war and witnessing war. Killing, arrests, and displacement often take place in the village. In the latter part, we had to displace from our village. However, war took place everywhere. This experience is the concept of the paintings. As my parents were Catholics, I was fluent in biblical stories. Those stories brought back memories from my past. There is a biblical word or story behind each painting in this exhibition. The tools, concept, landscape and biblical stories all are in one place in these paintings.
Human silhouettes and figures of fish, brown paper and a grayscale background are focal points of Susiman Nirmalavasan’s collection ‘Reminiscence’; each work of art, intricate in detail and profound in its delivery, is an allusion to the underlying context that is significant to the artist’s experiences and upbringings. The simplicity through which his concept is executed allows the onlooker to observe in depth and comprehend the complexities of the social and political concerns that the artist attempts to address. ‘Reminiscence’ becomes a lens through which one perceives landscapes and the context of its alteration through the eyes of the artist, yet finding a space of nostalgic understanding.