T.Shanaathanan & Mahbub Shah

What links the seemingly disparate experiences of illness and indisposition to that of artistic expression and its mediums? The nuanced connection between each notion becomes intrinsic to the comprehension of a larger perception to the clarity of an individual’s mindscape and physical wellbeing. The Cancerfund-Galle exhibition founded by Pakistani artist and writer Mariah Lookman aims to enhance and empower this connection while widening and expanding on the conversation between the two entities of illness and creative expression. The initiative will take place in threeparts of which the first will host an exhibition where a collective of up to twenty-four artists gather to contribute the significant cause as they raise an awareness through the mediums of art. In documenting the exhibition through conversations, we discussed with artists Thamotharampillai Shanaathanan and Mahbub Shah the ideologies that entail the catharsis and healing entities behind artistic and creative expression.

Artist Thamotharampillai Shanaathanan was born in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts and Master of Fine Arts in Painting at the University of Delhi and obtained his PhD at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. The artist holds a position as a Senior Lecturer in Art History at the University of Jaffna, Sri Lanka and is presently co-funder of Sri Lankan Archive for Contemporary Art, Architecture and Design, Sri Lanka. T. Shanaathanan has showcased his work at several exhibitions including ‘One Hundred Thousands Small Tales, An exhibition Curated by Sharmini Pereira’ at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Sri Lanka, Colombo in 2020, and ‘Dis/Placement’ at esteemed Saskia Fernando Gallery, Colombo in 2013 as well as art festivals such as the Sharjah Art Biennale, UAE in 2019, the Dhaka Art Summit in 2018, the Lahore Art Biennale, Pakistan in 2017 and more. The artist was also featured on ARTRA Magazine, Feb/Mar E40 in 2018 alongside established artist Pradeep Thalawatte where we explored the preconceived disciplinary boundary between art and craft through ‘Kolam’, representative of a myriad of creative influences.

International artist Mahbub Shah was born in 1978 among the landscapes of Pakistan. The contemporary artist’s work has been known to have influences from the 1980s in the eras of Neo Geo, The Pictures Generation and the global trend of Neo-Expressionism. A feature in ‘The Wire’ on ‘The Form and Meaning of Modern and Contemporary Pakistani Art’ notes the artist’s work to have had “extensively employed lens-based montage, staging, manipulation and conceptual approaches.”

Q | In your opinion, how does art play a role in the process of healing/catharsis?

T. Shanaathanan | Politics and the experience of civil strife in this country have damaged the social fabric and let to the collapse of the sense of community. In a mechanized world we are rapidly losing the human contact and forced to live in isolation.  In the lack of institutionalized socio psycho support especially during time of terror in the north and south of the country, individuals are abandoned to live with their traumatic memories. As an artist and an individual carrying the burden of the civil war, I realize the importance of spaces for sharing. In this context art provides room for sharing. Sharing is the first step in the process towards healing and community building.

Mahbub Shah | I believe art in its literary, visual, musical and performative expressions can be immensely effective in helping with catharsis and healing.

Q | What inspired you to engage with art, and chose art as a means of expressing yourself?

T. Shanaathanan | The incompleteness of everyday and the innate feeling for playing with materials constantly push me towards art making.

Mahbub Shah |  I think I have always been fascinated and inspired by the creative power of artistic expression as means to connect and create a dialogic correspondence between individual and collective consciousness through sensory, imaginative and affective processes.

Q | What are you working on/worked on for ‘Tonight No Poetry Will Serve’ and how do you perceive it playing a role in contributing to the framework set?

T. Shanaathanan | My work for this show is a landscape- a site re/created by layered, juxtaposed, collaged and tailored landscapes and cartographies of incommensurable projects, realities, spaces, time and memory. It talks about impossibly of identity based on liner history and unified territory. It talks about a land that is in constant flux, a metamorphosis of land that made out of persistent conflict between the past and the present, history and memory and inner and outer. Although I produced this work especially for this exhibition, it is part of my ongoing series of landscape.

Mahbub Shah | A set of two mix media paintings from a body of work I produced in 2006 will be part of ‘Tonight No Poetry Will Serve’, which re-image selected found images and texts as visual metaphors that invite to be re-viewed as ideological constructs and thus as contested representations. I hope these works will be received as a worthy contribution.

Q | Hailing from Jaffna, to what extent do you believe art has recorded and archived the grievances of individuals from the consequences of the civil war? And do you find a resonance between those works of art to ones that deal with healing/catharsis differently?

T. Shanaathanan | Temple based art practices and rituals played a major role as a means of healing and coping in the absence of organized socio –psycho support activities during and after the cruellest civil war. They helped the larger population to maintain their mental health. Contemporary artists do use the technique of archiving and documentation for art making. But art does not end with mere documentation and archiving, it has to have a critical engagement with its reality and a vision that can see beyond the reality of a document. Art became an asylum for many younger generation of artists who were forced to spend their child hood or teenagers in the abnormal conditions of war. They directly document their own experiences with the war. Their works are the statements of the eye witnesses of victims. There is a strong sense of victimhood in their work. It is also an attempt to negotiate with the past and a present, a way of coping. Art works that response the complexities of civil war are yet to come.

Q | How does the diversity of your experience between London and Pakistan contribute to your art praxis?

Mahbub Shah |  I think being exposed to a so-called peripheral and cosmopolitan milieu simultaneously does give an artist like me the diversity of experience and a comparative understanding of different cultures which is enormously beneficial for a grounded and rounded art practice.

Q | What of the two contemporary art scenes of London and Pakistan do you most admire?

Mahbub Shah | Although I don’t see myself as an informed insider of the contemporary art scenes, either local or that of London, I can say I admire the more traditional/regional character of the former and the more eclectic and diverse character of the latter.

Q | What do you hope this exhibition ‘Tonight No Poetry Will Serve’ will achieve?

T. Shanaathanan | Contemporary art in Sri Lanka in general, is more individualistic and driven by the norms of art market, with no or less social engagement. This kind of initiatives engage art with a larger community determination and encourage collective action among different section of the society. In a way it also expand the scope and the meaning of art making beyond the comfort zones of aesthetics. Further curated group exhibitions are crucial to a healthy art practice as they project multiplicity with thematic engagement.

“The meaning of aesthetics has been formulated by ancient philosophers such as Aristotle’s and is to be found in more modern research. They saw a natural link between art and life. Painting, drama, dance, and music were obvious parts of everyday life and were regarded as healing for the body and mind,” claims a study by Professor Britt-Maj Wikström, ‘The Dynamics of Visual Art Dialogues: Experiences to Be Used in Hospital Settings with Visual Art Enrichment’. The Cancerfund-Galle initiative strives in its effort, to pursue a trajectory that instills into healing environments of cancer patients a creative medium that counters the traumatic influences induced through the illness. Artists Thamotharampillai Shanaathanan and Mahbub Shah in their contribution to this cause comprehend the significance through which such aims are achieved and through this exhibition, a greater cause is served.  


6th July, 2021 Visual Art | Paintings