In conversation with Anoma Wijewardene

The best way to preserve cultural heritage, whatever it may be, is to share it, of which artist Anoma Wijewardene is generous to a fault. Having been a critical part of ARTRA’s journey since its inception in 2012 and the honorary guest at the official launch of the magazine, Anoma supported ARTRA’s agenda through her invaluable cultural knowledge on contemporary art throughout the years, contributing to the enhancement of the pedigree of the content published.

This year Anoma became the first solo artist from Sri Lanka to showcased during the esteemed and renowned Venice Biennale. In 2019, she showcased at the climate emergency exhibition in London, just ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid. The works are a tribute to Greta Thunberg, the Swedish activist. She also launched her monograph of 250 pages in both London and Colombo. Anoma exhibited at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2016 and has shown worldwide since 2002 including Sydney, New Delhi, Singapore, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur and London. An alumna of Central Saint Martins, University of Arts, London, her mediums range from oils, mixed media, sculpture, olfactory art, video and iPad to complex installations. Anoma’s work focuses on transformation, sustainability and climate emergency, alongside issues of diversity, inclusivity and coexistence; accepting the stewardship we share of each other and our fractured and fragile planet.

In conversation with Anoma, we explore the scope of contemporary art in addressing timely concerns, specifically those of building a sustainable relationship with nature and the environment; and the preservation of our biodiversity. Her works are permeated with these concerns along with her other works of art which explore inclusivity, unity in diversity and the seeking of a harmonious coexistence. Her concerns are tangibly displayed through her visual art which could perhaps play a strong role in educating communities, nations and the world at large.

Q | How has being an artist empowered you in advocating for your agendas?

A | While collating my work of nearly fifty years for my monograph it became clear that all of my work and exhibitions, be they mixed media, installation, canvas, digital, sculpture or performance, iPad or video, fell into three distinct areas, or ideas.

My early series seemed to focus on personal transformation, awakening and existential anxieties. These concerns were explored from 1999 onwards in the series Solitude, Flight, Transformation and in Flow, 2013 at various exhibitions in London, Colombo and New Delhi.

The works exhibited in New Delhi, 2002 juxtaposed Islam and Buddhism, and continued through to issues of harmony and reconciliation in the exhibition Quest, 2006 in Colombo, Galle and London. Quest combined digital images and video installation with trilingual quotes on peace and regeneration alongside images of destruction and loss in our country. I am told it was the first digital and video exhibition in the country. These thoughts were further expanded in a more oblique way in the Power series, shown in Colombo and London in 2008/9. Phoenix, 2009 examined how we might seize this opportunity for closure, healing and harmony. It was a seven-installation exhibition which included paintings, digital images, video and sculpture. The installation Mi Casa Es Tu Casa, 2016 was a response to the shock of Brexit and Trump and the rise of unconscionable intolerance and hate, racism, migration and division and included trilingual quotes and writings. Kintsugi at the European Cultural Centre, in the Palazzo Bembo during the 58th Venice Biennale, 2019 was on for the last six months and has just closed. The installation which includes a book, floating panels, a video work and the scent of Cinnamon discusses deconstruction and reconstruction, inclusivity and diversity in our dystopian world and asks whether we can find our common humanity and love for our fellow man and a peaceful coexistence. The installation incorporates poetry by Romesh Gunesekera and music by Sharon Smith written specifically for the paintings.

Another ongoing concern explored through the art has been climate change, now universally recognized as an emergency. The very first exhibition on this issue was in 2005 in Sydney and continued with Aqua, 2009 in the Maldives, which is at the frontline of loss and rising sea levels. Earth Rise within Us, exhibited in Dubai in 2010 and again at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 2016 follows this theme. Deliverance in Colombo in 2012 timed to coincide with the Rio UN climate conference was a three location trilingual exhibition and EarthLines exhibited in Galle during 2016 was a response to the historic Paris UN Climate Accord. My paintings in London in 2019 are again about this catastrophic self inflicted crisis of our times, and is a tribute to Greta Thunberg whose passion and persistence have made people more deeply aware of the burning issue it undeniably is. 

Q | Who are some of the artists, in your opinion, whose work have contributed greatly to preserving culture and heritage, and why?

A | Olafur Elliason’s amazing work on the environment, with an elliptical and yet immersive approach, is very different to the visceral works with and within nature which Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long construct, and these artists I believe are constantly pushing boundaries. Anselm Keifer and Gerhard Richter are other favourites. As a contrast I love, as does all the world, the delightful work of Kusama Yayoi, and I was truly thrilled and honored to have my installation placed next to hers at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong. Many other disciplines inform my work and poets, philosophers, directors, composers, activists, designers, environmentalists are vital to my process as I constantly seek renewal and fresh ways of seeing and working. I find Picasso’s seminal work La Guernica still one of the strongest comments on war and loss. El Greco’s work on this theme is also ever inspiring and Ai Wei Wei and Banksy stand out. I love many of the works of Chandraguptha Thenuwara and several Sri Lankan artists who are all currently creating cultural connections and commenting on our heritage.

Q | Tell us about your collection at the Venice Biennale 2019

A | My work ‘Kintsugi’ at Personal Structures:Identities at the European Cultural Centre, Palazzo Bembo explores healing through unity in diversity, inclusivity, migration and coexistence by examining deconstruction and reconstruction. 

It explores the possibility for healing and regeneration through the coming together of seemingly disparate elements, which can by their very contrast and placing create a fresh and new harmony and hope for regeneration. Romesh Gunesekera and Sharon Smith wrote poetry and music for the paintings which are central to the video and book which accompany the installation. The installation also features floating ephemeral printed panels and includes olfactory art, the scent of Cinnamon, which is new to my practice.

Q | Tell us about your recent publication Anoma, the monograph?

The monograph which was seven years in the making encapsulates nearly fifty years of work in over 200 illustrations and five key essays, which are very different in approach and viewpoint. It has brief explanatory notes on the different series which span the three strands of ideas:Transformation, Coexistence and Climate Emergency.

The book is a collaborative production involving a variety of people and skills, with essayists from New Delhi, London, Princeton and Colombo; and was designed by the award winning Micha Weidmann Studio, London and art direction was by Chris Sanderson, of the global consultancy The Future Laboratory. It had several changes and complications; many iterations and was truly a challenging and arduous process. Even at the final edit meeting in London, Chris slashed twenty spreads, which was painful for us all, but made it all the stronger in the end. The book was printed in Singapore by a press which specializes in publications for American museums, and it could never have happened without the support of Colombo No 7 Gin, to whom I am forever indebted.

I hope the monograph facilitates a deeper understanding of the ideas, process and concerns behind the art and makes it possible to view many of the works exhibited in other countries, and never seen in Sri Lanka. Many of the works are far flung and in collections elsewhere, even in places like Belize, Hawaii, Stockholm, Addis Ababa and Hanoi, along with the usual more obvious suspects. So that, although the process truly was harrowing, at least now these installations and paintings are finally archived and gathered together, and preserved in print. It should probably have been done a decade ago but perhaps it is better late than never? 

Q | What does it mean to be an artist for you?

A | I do not know what it means. It is just what I do, what I have been doing all my life. I don’t think I know how to do anything else much. I don’t know if I do this very well but I am certainly worse at everything else!

I am just trying each day to explore, to adventure within my studio and to try to be true to my constantly evolving aesthetic. I hope never to be complacent or comfortable, and to guard vigilantly against repetition. The work is painfully inclusive of my anxieties and the dark nights of the soul. It is both agony and ecstasy, both light and dark, and while I am often berated for being secretive and private perhaps, in fact I actually often reveal much more of myself than most would, for it is all here, exposed in the work.

These works will be all I leave when I go, and it is just what it is. Just a life in the studio.

8th December, 2019 Visual Art | Paintings