Anoli Perera

The tactile, the tangible, the physical and the concrete – of grounding one’s being to themselves and to the palpable is a distinct concept of intimacy that is proven to be a significant sense and methodology of healing. Countless studies have identified the application of human touch and its effects on the wounded conscience allows for a rejuvenating remedial. Known to increase oxytocin levels, and lower cortisol levels and in turn, increasing a sense of soothing and lowering stress, the tactile and tangible implications of the physicality becomes an intimate notion of catharsis. Artist Anoli Perera documents these ideologies in ‘Retouched’. Her work often engages critically on thematics that range from women’s issues, history and myth to issues of identity, colonialism and post-colonial anxieties. ‘Retouched’, a collection to be exhibited at the Cancerfund-Galle exhibition, an initiative founded by Pakistani artist and writer Mariah Lookman, explores the aspects of tactile presences between emotional connections and relationships while comprehending its capacity to heal. In our conversation with the artist, we understand her observations of the therapeutic process and significance of creativity in healing through the essence of ‘human touch’.

Anoli Perera is a visual artist and writer. Her studies in Political Science, Economics and Sociology at the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka in the early 1980s were followed by a postgraduate diploma in International Affairs from the Bandaranaike Center for International Studies, Sri Lanka.  Her art education came through part time adult education art programs at City College, Santa Barbara and Artworks, Princeton, USA. Her works have been exhibited in Colomboscope, Colombo, Sri Lanka, 2019; 4th  Edition of Kochi Muziris Biennale, Kochi, India, 2018; Colombo Art Biennale, 2009, 2012 & 2014; ‘Artful Resistance’ Museum of Anthropology, Vienna, Austria, 2009 and Museum der Weltkulturen, Frankfurt, Germany, 2010; Separating Myth from Reality (Art Festival), Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale, Japan, 2002 amongst others. Her work was included in the exhibition, ‘Greetings from India’ organized as part of 5th Edition of Jimei x Arles International Photo Festival in November 2019 in China. She was invited to show at the launching exhibition of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Sri Lanka, ‘One Hundred Thousand Small Tales’, 2019. Anoli Perera is a co-founder of the Theertha International Artists Collective, a progressive art initiative based in Colombo. She currently lives and works alternatively in New Delhi, India and Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Q |To what extent do you believe art helps with the healing process?

A | Art is a great distractor from the chaos of the world around us, if one wants it to be. But this is contextual and often depends on what kind of art it is, and what kind of healing one talks about. But sometimes artists can be at war within their own creative processes and with the world around them too. Yet at the same time, the creative process itself demands total concentration and therefore a magnetic focus on its subject matter. It is also cathartic. Catharsis is about cleansing, expressing, letting go, venting out something that is held within, and art is a wonderful way to do that.

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

A | I have been working on the theme of ‘memory’. What I am contributing to the exhibition is called the Retouched Series I – IV (2021), consisting of 4 works. I have used acrylic, pen, ink, tracing paper, pencil, and printed images on paper – “Retouched is about the human’s yearning for the tactile.  With the highly mobile population of today’s world, distance, displacement, and disconnection become inevitable experiences in life. Remembering the once-familiar become painful, emotionally loaded, and memory of history becomes selective. In the absence of immediacy to family and the familiar, we are made to hold on to objects and memory.

The memorabilia become matters of fetish, a compromised comfort in the absence of a tangible presence. Retouched series of works explores my own emotional journey into the absence of this tactile presence of my mother in my life because of us living in different countries. The basis for this work is a ‘telephone diary’ my mother had maintained a long years ago. I have woven my conversation fusing these random scribbles and patterns layering the work making it a testament of a time and a hieroglyphic relic for my emotional proximity to a moment and person.”

My work connects to this exhibition’s theme in many layers.  It talks about the human need for the tactile, the physical presence in their lives in order to ensure their emotional wellbeing. Today, we have numerous devices that give an illusion of that physical presence across long distances, but nevertheless they fail to capture the comfort of the actual tactile presence. We need to feel human and that capacity to be human is challenged in the present world.

Q |What is your opinion on the contemporary art scene in Sri Lanka and how do you believe it can evolve?

A | It has certainly grown, and I see artists with very strong art practices and emerging young artists who are highly skilled and innovative.  But I also see a continuing lack of patronage and infrastructure for artists to exhibit, get promoted not only locally but internationally as well, grant systems to further their art education and opportunities for participating in international art forums.  The art market has certainly expanded locally with many new young collectors emerging, which is a positive thing for the art community because artists also have to survive like everyone else. But to make sure that much larger numbers of people regularly view art and to create a kind of nuanced sense of interest for contemporary art among cross sections of our population, we need to have exhibitions that challenge the viewer to look beyond the conventional.  And we need to have these exhibitions more often and in different and accessible venues. What the art market often does is to make the artists keep on doing what is sellable and bind them to very specific and limited comfort zones.  While this has benefits from the perspective of selling, it can be very stifling from the point of creativity. Artists need to take risks, to experiment and do things that are out of the box. The gallery system in the country needs to grow.  There are too few galleries for too many artists.

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Q |What inspired your journey in the arts?

A | I don’t really know.  From childhood days, I showed an inclination towards art, and I guess this resurfaced as an adult. I had to be in the US (Santa Barbara, California) for few years which gave me the opportunity to rethink about my profession.  This was an important context in which I chose to become an artist. It was 1988.  Since then, I have continued. I gradually got exposed to Sri Lankan and international art and found my own particular brand of practicing art over time. I was trained in stone 
carving during the time I was in Princeton, New Jersey, but my lack of a formal art training overall gave me the freedom to be more experimental. It’s through a process of experiments that I learned my work, and I am not exactly faithful to one particular medium or format of artmaking.

Q |Why is it important that such an exhibition as ‘Tonight No Poetry Will Serve’ must be implemented in raising awareness of this cause?

A | Cancer has a reputation that comes with an unshakable conviction as a terminal illness. To most people hearing someone is diagnosed with cancer means that life will be over for him or her soon. Cancer, like COVID-19 in more recent times, is a disease that afflicts everyone across class and status batteries. But this sense of terminality should not be the case. There are many who have had cancer and have survived to live their full lives. Two of my maternal aunts got breast cancer, and both have survived for over 30 years after that.  What we frequently forget is that it is not easy to face or overcome a disease such as cancer alone.  One needs considerable support emotionally, physically, and financially from wherever possible – friends, family, medical community, the state etc. Everyone faced with the threat of cancer should get a fighting chance to overcome it.  I am happy to be part of this fundraiser as it really would contribute towards addressing this state of affairs, and I truly believe in its cause.     

10th July, 2021 Visual Art | Paintings