Imagining the imaginary: the Colombo Art Biennale

The festivals of contemporary art that are known as biennales and triennials are now widespread throughout the Asian region. However, the tradition and procedures of art biennales, since the first Venice Biennale of 1895 has remained largely Eurocentric until the dawn of ‘multicultural’ and the ‘late-modern’ perspectives in Asian art in the latter decades of the 20th century. The international biennales and triennials held in Adelaide, Sydney, Queensland, Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore, Dhaka, Bussan, Echigo-Tsumari, Kwangju, Fukuoka, Yokohama, Honk Kong, and Shajah are a few instances of this widespread phenomenon of art festivals in Asia. However, such recurrent art festivals with both national and international participation of artists with a focus in contemporary Asian art are relatively new in the Asian region. Their history within Asia may not go beyond 1980s and perhaps one may consider the Fukuoka Asian Art shows of the mid 1980s as the precursor of this tradition in this region. Once born, the Asian art biennales and triennials acquired their own dynamics, form and shape, and have reached staggering proportions.

The Colombo Art Biennale (CAB) is the latest entrant to the Asian appearances of recurrent festivals of contemporary art. Perhaps it is also the most modest manifestation of a biennale in terms of scale and design. Biennales of contemporary art tend to be expensive and painstaking projects. They are as such not only in terms of finances but more so in terms of ‘politics of putting together’, a process that makes no collective exhibition a perfect one. Designing, planning and conceptualizing such a project from ground ‘zero’ has been a daunting task. ‘Imagining’ the possibility of an art festival at a time when the country was engrossed in a total ‘war’ and the country’s political and economic climate was in a situation of uncertainty, in retrospect, was in fact ‘crazy’!

But, some of us were ‘crazy’ enough to imagine a possible collective consciousness, even superficially, to be reflective of an anxiety that was incising in to our thoughts; hence the title of the CAB, ‘Imagining Peace’.

The first Colombo Art Biennale is an experiment in every sense. The most challenging endeavor was putting artists of different temperaments, beliefs, and politics (politics is considered here in its fundamental sense) under a single thematic engagement such as ‘Imagining Piece’, expecting them to respond to a highly evasive concept as ‘peace’. The most experimental was its belief that these artists would partake in the self-engaging and reflexive processes called ‘imagining’. In this context trying, attempting and endeavoring are what we can do. In doing so we may have faltered, and may do so in the future too, but that cannot and should not prevent us from ‘imagining’.

Jagath Weerasinghe