Overview: The Colombo Art Biennale 2009-2014

The Colombo Art Biennale (CAB) is the largest and most significant contemporary art manifestation in Sri Lanka. It was created to showcase contemporary Sri Lankan art and artists, and to build a platform upon which talented Sri Lankan artists would gain recognition both nationally and internationally. The CAB was conceived in a time and place where peace was not a reality; hence the inaugural theme of “Imagining Peace” in 2009 was a hopeful pledge for the future. In its second edition in 2012, the CAB set new goals with its theme “Becoming” and attempted to capture the excitement and optimism of the moment as a nation newly freed from conflict contemplated its future. In 2014, the theme “Making History” was selected as a provocation to embark on a journey through art that engages with ‘history’ as versions, as narratives and counter narratives; memory both collective and personal; violence as performed and remembered; and resistance as approached through a multi-dimensional art practice. Its socially conscious slant positioned the artists as witness, commentator and interrogator of social moments.

In 2009, the CAB featured 20 local and seven international artists and was curated by five leading Colombo artists/galleries. It attracted over 2,500 visitors. The CAB 2012 featured 24 local and 17 international artists selected by its two curators from Bangalore and Vienna. In 2014, the ‘Making History’ edition featured 56 artists, both local and international, and performance artists (from India, Bangladesh, Qatar, Nepal, Germany, Austria, the UK, France, Scotland, Ireland, Iran, Sweden, Switzerland, China, the USA, and Italy) curated by a team of four curators, and hosted over 3500 visitors from around the world. Seven locations were used for the main events. The CAB has also attracted an international institutional presence from professional art organisations including the Berlin Biennale, IFA, Mimeta, OCA, iapsis, The Qatar Museum Authority, the British Council, the Goethe Institute, the Alliance Francaise, Sovereign Art Foundation, Dhaka Art Summit, InSitu, Pro-Helvetia, Creative Scotland and 1Shanthiroad. Locally, the CAB welcomed associations and links formed with representatives from the government, diplomatic missions, cultural institutions, senior business leaders, curators, collectors and gallerists.

Theme and Artistic Concept for CAB 2016

The theme for CAB 2016 is ‘Conceiving Space.’

As an artistic provocation ‘Conceiving Space’ seeks to open up a paradigm of seeing and possibilities for creative production that engage with explorations and contestations that revolve around diverse senses of space. ‘Conceiving Space’ seeks to reimagine the traditional ‘spatial’ in relation to concept, boundaries and engagement; it demands a foray into space as public and private; space as protest; space as tangible and imagined; space as community, memory and legacy; space as architectural, conceptual, performative, temporal, spiritual, symbolic, intuitive and rhythmic; space as liminal and ritualistic; space as embodied and meditative; space as virtual and transcendent.

Community Engagement

To artistically conceive space – as material environment, historical experience, lived reality, or a sense of place – demands creative interrogation and imagination. It demands multiplicity in perspective and approach and seeks to ask questions of form, seeking to explore the breadth of artistic medium that can be engaged with as a provocation about what constitutes art for artists and art communities. The CAB 2016 will be prioritizing a strong programme based on community engagement and educational programmes.

Lead Curator for CAB 2016

Alnoor Mitha, joined the Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) in 2012. He is a Senior Research Fellow (Asian Cultures) at MIRIAD and Manchester School of Art. Before that he held posts as curator at both Huddersfield and Oldham art galleries. During 2001-2011, Mitha was the founding Artistic Director of Shisha, the international agency for contemporary South Asian crafts and visual arts. Whilst at Shisha, Mitha founded the award winning, Asia Triennial Manchester (ATM). Through his vision, the ATM is now part of MMU as a strategic international festival of contemporary visual culture. Mitha has also produced numerous publications and is a trustee for Cubitt (Turner Prize nominated artists), London. He was also nominated for the TSB Asian Jewel Award for his outstanding work for Asian arts.

In 2014, Mitha was awarded a substantial grant from Arts Council England and the highest grant from the Knowledge Exchange Innovation fund to research and deliver the third Asian Triennial Manchester (ATM14) and the inaugural Asian Business Event (ABE).

The Colombo Art Biennale as a space for Contemporary Art Practitioners and Practices

As a contemporary art event, the CAB has had a rich and meaningful history, especially in terms of being a reflective space where political shifts have been interrogated in cultural expression and expanding understandings of ‘medium’ in arts praxis. In many ways it has been both an invitation and a provocation. The CAB 2016 envisages a consideration of the following intentions and strategies in its artistic direction:

  • Establish a contemporary Sri Lankan arts space and context, and engage with creating artistic associations in the Asian Region (however broadly we define the region), while being conversant in international contemporary art discourses.
  • Explore ‘contemporary art praxis’ as a self-reflexive process of questioning for the artist. To also explore an inter-disciplinary practice by inviting an architectural component (through the participation of local and international established architects/architect-artists/architect-academics) that could inspire dynamic artistic collaborations.
  • Expand the mediums of artistic expression that will be engaged with so that, for example, performance art and music composition and sound (which existed as segments in previous biennales) will have a place within the curated programme as growing mediums of practice.
  • Employ a range of discursive strategies – conversations, discussions, artist/curatorial talks, critical writing groups etc. – with the intention of creating an independent context that contributes to creating critical discourses around contemporary art praxis.In his book Artists Remember, Artists Narrate: Memory and Representation in Contemporary Sri Lankan Visual Arts, Sasanka Perera examines the Sri Lankan visual art landscape in its present while also considering its history and process of arriving at the ‘contemporary.’ He writes, “A number of Sri Lankan visual artists have framed the extensive violence around them as a commentary of personal experience that has directly impacted on their personal lives and collective social space.” He quotes Sri Lankan artist-academic Jagath Weerasinghe commenting on works of visual artists who lean towards this political orientation/sensibility: “…the painting or the sculpture is the vehicle of this activity of ‘chronicling’ the pain and history…” For too long Sri Lankan contemporary visual art has carried the burden of chronicling pain and history, bearing witness, making counter narrative. In this context, CAB 2016 seeks to offer ‘space’ – the opportunity to stand outside of a cyclical chronicling, and conceive anew.