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Art exploring the borders of 'identity'

Human habitation tends to draw lines across geography with specific motives that seek to define ‘what’ a particular community of humans is in opposition to another. The ‘Theertha International Artists’ Collective’ is an independent collective of practitioners in the visual artists who can be regarded as pioneers in ‘performance art’ in Sri Lanka. They have presented collaborative work in various forums and exhibitions.

The latest endeavour by this collective to take life in the form of performance art will be the ‘Borders and Lines’ project. The Borders and Lines project will be a ‘performance platform’ taking place from March 13 to 16 under the theme: ‘Borders and Lines: the temporality of landscape.’

Two artists Godwin Constantine and Bandu Manamperi are two core members of the Theertha collective. Bandu is a practitioner of the arts who does not limit himself to one genre. His works include sculpture, drawing and painting, and installation art. His approach is to create highly personal art experiences based on the transformation of his own body.

Godwin is a medical doctor with a BA in Philosophy from the University of London, BA in Social Sciences from the Open University of Sri Lanka, and is presently reading for an MA in Tamil at the University of Madras.

As a practitioner in the arts he is a pioneer in performance art in Sri Lanka and has participated in many exhibitions locally and internationally. The two artistes presented some insights about their project and what can be expected by the public on the scheduled performance dates when their artistic endeavours will unfold in the Borella junction area in Colombo, starting at 10 a.m. In an interview with Montage the two artistes aired their views. Excerpts:

Question: What is the membership base of Theertha International Artists’ Collective? Can you give a brief idea about what kind of artists and practitioners of the arts are involved in it?

Bandu: Theertha International Artistes’ collective is an autonomous, artistes’ led, non-profit visual arts organisation that works to support the needs of the contemporary Sri Lankan art community. Theertha started in 2000 as an informal group supporting art exchange across artistic, geographical, and ethno-religious borders. While the initial objectives primarily focused on artistic exchange, Theertha has over the years expanded to ensure its impact in the artistic community.

Theertha also has a strong education focus that integrates art history, theory and research.

To this end, we’ve published articles and books that bring into discussion art history and theory. We run teacher-training programs that are driven by imparting contemporary knowledge of art practice for schoolteachers.

We design and conduct community art projects that are committed to heritage management. (The Red Dot Gallery in Borella was set up as an exhibition and expressive space for experimental works for artists and emerging artists in the field. The exercise of organising a performance platform has many objectives.

At the most fundamental level, there are the general objectives that have historically existed in relation to the practice that extend to this event: How do we bring into focus this art practice that uses the body as language, and how do we bring it to a wider audience?

Q: ‘Borders and Lines’ is described as a ‘Performance Art Event’. Can it be approached as a form of drama or theatre, or dance? Can it be likened to a form like outdoor ‘street drama’?

Godwin : Historically, performance art evolved within the visual art context; theatre actors, dancers, musician also explored performance art as an exploration of ‘the contemporary’ in their practice.

Performance art is a form where the artist uses his body as a representation of thought and/or a concept. It is also different from street theatre in that while it may engage a community, the nature of the space/environment engaged with is important to consider in performance art. There is no fixed distance, or clear demarcation between the audience and the performer – so there is a constantly shifting perspective.

Q: Sri Lankan society is highly stratified and segmented. Apart from the socioeconomic class lines of ‘hierarchy’ there are the ethno-religious factors and also active political alliances that form ‘active divisions’. What is the level of public engagement hoped to be achieved by this event? Do you think that people from all walks of life find something in this event that will spark interest in them to appreciate Borders and Lines?

Godwin : ‘Borders and Lines’ is actually an archaeological concept, when translated into cultural studies context, it revolves around questions of identity and social meanings.

Q: that are important for all of us. The event is also important because of its potential to create other questions; those that revolve around art and art practice. From simply, ‘what is happening here’ to, ‘what is art,’ ‘what is the context of art.’ This will be an art interaction that thrives on its engagement with people who don’t come to galleries usually, or can feel excluded from/not have access to gallery events.

Bandu : When the artist travels to a public space he immediately engages with this place that is filled, as you say, with these divisive thoughts, and placing one’s body within this space is already an expression – as the body exists within the environment and the meanings invested in the environment. And these meanings can be called into question in performance art.

In the gallery you would have a separate set of meanings around a body; on the street these meanings are very different because of the environment, and exist within certain ‘risk’ factors.

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