by Jincy IypeSep 21, 2020
“The Earth is what we all have in common.”
- Wendell Berry
This edition of Made In:, a STIR original series that looks inward to celebrate native design from all over the world, explores design production seeped in local culture and community collaboration in Sri Lanka, in communion with nature and its organic derivatives. The Colomboscope interdisciplinary arts festival team brings to us conscious and circular design ideologies of four product designers and collectives from the tropical country, their handmade works an amalgamation of eco-friendly materials and age-old Sri Lankan craftsmanship and aesthetic.
With nearly 1,50,000 producers in Sri Lanka (with women forming 54 per cent of it as per a recent report by the British Council), the crafts sector here is brimming with potential. The contemporary crafts, design and architectural language of the island has managed to sustain a unique sensibility despite decades of civil unrest, drawing from its own vernacular expression set within the works of Geoffrey Bawa, Barbara Sansoni and Ena de Silva, among others.
Colomboscope, incepted in 2013, includes designers, music producers and managers with in-depth experiences in the contemporary arts as well as the design industry, engaging in interdisciplinary dialogue set within the cultural landscape of Colombo. Nicola Grigson, Festival Manager, Colomboscope, notes, “Local crafts such as batik, coir and palmyra weaving, wood carving, crochet and lacemaking have remained crucial community-led practices in various regions for generations, shaping the design aesthetic and visual subcultures of Sri Lanka". Artistic Director of Colomobocope, Natasha Ginwala, shares, “We are interested in how design continues to tell stories and creatively links material culture and living traditions for an inclusive future".
Colomboscope’s Held Apart, Together was initiated as a small attempt to keep the social dimension alive in this period of lockdown and curfew, to connect artists and experiment with new formats of creative exchange. “Sri Lankan artists and designers have sought method in the madness and found madness in the method, as they have for long reflected on the failures of the system and unequal suffering, but also set up footholds of hope, to reshape the present as we know it,” shares Grigson.
These designers and creative producers use local materials, practise upcycling in the purest sense, and support local businesses and vulnerable groups of society. – Curatorial Team, Colomboscope
Colomboscope’s selection covers a range of intergenerational design practitioners from across the island, focusing on those with a versatile aesthetic and environmentally conscious approach to create. “It is a crucial time to position Sri Lanka as an ethical and sustainable creative hub in South Asia. The ongoing pandemic presents a long-drawn challenge to all human systems, and therefore, the way one lives in terms of surrounding one’s household and workplace with a creative ethos, generosity and sustaining a circular economy becomes priority," Ginwala deliberates.
In an arbitrary order, here is a curated selection of ecologically conscious designers and collectives working towards reviving a post-pandemic economy, each representing the product design and crafts industry in Sri Lanka.
Luka Nina Alagiyawanna
With a background in photography, Alagiyawanna founded her minimalistic design label Ninalu in 2015, with an emphasis on jewellery, clothes and decoration, and also proceeded to include hand pinched, daily use ceramics made with sustainable materials and processes. Alagiyawanna shares that Ninalu is inspired by her two homes, Berlin and Sri Lanka, and conjoins features of Berlin aesthetics with Sri Lankan nature. Rendered in subdued and calming tones, her overtly minimal and tender pieces are fashioned out of recycled sterling silver, brass and copper tubes, combining it with natural materials like wood, shells, seeds and stones, handpicked from beaches and woods.
“I foster a soft spot for imperfection. Small irregularities surprise you as you experiment and work with your own hands. Every Ninalu piece is thus, inevitably bespoke,” shares Alagiyawanna. Focusing on her handmade ceramics collection, she says that she borrows inspiration from nature and her immediate surroundings – patterns of heart shaped betel leaves, cracked veins of a concrete wall – that, coupled with the soothing touch of earthy, wet clay between her fingers grounds her in the present.
“There’s something intrinsically human about working with hands. The process reminds me to be mindful, plays foe to my distracted loop of thoughts. You cannot rush clay.”
Ninalu’s strikingly uneven collection explores different types of clay (white, red and spotted) and experiments with diverse glazes. They can be used as pieces of decoration, to hold flowers or even as glassware as they are lead free. “I occasionally combine it with parts that I slip cast in plaster of Paris moulds that I create myself. As those are three very different techniques, it becomes an explorative venture each time,” she observes.
For Alagiyawanna, it is important to establish personal connections with her customers, and relay to them how a product has been brought to existence. “When you are privy to the process and story behind the product that you buy, you automatically feel a soft connect, and value it a bit more. I hope that handmade production sensitises customers to reduce their thoughtless consumption and go for locally made, ethically and ecologically responsible products, regardless of price,” she adds.
Viveca Rattan Craft’s tagline Nature’s Furniture aptly sums up its handcrafted product range, and their green ethos. Founded by Wickremasinghe in 1994, the company designs all things bright and organic using sustainably sourced and indigenous natural materials such as rattan, cane, reed, water hyacinth, sea grass and handloom fabric.
“I truly believe that sustainable design automatically translates to good design. Creators must refrain from filling the earth with toxic, wasteful objects that have shiny appearances and instead, aggressively reuse, recycle and upcycle.”
Wickremasinghe was a banker but soon left his profession to feed the creator within him. His company now successfully produces a practical range of homeware, furniture and lifestyle products such as settees, sofas, beds, lounges, dining and coffee tables, along with racks, stands and basketry, all handcrafted by skilled, local artisans and makers. The use of these organic raw materials indigenous to South Asia renders these lightweight objects in shades of wheat and pecan brown. The Reed Lounge Chair, Rattan Bed and Rattan Fan follow traditional Sri Lankan weaving and binding techniques in their holistic design language.
“Sri Lanka is a fertile ground for handicraft artisans. Our foremost goal is to hone and amplify that talent and skill by supporting local artisans and maintaining traditional crafts through modern, ergonomic designs, and present quality alternatives to cheap, imported plastic products,” says Wickremasinghe.
A perpetual fascination for nature and its myriad ways led Nihara ‘Narni’ Fernando to establish Narni Studio that centers its works in organic dyeing, artisanal craftwork, photography and interior design. Fernando shares that from a very young age she was flowingly drawn toward moss, flowers, rocks, leaves and trees, their smell and physical beauty, enrapturing her and nurturing her creative side.
“An affinity for nature has informed not only my visual aesthetic but also my approach to creation. I see my practice as an extension of this bond and relish any opportunity to strengthen this connection.”
Years of experimentation with natural dyes and logging patterns, shapes and hues of Mother Nature manifested in Botanic Hues, Fernando’s current labour of love. The project produces small-batches of clothing and apparel that recontextualise traditional techniques through a contemporary lens. “Our organic hand-dyeing process provides an eco-friendly alternative to synthetic dyes, yielding a diversity of subtle, textured colours that we explore in our constant experiments with natural pigments, all of which are sourced from plants we grew ourselves or foraged sustainably from the suburbs of Colombo,” informs Fernando.
Botanic Hues allowed Fernando to translate nature’s beauty into the human world, in a manner that does not exploit the planet. The process of fabric dyeing comprises of dip-dye (where prepared fabric is dipped into pots of dye), bundle-dye (where raw materials are wrapped inside fabric and then steamed in bundles) and resist-dye (objects such as string, wooden pegs and tiles are folded into the fabric and then boiled in the dye pot - the areas containing the objects ‘resist’ the pigment and create negative space in the dyed fabric). “We also use the residual dye-water that would otherwise be wasted after the fabric dyeing process to produce handmade eco-prints on paper,” Fernando adds.
All three methods begin with extracting colourants from a variety of natural, biodegradable and non-toxic ingredients such as leaves, roots, tree bark, flowers and seeds, through a time-consuming process of boiling and steaming. Narni Studio also employs colourants obtained from commonly used eco-dyeing materials such as madder root and onion skins, and rare ones like osbeckia berries (a strain of plant species endemic to Sri Lanka), wild sunflowers and nyctanthes (a flowering plant native to southeast Asia). “Many of the dye materials we use are seasonal and as a result, the colours vary according to the time of year, making each piece unpredictably distinct,” Fernando says.
Shadow Pods is a collection of delicately perforated, organic lamps made out of dried and hollowed nuts of the calabash tree, which after de-seeding and sanding, are stained with coffee and oak gall ink, and finished with coconut wax to give its earthy brown colour. Giving the collection its name are hundreds of tiny holes that are hand drilled on the lamps’ surface, allowing minute shafts of light to pass through, throwing patterned shadows on surrounding walls and objects.
Sagara Ranga Liyanage
Founder and Managing Director of Earthbound Creations, Liyanage believes in a world where everyone takes care of the environment, ensuring a safer and more vibrant planet, and does it as a way of being. According to him, Earthbound Creation’s mission is to minimise the use of polythene and plastic, and encourage eco-friendly raw materials, where design and sustainability are two sides of the same coin. “Our dream is to salvage what is left of our planet, give it a new lease of life and leave a safer, greener environment for coming generations,” shares Liyanage.
Amassing awards and recognition, Earthbound Creations makes handmade pencils, bowls, containers, toys, coasters, paper bags and much more, from recycled and upcycled newspapers. Fascinated by the process of making handmade paper, its eco-friendly features, unique texture and appearance, Liyanage learnt about it from a government sponsored crafts exhibition years ago. He began his humble dream of creating products out of this low-cost, unassuming material seven years ago and has never looked back since. What began as a team of eight people has now grown into a bigger enterprise that exports internationally as well as in Sri Lanka, supporting and working with over 1,200 families presently. All products are handmade by tsunami affected and internally displaced women from the Civil War in the country, along with unemployed rural youth, ensuring fair wages to these mix of semi-skilled and experienced artisans.
Tinted with organic dyes and colourants, narrow strips of recycled newspapers are pressed, coiled, woven and glued together, resulting in artistically simple products such as the sturdy newspaper bin, EBC Pencils, and a wonderful plethora of lightweight bowls, containers and coasters that stand for a more responsible and accountable existence.
Curated by Amit Gupta and Pramiti Madhavji, STIR X Script presents Made In: an original series that features curated selections of product designers across countries, showcasing modern, sustainable, homegrown design.
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