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Seventh edition of Colomboscope explores the theme 'Language is migrant'

The interdisciplinary and intergenerational festival focusing on South Asian context uses Cecilia Vicuña’s literary work as the core of the curatorial framework for its upcoming edition.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Apr 14, 2021

The idea of history and record keeping is heavily dependent on the mode in which it is captured. As such, ‘language’ - both written and spoken word - becomes more critical, though a mere tool, as the thought itself. Language is migrant, Cecilia Vicuña’s literary work, hence became the basis for the seventh edition of Colomboscope to be held later this year. The contemporary arts festival has established itself as a platform for interdisciplinary creative disciplines with a unique focus on South Asian region. Reacting to a distinct theme, the festival includes global artists and designers, writers and poets, musicians and film makers, and social theorists and scientists.

Bow Echo, installation view for the 22nd Biennale of Sydney | Colomboscope 2021 | Aziz Hazara | STIRworld
Bow Echo, installation view for the 22nd Biennale of Sydney by Aziz Hazara Image: The artist, Courtesy of Colomboscope 2021

“Language is a carrier of intergenerational history, memory, and also visceral experiences that exceed its capacity for meaning-making and recede into its interstices to often emerge in abstract and poetic forms that claim grounded belonging,” says Anushka Ranjendran, the Festival curator. The upcoming edition has been rescheduled to August 2021 owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. “As an independent cultural festival, we have already been on this path for a while, the pandemic is therefore not about emergency measures but to in fact work even more sustainably, critically, and collectively from the subcontinent,” says Natasha Ginwala, the Artistic Director of Colomboscope.  

I speak with Anushka and Natasha on the curatorial framework of the upcoming edition and the how the programmes are evolving as a run up to the launch later in the year.

01 min watch Sequence 1, work in progress | Colomboscope 2021 | Lavkant Chaudhary | STIRworld
Sequence 1, work in progress by Lavkant Chaudhary Video: The artist, Courtesy of Colomboscope 2021

Rahul Kumar (RK): Natasha, how did you come about choosing the work of Chilean poet Cecilia Vicuña as the foundation of the theme for this upcoming edition of Colomboscope? How does this culturally interact with the South Asian region that happens to be the core focus of the festival?

Natasha Ginwala (NG): Having spent time with Cecilia Vicuña during documenta 14 and reading Language is Migrant when it was published in the magazine South as A State of Mind (special volume #3 edited by Quinn Latimer and Adam Szymczyk), it was a piece that stayed with me in its exploration around how artists and poets excavate and invent linguistic expressions, oral history telling, addressing diasporic lineages, ecocide, woundedness and violence. When visiting the artist at her New York home-studio in 2018, we discussed the potential of inviting artists from all genres to respond and assemble works premised around this text as a point of departure. This invitation grew over time, in correspondence with Anushka Rajendran and a wonderful range of artists and writers drawing on Sri Lanka as a vital crossroads with a checkered history of civil strife, forced migration and a huge diasporic community, while also linking to the partitioned subcontinent, its networks of cultural, linguistic and mercantile exchange that continue as a meshwork of regional affinities beyond hostile border politics.

L to R: Rotty tea bags, and Stains 2 by Hanusha Somasunderam | Colomboscope 2021 | Hanusha Somasunderam| STIRworld
L to R: Rotty tea bags, and Stains 2 by Hanusha Somasunderam Image: The artist, Courtesy of Colomboscope 2021

RK: Circulation and the linguistics have been actively referenced in the framework that has been created to tie the works together. Anushka, how is this lens informing the practices on the idea of migration and loss?

Anushka Rajendran (AR): Through the reference to Cecilia Vicuña’s poem-manifesto, Language is Migrant, which also informs the title for this edition of the festival, our premise holds that circulation is primordial to all life forms, and always has been. This has also fundamentally affected the ways by which linguistic codes have evolved in conversation with each other across time and space; think back to multiple historical accounts of such mobility and exchange across geography that predate colonial exploration and the radical cultural forms of cohesion and interrelation that have emerged variously as a result, malleable through time. The practices that this edition of the festival features embody not just expressions that have flourished through history but also those that have been erased or are confined to the fringes. Language is a carrier of intergenerational history, memory and also visceral experiences that exceed its capacity for meaning-making and recede into its interstices to often emerge in abstract and poetic forms that claim grounded belonging. When movement is the inevitable alternative, as it often is the case with contemporary instances of economic and political migration, speaking tongues that travel form rebellious narratives that speak of their trauma, even when they appear as partially remembered fragments in a language that has been forcibly made alien.

  • 01 min watch Philosophy Machine, installation view at Vadehra Art Gallery | Colomboscope 2021 | Shailesh BR | STIRworld
    Philosophy Machine, installation view at Vadehra Art Gallery by Shailesh BR Video: Dinesh Manear, Courtesy of Colomboscope 2021
  • Component No. 14 (from As the Light Turns) | Colomboscope 2021 | Omer Wasim | STIRworld
    Component No. 14 (from As the Light Turns), by Omer Wasim Image: The artist, Courtesy of Colomboscope 2021

RK: In continuation, is the reference of language in the title, Language is Migrant meant to limit this to text and words? Or the idea is inclusive of ‘artistic language’ from a visual and performance-based practices?

AR: Language accommodates all cultural forms, and their remembered, recorded and forgotten histories, as well as their futurity. For instance, Palash Bhattacharjee’s video-based work at the festival, Link Road, is an autobiographical account of his childhood and how his native dialect from the border region of Chattogram sedimented at the confluence of the flows of history and geography on the river Karnaphuli that flows through the region. Rajni Perera’s project that will be developed during a residency in Sri Lanka leading up to the festival will investigate Tovil, an indigenous form of exorcism that has inter-faith relevance in the island, and speculate upon its relevance in alleviating social and political ills that persist in the urban centre. Thisath Thoradeniya looks at migration within the island during the colonial period to escape Portuguese control over local businesses to areas that were still ruled by local kings and the impact that this movement had on their culinary culture, as migrant workers were deprived of salt, a precious commodity in the inland region at the time. Spoken word artist and educator, Belinda Zhawi, whose practice engages with the decolonisation of the English language and memories of her childhood in Zimbabwe, besides her own performance at the festival will also engage with the local community of artists that are interested in the form as part of a workshop which will be inclusive of English and non-English speaking practitioners.

Belinda Zhawi | Colomboscope 2021 | Belinda Zhawi | STIRworld
Belinda Zhawi Image: NTS Live, Courtesy of Colomboscope 2021

Besides this we are hosting A Thousand Channels, an episodic online radio initiative by Syma Tariq, which will be revived for Colomboscope to digitally broadcast artist conversations, instructional format workshops, sonic narratives, special artistic commissions, music and guest programming by independent radio initiatives. There will also be a reading room at the festival for artists’ publications, Reading in Tongues, drawing from Gloria Anzaldua’s Letter to Third World Women Writers, supported by Ishara Art Foundation; publications and projects therein will be activated by performances, conversations, special screenings and artistic interventions. Our website already hosts a digital commission by one of the participating artists at the festival, Muvindu Binoy, whose work with meme formats responded to the shifting social and political context in Sri Lanka over the previous year, the last of which will be released in April. The interdisciplinary focus of the festival will manifest across genres, duration, and by way of multi-site interventions.

Neighborhood watch (left: reference image) | Colomboscope 2021 | Rajni Perera | STIRworld
Neighborhood Watch by Rajni Perera, L: the reference image Image: The artist, Courtesy of Colomboscope 2021

RK: Natasha, would you tell us how is the preparation for the festival coming along in the shadow of the pandemic? Normally a significant part of commissioned works is studio visits. How well is the team coping with this as a run-up to the festival?

NG: This is the time for proactive rethinking and re-engineering our ways of working and collaborating in the arts sphere. As an independent cultural festival, we have already been on this path for a while, the pandemic is therefore not about emergency measures but to in fact work even more sustainably, critically, and collectively from the subcontinent. Our networks with artists, writers, filmmakers and thinkers are strong and we feel fortunate to be able to metamorphise those dialogues into action step-by-step as Language is Migrant takes concrete dimensions. A special exhibition segment as part of Chobi Mela 2021, Anatomies of Tongues, included works of Liz Fernando, Hania Luthufi, Palash Bhattacharjee and Imaad Majeed, produced by Colomboscope and even though Anushka did not travel to Bangladesh, we worked very closely with our collaborators at Chobi Mela. This instance proves that regional cooperation can shapeshift and thrive despite a year of mass alienation. It has taken far longer than usual to obtain certain international funds but we have used inventive strategies to ensure that this component of a worldly engagement does not get left out. The festival has also remained a way of generating production opportunities, mentorship and global reach with Sri Lankan artists at the core and we have remained determined in shaping a festival model that anchors these intentions.

01 min watch Untitled | Colomboscope 2021 | Thisath Thoradeniya| STIRworld
Untitled by Thisath Thoradeniya Video: The artist, Courtesy of Colomboscope 2021

RK: Lastly, international travel is not expected to fully resume any time soon. Anushka, do you feel it will impact the viewership for the upcoming edition?

AR: We are working on the festival keeping these conditions in mind. Since last April, our model for this edition has been evolving and in progress: workshops, tutorials and commissions will be broadcast digitally and on-site, along with A Thousand Channels that can also be accessed by remote audiences who won’t be able to travel to the festival. Artists who will not be able to travel due to restrictions related to the ongoing effects of the pandemic have forged collaborations with local practitioners and they are in mutual dialogue for several months actualising sustained engagement, perhaps more than what would have been possible through a weeklong visit to Sri Lanka. We are also preparing for contingencies for programming at the festival and COVID-19 related protocols will be followed. Sri Lanka also recently opened its borders for international travel, which has been encouraging. The first tandem artist residency with Omer Wasim from Karachi and Thisath Thoradeniya has just begun. Even if physical attendance of international audiences will be limited, we expect enthusiastic attendance from local audiences, especially the island-wide cultural community that relies on institutional support and public events to continue working and participate discursively in cultural production, especially after a year where such opportunities have been sparse. 

STIR is the exclusive international digital-media partner of the seventh edition of Colomboscope 2021, which is scheduled to take place in Colombo, Sri Lanka, from January 20-30, 2022.

See the exclusive coverage here.

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