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ELEVEN ARTISTS DISCOVER TWO CITIES

In a departure from the usual, six artists from India and five from Sri Lanka travelled together to Varanasi and Anuradhapura to culminate in an exhibition born of a two-year long project, writes Uma Nair.

A Tale of Two Cities is the brainchild of Director and Gallery person Renu Modi of Gallery Espace. In a departure from the usual, six artists from India and five from Sri Lanka travelled together to Varanasi, in India and Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka to culminate in an exhibition born of a two-year long project.

The artists explored the sites and shared their observations, research and processes, which then shaped their individual creations. Varanasi and Anuradhapura were chosen, according to Ruhanie Perera, the exhibition's curatorial advisor, for being cities of ritual and pulsating urban trends, sites of heritage, myth, history and memory but also living cities. A Tale of Two Cities, therefore, seeks to "ask what informs the artistic approach to the city; these cities in particular". The artist becomes "provocateur". The final exhibition which opened in Sri Lanka after being shown at IGNCA in Delhi becomes an artistic dialogue that oscillates between multiple perspectives, methodologies and narratives, as it embraces multiple levels of individual, communal and official sensibilities of the artists in question.
Distilling time and space between periods of past and present are famous photographer Ram Rahman's poster series, titled 'The Man', 'the Word', 'the Tree', 'the Lotus'. Ram has a certain elegance in the way he uses digital image and text, keeping these posters flat and framed, even as it narrates a sweeping symbolism of Buddhist history and contemporary politics, covering thousands of years. Ram makes us think about the power of exterior ramifications and politics, which is what institutions ultimately deal with.
Manisha Parekh's 'Home Shrine' series made on wood, and handmade paper and silk creations entitled 'A Chant' can stop you in your tracks for their effervescent ascension and their meandering materiality that is born of an intensity that is both quiet as well as tranquil – perhaps a symbolism of mendicant moods and spiritual practices both in the use of the prayer beads by Indians and Buddhists make Manisha's works an evocative and philosophic rendition. Parekh's tensile insight makes for a series that at once echo the intangible within the search for silence and spiritual domains.
Another deeply compelling and contemplative series are the sequential deeply rooted works of Lankan artist Pala Pothupitiye who creates works of deeply detailed intricacy with acrylic, ink and pencil works on paper. These works have an inchoate incisiveness and a hoary haunted feeling for the melding of the past and present.
Sri Lanka-based Jagath Weerasinghe's striking acrylic paintings on canvas, entitled Teertha Yatra, are yet another sojourn that keeps asking questions within journeys. Pradeep Chandrasiri's 'Return to the Sensory', an amalgam of gold acrylic, ash and turmeric on canvas presents yet another terrain. Then there is the brilliant authority of printmaking in India Paula Sengupta who creates a row of fans, a work entitled 'The Plain of Aspiration', in which she makes use of wood, grass matting, and appliqued and embroidered silk to give juxtapositions of the passage of time and the story of objects and corollaries that become the very root of history.
Then there is the delicacy of seven six foot tall layered tapestries, offering a tangible materiality in the works of Anoli Perera which effectively capture the complexity of the religious space and experience that is both personal and impersonal. Painter, sculptor and installation artist Perera, created these as an exploration of how the private and the institutional interact in religious spaces. Entitled 'Geographies of Deliverance', the tapestries feature images of visitors to the Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura, including the artist's mother and a bhikhuni or female monk.
Powerful and tantalizing hybrids beckon in Manunath Kamath's terracotta, iron and cement sculptures in which he explores the evolution of myth, legend and symbol. Interesting is how he leaves each work deliberately half-finished and rendered as antiques, as he tries to get viewers to build their own stories. These sculptures are like small totems of history, a confluence of "a kind of excavation", "half-truth and half-fiction". Titled Restored Poems, and assimilated over the past four or five years amidst a lifetime of collecting images, symbols, and artefacts for use in his studio they stand apart for the brilliance of execution.
Lankan Bandu Manamperi's 'Moonstone-1' is an enormous white disc broken in two halves gives us an equivocal stimulus in the way it speaks of simultaneous solidity as well as an ascension off the floor. This fibreglass and resin sculpture replicates the symbolism that defines popular iconography. Bandu uses unconventional materiality to investigate systems of meaning generated around symbolism in spiritual spaces to give us conversations in which pilgrims become consumers of the cultural contexts of images.
Colombo-based Chandrasiri is one of the founders and directors of the Teertha International Artists' Collective, which envisioned and organised A Tale of Two Cities in collaboration with Gallery Espace, New Delhi, and Serendipity Arts Trust, over the past two years.
Images: Gallery Espace

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