On a Street Art Trail in Colombo

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A man (Gihan, he tells me his name later) catches sight of me surveying a stencil of a smiling child sandwiched between a photocopy shop and a dilapidated building on Dawson Street, and signals from across the road: “There’s more over here”. Cheerfully appointing himself as my guide and with a number of wide eyed, bashful children in tow, we weave our way through a path punctuated with bird droppings, ceramic bathroom fittings, criss-crossing clothes lines, concrete debris, drains and enter the unlikeliest of art spaces.

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Lately, I’ve been juggling multiple lives. I secretly revel in the bustle that working divergent jobs bring. One line of work brings in a hint of order and solidity. The other brings in an element of uncertainty and creativity — never know if I’ll land up at a fish market, a five star hotel or as in this instance, alleys in Slave Island.

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Occasionally during my moonlighting work, there’s a story which lingers long after I’ve transcribed the interview, wrestled with the deadline and then laid the article to rest. An interview with French artist C215, who was in Colombo recently, was one of those which stubbornly persisted. I’d mentally dog-eared his work when I had come across one of his graffiti stencils in Delhi years ago and was pleasantly surprised when I saw his cube shaped signature in Colombo. After our conversation, I found myself returning twice to Slave Island on a graffiti hunt, retracing the artist’s path, in search of pockets of colourful graffiti tucked away in unexpected nooks and crannies.

If you’re a fan of street art, C215’s work abroad is worth browsing. Favourites include the Caravaggio series, the stained glass series, this one of a couple (she has such an interesting face) and a recent tribute to Robin Williams. Christian Guémy’s technique is a head-on collision between the scrupulous detail of the classical and the unaffected spontaneity of street art (“You plan nothing and begin something – things happen with interaction”). There’s a gentle hijacking of standard, flat stencil art with layers of colours and minute details giving his work an unexpected depth.

Tracy, with graffiti outside her shop

Tracy, with graffiti outside her shop

Ranga, with his tuk. I liked the curiously apt quote on his tuk: “The eyes are useless when the mind is blind

Ranga, with his tuk. I liked the curiously apt quote on his tuk: “The eyes are useless when the mind is blind”

Street Cat – Definitely a favourite from the stencils in Colombo. So easy to miss this when you’re walking past.

Street Cat – Definitely a favourite from the stencils in Colombo. So easy to miss this when you’re walking past.

His choice of locations in Colombo were especially intriguing. I liked that he deliberately stepped out of Colombo’s rarefied art bubble and transformed non-spaces into visual poetry — all with polite permission from the residents and owners, mind. “I’ve always been interested in exploring the world. This kind of painting is a kind of exploration,” he shrugged. During our conversation, Christian pointed out that he liked people to follow his path, to wander down a street where they have nothing to do or no reason to go. “I think that the little street I have been painting in are not the streets you put on the tourist guides,” he remarked wryly, “but maybe rich people are making the right Colombo”.

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Kanchana with C215’s art on her living room wall

Kanchana with C215’s art on her living room wall

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Man with pigeon who wanted his picture taken

Christian’s stencils painted in Sri Lanka varied between those from his existing library of stencils from his work around the world to site-specific ones of the people of Slave Island themselves. Creating site-specific stencils is laboriously meticulous work and is a back and forth looping between the virtual and the real. It entails multiple visits to the same location, photographing people, printing the pictures out, carving out the stencils by hand from the printed portraits and then finally returning to paint. Once the painting is complete it is again documented and distributed online – almost a tango of sorts between multiple layers of the virtual and the real.

A stencil of Mohamed

A stencil of Mohamed

A stencil of Kanchana’s kid

A stencil of Kanchana’s kid

Pasindu with his portrait

Pasindu with his portrait

Some of the kids in Slave Island

Some of the kids in Slave Island

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Street art has a short lifespan. While the rest of the art world battles time and decay in the fight for preservation, street art is resolutely temporal with an oddly poignant acceptance of the inevitability of aging, decay and deterioration. “Nothing is permanent, everything is ephemeral. And this is something that I believe deeply […] In some way, creating art outside in a public space is also a kind of comment or a meditation about giving up with yourself, with your ego, with what you are — because it is something you leave behind you — you know you have to abandon it every day. And every day when you pass by, you have to abandon it [the art] for a new one,” voiced Christian, referring to the natural decay wrought on street art.

“You cannot look for being permanent by yourself as a human being — it’s the same with art. When I paint, I know it has a birth and it has a death. And that’s interesting because it (I speak for myself) helps me to accept that I am alive and I will die”.

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Public art can heavily impact a city’s visual culture and there’s a lot of potential for street art in Colombo – hence my enthusiasm for the manner in which artists like Christian have employed the medium.

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Martin Irvine sums it up eloquently in the Handbook of Visual Culture: “Whether the street works seem utopian or anarchic, aggressive or sympathetic, stunningly well-executed or juvenile, original or derivative, most street artists seriously working in the genre begin with a deep identification and empathy with the city: they are compelled to state something in and with the city, whether as forms of protest, critique, irony, humor, beauty, subversion, clever prank or all of the above. The pieces can be ephemeral, gratuitous acts of beauty or forms of counter-iconography, inhabiting spaces of abandonment and decay, or signal jams in a zone of hyper-commercial messaging. A well-placed street piece will reveal the meaning of its material context, making the invisible visible again, a city re-imaged and re-imagined”.

For the most part, graffiti in Colombo have been school boy scrawls (RC ROX 2 DA MAXX) of neither literary nor artistic merit and is understandably linked with vandalism. In terms of street art, the only public murals — as far as I know — are ones on school walls (which are tediously didactic in nature), a rather gruesome mural on Baseline Road and a few works here and there. I remember Artists Collectives like CoCA having plans for public art projects and it would be great to see more around Colombo.

One work of street art which is almost indelibly imprinted on my mind is this simple black and white line drawing which was done in 2006 in Kollupitiya during the war- I wish I knew who painted it. Days after an attack was carried out in Colombo, it popped up on the shrapnel pocked wall (remnants of the attack), only to be speedily taken down afterwards.

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Ps: Shout-out to T for the early morning company on the second leg of the photo-jaunt.

Update: Hat tip to Janith for linking to more street art in Colombo.

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Author-Artist Double Acts


One of my most treasured possessions is a copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. While growing up, Andersen’s stories unnerved me. Very few of them had positive closure and at times highly ambiguous (Ugly Duckling, anyone?) and for a little girl who liked utopian, apple-pie endings where everyone lived happily ever after, Andersen’s stories usually left me sad. The Little Mermaid dies, the girl with the red shoes dies, the matchstick girl dies, the fir tree dies, the emperor in the Emperor and Nightingale, also dies – do you see where I’m going here?

But then I received a beautifully illustrated copy of Andersen’s stories from my mum’s friend which slightly altered my attitude to Andersen. It was the books I read as a kid which paved my gradual interest in art and soon I started taking note of various illustrators as well.

I know most people agree that Quentin Blake and Roald Dahl were the quintessential writer-illustrator duo but I could never reconcile myself to Blake’s scrawls and always felt that it detracted from Dahl’s genius instead of complementing it. I’m aware that I’m a minority here because Blake has been hailed as one of England’s foremost illustrators and the Dahl-Blake combo has been described as a perfect example of author-artist chemistry. But I always felt disappointed to see my favourite characters reduced to almost careless squiggles, with large dots for eyes and overlarge hands. I get the feeling that Blake was trying to balance a fine line between both caricatures and sketches but it never worked for me.

Two double acts I really enjoyed were Jacqueline Wilson-Nick Sharratt and C.S. Lewis-Pauline Baynes.

Wilson was a staple in my adolescent reading and Sharratt’s simple line drawings went just right with Wilson’s writing which was catered mainly to girls aged 11 – 16. Obviously, I went through a Sharratt phase where I tried (unsuccessfully) to model my drawings according to his. Sharratt had an excellent eye for just the right amount of detail – a print on a dress, an extra fluff on a cloud, markings on leaves – which I really liked.


  

Bayne’s simple sketches brought to life characters I’d never even heard of before.  Detailed illustrations of battles, Mr. Tumnus, Aslan and the Pevensies were beautifully bought to life – but done in a way which didn’t impinge on the reader’s imagination and their own versions of the scenes and the characters. I loved the Narnia Maps and later read that Pauline occasionally illustrated for Tolkien as well. The Telegraph has an obituary on her, I think she sounds fascinating.

But, my (insert superlative of choice) favourite was my Hans Christian Andersen book. The book is filled with beautifully intricate, whimsical, old school illustrations which you’d be hard pressed to find amidst the sea of mediocre illustrated children’s books these days which look positively kitsch in comparison. Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone (they were an illustrating duo) and the author were centuries apart but the obvious chemistry between the artists and Andersen’s stories pervades the book. I think the illustration eclipsed the stories at times, because I would pore over the drawings and make my own stories with spectacular disregard for authorial intent. The pictures really don’t do justice to the drawings. I would love to get my hands on a copy of their illustrations of the Grimms Fairytales – the Grimms Brothers are dearer to me and this combination would have been electric.


Despite my fondness for illustrated books, I’ve never actually warmed to comics and graphic novels. The lines between comic s and graphic novels have always been slightly blurred for me. I grew up on a steady diet of Garfield, TinTin, Asterix and Calvin and Hobbes but my die-hard graphic novel fan-friends scoff at me and tell me that these don’t count/aren’t enough. From what I see, the crux of graphic novels are basically comics – But with fancier packaging, marginally deeper story lines and a lot heavier on the purse. Yes? No?

I remember my dad presenting me with comic versions of Oliver Twist and Kidnapped years back. I looked  at the too-bright colours of the comic strips, the dialogue watered down to a handful of words peppered with exclamation marks with all my 13 year old contempt, wondering sadly when words ceased to be enough.

I like art and I like reading but I’ve always felt that graphic novels tended to compromise on the literature aspect instead of synthesising words and art. When classics are condensed into 50 page graphic novels, the nuances in the language and the detail are also watered down. I haven’t written away the genre completely though, so there might be hope for me yet.

This started off as an elegy to my beautiful Andersen book and to Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone but as you can see, I got a little carried away. Chemistry between an author and an illustrator is a beautiful thing. Do add in your favourite author-artist combos if you have any. If you’d like to browse more book illustrations, this site has some nice stuff http://www.booksillustrated.com/

 

Notes from Delhi: Voyeur

I like art.

I also like watching people look at art. I think one of the best things about it is the humanistic element.  It’s fascinating watching people’s reactions to pieces of art.

Once I stopped hyperventilating about being in the same space as an original Dali and Picasso, I walked around the India Art Fair. I watched as people stared at cracked mirrors and giant black concave installations with complete bemusement or squirmed uncomfortably in front of the overly sexual, more provocative pieces.

My exposure to art on such a mass scale has been limited to the Colombo Art Biennale and the annual Kala Pola so the art fair kind of blew my mind. It was visually exhausting moving from one piece to another rapidly in an effort to ‘do’ everything and despite this, I still missed out on an entire hall.  I fervently wished I had another day to come back and go through everything in my own time and pace.

I can’t lie. I didn’t understand a lot of it and I think my lack of aesthetic refinement might have hindered my art appreciation. Hopefully one day I will be able to gaze at a 15 minute video installation of a woman gnawing at a raw onion and have an epiphany. Till then, I’ll have to make do.

This chap remained absorbed by the TV journalist covering the fair.

This piece left quite a few people confused.

She took a liking to Tapas Sarkar's sculptures and insisted on saying bye to each and every one of them before she left.

A bit of context might be necessary here - the installation was one of two boxes which had knives sliding in and out of it, automatically

Pictures of people taking pictures of pictures

Ps: He probably won’t read this but thank you to Spanish artist, Gines Serran and his son, who took pity on a poor student and took me on a tour of his work and demystified some of the context and process. It was lovely getting insight from the inside.

Ps 2: I’m starting to realize that I may come off slightly stalker–like in this post.  I’m really not.

>Kala Pola 2010

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Bathroom art?











This one and its doppelganger  were absolute beauties. They were about 9 feet tall, and attracted quite a lot of attention.



 





To buy easel or not to buy easel – that, was the question.


The problem with Kala Pola, or for that matter any Art Fest is that with the abundance of art work, some paintings tend to pale in comparison. In isolation or in retrospect, you would probably find that they were actually very good, but lumped with the 9 foot canvases and neon purple nudes, they usually tend to get overlooked.




I really like this guy’s work. Maybe its the thrill of seeing tuk-tuk’s immortalized in acrylic, or maybe it’s because the colours in his abstracts are lovely – I dunno. There’s just something about his stuff. I stopped to talk to him a few weeks ago and he smilingly told me that he has an abstract hanging in the Hilton Lobby . If I’m not mistaken, I think a few of his city scenes are also on display at the Bamboo Art Gallery, at Odel, Alexandra Place.


 



This years Kala Pola gave birth to ‘Drive-thru Art’. I found it quite amusing that those who didn’t want to brave the heat, sat in their cars, pointed to whatever interested them and effortlessly exchanged cash for canvas with the artist, through the car window.
I really hope that this years fair was good for the artists. Some walked around with broad smiles on their faces and voids in their stalls (signs of a succesful day), while others sat slumped on the pavement, worn out and dejected, drooping in the heat.
Some of the stuff were slightly repetitive (the black swirl on the red/orange/yellow background was omnipresent in a lot of abstract work) but overall, (IMHO) there was a lot more interesting work compared to last years one.
If you did miss it, just take a walk along Green Path on Saturday or Sunday. Around 8 or so artists (usually students from the campus)  display their stuff there every week end. There won’t be as much on display as Kala Pola, but it’s definitely worth taking a look at some of their work.