Anoma’s search for peace

By Ruhanie Perera

Somewhere people were praying, says artist Anoma Wijewardene, giving the context for one of the images in her latest collection of digital art. Two women, both older women, are captured lost in their personal moment of prayer. The image is the narrative of the mature women. It is the story of life itself, as gleaned from the face of the giver of life, while resonating with a nation’s history of lost husbands and lost sons. One woman’s face is raised to the gods in silent devotion, yet it is the expression of the second woman that one is drawn to – the expression of life and hope caught in a solitary moment of tranquillity.

Anoma Wijewardene

Anoma’s work is thus inspired by tranquillity – or rather the search for tranquillity and the need for peace, both inner peace and a collective peace. It is a take on reconciliation, but it never asks, or provides answers to the question that haunts the work – How do we move on?

With Anoma, the avant-garde is the expected. To take in the enormity of her work and journey through the layers of an artistic vision which is an expression of deep human emotion, one glance through is never enough. Especially not with this exhibition, Quest, her first experiment with digital art and video installation, opening this week.

Quest is a three-year journey which began in January 2003 with a borrowed camera and a sheaf of white paper doves, when a friend visiting Jaffna extended an invitation to Anoma. For Anoma, the language of connection was the simple white pieces of paper that she distributed to people she met or placed wherever the road took her. The placing of doves was thus a kind of installation art – at this point a deeply personal response, which was both a symbolic gesture and material indication that made the concept of peace more concrete for her.

“This was done for me, not for an audience,” says Anoma of the enormous body of work born of her need to deal with pain. It is the explanation of the multitude of questions she, as an artist, desperately seeks to understand, approached through a work that underscores the enormity of collateral damage caused by war and the tsunami, which in half a day did as much damage as twenty years of war. The work is then a narrative of collective loss, pain and survival, and each individual who experiences the work is called on to gaze into the eyes of men, women and children confronting, comprehending and learning to move on, even when no hope is possible.

The images of digital art melt before the eye, heightening the sense of desolation to the point of it being almost holocaust-like. And yet we are given a glimpse of the idyllic in sunsets and calm seas, and the hinted at gateways and steps leading up somewhere speak only of the possibilities of life. And, while dead eyes stare out of the faces that stand amidst the ruins of their lives, there are the eyes – especially those of the children – that pierce with life, poised on that first moment of the quest for hope.

Quest is a trilingual exhibition using the medium of digital art and video installation. The primary source material, the photographs, were taken in Jaffna, on the A9, in Colombo and along the southern coastal tsunami-affected areas, not for documentation, but for artistic interpretation expressed in digital art images which is the centrepiece of the exhibition. Quotes from philosophers, politicians, authors and even pedestrian views are interspersed with the images, not as titles or by way of an explanation of the image, but rather in a way that they dialogue with the images. A thirty six minute multi-screen video installation incorporating performance art on continuous display for the duration of the exhibition will also be set up in a separate space. Four screens, running simultaneously, dominate this space transporting the viewer to the artist’s mind space. It is overwhelming. The piece of performance art suggests the possibilities of the human soul – when a hand is extended, do we accept it or do we turn away? How much a part does each one of us play in the simple action of reaching out, and making peace? As the impact of a massive onslaught of artistic consciousness slowly sinks in, you feel its power, and the soundtrack created by Anoma with Ranga Dassanayake for this exhibition awakens the subconscious. The entire work thus is moulded in layers, opening up a space for many interpretations through layers of perspectives and contrasts, and the experimentation with possibilities both technical and metaphorical.

I painted with a computer, says Anoma of her work in this new medium, as opposed to a brush, thread, clay, etc. And yet, at all times, as is the case with any work of art, one aims for balance. Technical manipulation is as subtle as the stroke of the brush in the hands of the artist. It’s not a matter of the medium, but a matter of the eye. For as the master Michelangelo held, a man paints with his brains and not with his hands. Still concerned with the same things in a creation, Anoma spends hours on the smallest of detail – ranging from four hours of work at the very least to days of work, because it tells the story of what each image meant to her. Except for a couple of instances (four photographs) the composition of the image is as it is. The work is not a collage, rather an artistic effort that embraces each image and destroys and recreates, deconstructs as it reconstructs, produced by an artist who usually finds her challenge in an empty canvas.

Anoma is the late-twentieth century new media artist daring to explore the possibilities of a technological world in an aesthetic space, and not for a minute held back by its complexity. She inhabits a moment in time where the brush is no longer privileged as a medium of representation and the revolution that seeks only to find the best possible medium for artistic representation takes on the world. “Even though it was different to my usual medium, I was going to try and learn it all,”says Anoma, who has in the three years she has worked on this project, exhibited on three occasions in her normal medium – brushwork. Anoma also learnt to work with a team; another first for the usually solitary artist who under normal circumstances does not talk to anyone when immersed in her work.

Every day is thus an emotional rollercoaster ride as Anoma begins to lose count and recollection of the people drifting in and out of her usually tranquil sanctum. But it’s fun, she says, with the spirit of the ever-exuberant. It’s been a hugely exciting adventure, rarely logical (but that’s never the way Anoma works) which has been frightening at times, to the point where she has even lost faith and bordered on throwing in the towel, and yet never quite losing that sense of balance that pulls one back on track – back to all that’s inspiring about one’s work. She says it best.“It’s been quite a journey.”

Quest runs from June 2 to 4, (10 a.m. to 6 p.m.), at the National Art Gallery, Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha, Colombo 7. The exhibition is sponsored by Deutsche Bank, The American Centre, Brandix Lanka Limited, FLICT (Facilitating Local Initiatives for Conflict Transformation) and the Asia Foundation.

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