Cross-Cultural Exchanges

The fourth edition of the Colombo Biennale, Conceiving Space, co-founded by the British gallerist Annoushka Hempel in 2009, and curated by Alnoor Mitha, a Senior Research Fellow (Asian Cultures) at the Manchester Metropolitan University, perpetuates its status as an important venue for showcasing strong voices from the Global South. Whilst the exhibition took place last December, both the content and their themes continue to resonate, especially due to the ways in which emerging, mid-career and established artists were brought together by political standpoints, geographical and ideational location, social activism and interconnectivity.

Seen for the first time were young emerging artists such as Savesan Nallaiah and Vijitharan M from the war-torn northeastern region of Jaffna in Sri Lanka, which was the site of enormous destruction and depredation during the 26-year civil war. Whilst Nallaiah’s Jean Michel Basquait-esque paintings Fleshes, (2016), depicted the unspoken violence against women through colorful graffiti-like images, Vijitharan’s mixed media works captures raw, guttural impressions of the chaos brought on by conflict through powerful metaphorical tornadoes that appeared to create havoc in their wake as they swept through the city.

In Samsul Alam Helal’s Open Stage (2016) – photographs taken in his native Bangladesh – humanistic portraits featured the untouchable Dalit community brought from India by the British in the 19th century, who have long been relegated to sweeping and cleaning public toilets. Shot against a bright red backdrop in a makeshift studio setting in their neighborhood, Helal’s work, which will be included in Speak, Local at the Kunsthalle Zurich this March, investigated prevalent local conditions. He showcased the lives and aspirations of a community disparaged for archaic beliefs who are no different than any other human beings.

Much like Helal’s interest in locality, established Indian artist Mithu Sen’s installation Left Untold (2016), comprised objects and mementos collected from households of different economic, social and cultural backgrounds in Colombo. Whilst Sen called attention to the local environment by evoking the setting of an intimate home, she dispelled any stereotypical associations of people and classes by suggesting the need for a more holistic, encompassing society. Sen’s concerns, much like the other artists included in the show, are crucial to the ongoing discourse towards eliminating discrimination and working towards assimilation. Her inclusion in the Kathmandu Triennale, scheduled to open on 24 March, continues the much-contested dialogue of better cross-cultural exchanges and the urgency of migrants the world over.

The importance of the Colombo Biennale as a platform from which emerging artists can be showcased abroad, and conversations by featured mid-career artists like Ghada Kunji and Hardeep Pandhal about reconstructing identity can be continued, is highly relevant. Kunji’s recent site-specific work at 15/15 in Bahrain, and, London-based Pandhal’s upcoming inclusion in the Drawing Biennial open new avenues for rethinking the concept of globalisation and the inividual.

But perhaps the most relevant work to forward this worldwide discussion is Reena Kallat’s installation Saline Notations (Fluid Signs, Spaces, Silences) (2016), constructed from words written by the famous Rabindranath Tagore in the poem Where the mind is without fear. Written with salt on a beach, Tagore’s words are slowly erased by the ebb and flow of the water and invoke the fragility of the mind. In his poem Tagore hopes that: “Action has not been broken into fragments,” and urges us to : “Awake the world of truth, where knowledge lost its way into ever widening desert sand,” and work “towards perfection, where stream of reason is without fear.” Kallat’s inclusion in a recent group exhibition Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter, at MoMA, New York, continues the dialogue of worldwide tolerance, and her installation in the Colombo Biennale highlights the significance of venues that give voice to the charged radicalism of the developing world.

Bansie Vasvani

1. Samsul Alam Helal, Open Stage, (2016). Courtesy of the artist.

Conceiving Space ran from 2-20 December. For more information:

Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter ran until 22 January at MoMA, New York. For more information: