I think it was 2014, at the caravan showcase, when Bettina Linstrum first mentioned the Sura Medura residency project to us. Now it’s February 2018, and here we are, towards the end of Week 1 of a 6-week residency in the town of Hikkaduwa, SW Sri Lanka. It’s an extraordinary gift to be offered – 6 whole weeks; they’re paying entirely (including a fee) for one of us to be out here, and covering shared costs for the other, and all with a very light touch application process.
We’re here with 6 other artists from England and Scotland: Subathra Subramaniam, Emma Brierley, Rob Mulholland, Brian Hartley, Claire Rafferty and Damian Wright. It’s brilliant to be amongst both an interdisciplinary and also experienced bunch of artists. We’re missing the Pervasive Media Studio 10th birthday party whilst we’re out here, so it’s great not to be missing the Studio’s interdisciplinary influence too. Every conversation (and there’s LOTS of conversation) is really making me think about the decisions I make in my practice – both extending possibilities and also attuning the swerves and established direction of my artistic curiosity.
Being a Sri Lankan in Sri Lanka: part 1
I was born in Sri Lanka, but only 10 months old when my family emigrated to the UK. This is my seventh visit to Sri Lanka, and Tim’s third. The fact that Tim and I have a lot of previous with this country puts us in quite a different position to our fellow artists, who are all experiencing Sri Lanka for the first time. All of these guys have toured internationally to all kinds of places, and there’s a real desire to understand and participate in the local culture, which is great. It’s making me feel unexpectedly proud of my birth country. I’ve noticed myself saying “we” a lot when talking about Sri Lankan words and food culture. Though I’m still saying “Sri Lankans tend to…” when talking about social vibes and customs. I guess it says a lot about where I feel my heritage sits in me.
It’s the first time Sura Medura has hosted a British artist of Sri Lankan heritage. And for me, it’s the first time I’ve spent any time in Sri Lanka without being surrounded by family – which is something I couldn’t do without feeling uber-guilty if I wasn’t here to work. Family is a BIG DEAL in Sri Lanka and there’ve been times when I’ve been here and felt ragingly trapped and suffocated by that. This residency is a uniquely precious chance for me to dig into my own relationship with this beautiful and troubling country.
Between practice, collaboration and creation
The invitation out here has been about developing our artistic practice, responding to place and collaborating with the other artists. We’re only a week in, but I’m already conscious of needing to maintain a balance between these rangy prompts. Throughout the week I’ve been mega conscious of my practice as one that is quite slow, private and accumulative and which generally only becomes public once its thread is clear to me. I can feel the pressure of needing to collaborate with artists I’ve only just met and I don’t want to get distracted by designing workshops or trying to pre-empt what we might make together. I really want to make sure that I’m letting the experience of working in this place take root in me so that it can influence the work I make more long-term rather than just the bubble of what I do within these 6 weeks.
Being a Sri Lankan in Sri Lanka: part 2
My artistic practice is deeply influenced by the fact that I grew up halfway round the world (Durham, UK) from where I was born (Colombo, Sri Lanka). The active mixing of forms and techniques, a fascination with stories of technological and cultural dispersal, a friction against any fixed notion of home or destiny, a hyper-awareness of perspective, a conviction that the world is bigger than we know or imagine… these instincts all spring from my being a child of the diaspora. So far, I’ve only had the chance to use this perspective from being anchored in Europe. It already feels kinda overwhelming to grow my consciousness of that perspective in Sri Lanka. It’s the first time I’ve been signified as Sri Lankan in Sri Lanka without the prism of my family. When I practice my rickety Sinhala, people don’t just see me as a tourist but refer to me as someone practising their mother tongue.
I’m in Hikkaduwa, on the SW coast, staying in a hotel right on the sea front. I can stand on the beach at the edge of Sri Lanka every day for 6 weeks and find myself looking out to the West from here, rather than the other way round.
Stories from the village, stories from the sea
We came out here ostensibly to continue chipping away at Tales From The Old World, in particular the notion of writing myths of the modern world. It was a loose focus around which we’d also have the freedom to respond to whatever became alive for us during the residency.
Sri Lanka has a rich tradition of folk myths and oral storytelling. It’s quite hard to find Sri Lankan books in translation, so I nicked off with a book called Folklore of Sri Lanka by Nandasena Ratnapala which I found under the stairs at my Dad’s house, and have been reading that over the last week. It’s joined a lot of dots for me – explaining the supernatural elements of Sri Lankan Buddhism, the odd life rituals that persist through time and across international borders, and the roots of superstitions that still feel very present around things like death and disease. There’s also this myth of how Hitler invented the Volkswagen Beetle, apparently:
“Once Hitler got an open lorry full of cotton wool and caused the lorry to be driven at great speed. Some of the cotton was blown away by the wind, and Hitler ordered the engineers to build a car having the shape of the cotton that remained in the lorry. The result was the Volkswagen.”
It feels like part of Tales From the Old World before we’ve even made it.
But the thing that feels most present to me here is the sea. It’s a surf beach, so the waves break and jostle constantly. The noise of the sea is immense and its power feels proper from the Old Gods. All the main industries of this town are linked to it. The horizons are super-wide and super-cinematic. It’s the edge of this world and the best set ever.
It’s been 14 years since the boxing day tsunami hit. If you didn’t know, you wouldn’t know. The town’s been reshaped and rebuilt for good vibes and good surfing. But I notice that the tsunami crops up in almost every conversation I have with locals. It’s an indelible mark in the timeline of this town.
Being a Sri Lankan in Sri Lanka: part 3
When we visited Hikkaduwa’s small Tsunami Museum earlier this week, I was particularly struck by 2 things:
- The story the museum tells goes from big picture geology lesson through horrific human devastation and into rebuilding and regeneration;
- The regularly reiterated notion that the West doesn’t care about Sri Lanka and its tragedies.
These things make me think about storytelling. About how we hear stories and which stories we hear. About cultural tone and moral imperialism. About where stories end or carry on. About the difference between storytelling as confirmation and storytelling as transformation.
This perception that the West doesn’t care about Sri Lanka is something I’ve heard regularly since forever I can remember – particularly in relation to the civil war. Civil war is a dark and insular thing, pushing people to define themselves in opposition, and often unfathomable to the outside world. The only truth I know about the Sri Lankan civil war is that so many people were killed and brutalised in so many different ways. I feel like almost all my life, I’ve been wrestling with how to talk about it in ways that force open its complexities without sounding like an apologist for brutality on either side. ‘War’ suggests a binary conflict. It is not a binary conflict.
When I try out my kronky Sinhala, people invariably ask me if I’m Sri Lankan. And here, I invariably say yes.
So being a Sri Lankan in Sri Lanka, standing on the edge of this land, looking out to the West, what is my responsibility as a storyteller? Are there stories I have a duty to tell and how should I tell them?
The sea and the technology
Three nights ago Tim and I took an iPad, headphones and a Minirig out onto the beach. I’d wanted to try playing against the sound of the sea. We had field recordings from Kataragama already made up into playable samples so we figured we could test with those. There was a lightning storm far up in the sky, spiking all pink and orange. We stood with our feet in the Indian Ocean and played a mini Circadial in concert with the waves: one of us controlling the iPad, one of us holding the Minirig.
Feel free to call me a wanker, but I found it a profound and beautiful experience. The lightning made it doubly cinematic. It felt like a ritual of transformation. An offering to the sea that came not from the old days, but from modern times.
Memory clears the space for what’s needed
I can’t believe I’ve been here almost a week already; but writing this has helped me distil what’s been accumulating (if you’re still reading – thanks dudes! You are dudes). I have 3 threads of work I want to pursue, interrelated I think by a vague notion of oral storytelling. One will involve interviewing people in town. One will be an act of personal political writing. One will be an ongoing research. I feel like I’m both reaching into the roots of something big and just skimming the surface of something beautiful.