Artwork Installation by Hanusha Samasundera

“The University of Jaffna is today producing some of the best young artists on the island”

Amongst the hundreds of contemporary artists that make up the emerging South Asian art scene today, one group of artists has particularly bene ted from the energy that was invested in the North immediately after the war and they are making a distinctive name for themselves. The University of Jaffna is today producing some of the best young artists on the island. Their work is featured in international publications and exhibitions and attracting international curators.


This is, however, not a surprise, given that 2 or more of the foremost names in our contemporary scene have been mentoring them since before the end of the war.

For those familiar with the Sri Lankan contemporary art scene the name amotharampillai Shanaathanan needs no introduction. A senior artist who earned his PhD at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and returned to Sri Lanka to continue teaching at the University of Ja na, Shanaathanan has exhibited his own work internationally. His last publication, in collaboration with Raking Leaves, titled The Incomplete ombu will be available at MOMA in New York later this year and today stands as the only publication that o cially records the stories of those in the North who lost their homes in the war.

Shanaathanan’s best known works are map- like depictions combined with imagery recalled from memory, stitched together by hand and mismatched to symbolise our minds’ inability to perfectly remember. His installation work calls upon the same themes, all strongly related to memory and the artist’s own plight to come to terms with the turmoil faced by so many of those in the North.

Today Shanaathanan continues to mentor artists; however, much of his time is dedicated to the project initiated by Sri Lankan curator Sharmini Pereira and the University of Ja na in collaboration with the Asia Art Archive. ‘Open Edit: Mobile Library’ began in 2013 when the Asia Art Archive lent part of their collection to a mobile space in the North and the South of the island. e Mobile Library was confronted by artists through a project where they were encouraged to submit a proposal for an artwork inspired by the library. In the process of creating this mobile space Sharmini Pereira, through her organisation Raking Leaves, began collecting books from organisations and individuals involved in the arts in Sri Lanka. It highlighted the need to create an archive of such information that could be readily available to those studying related elds. So began the Sri Lankan Archive of Art, Architecture and Design, which today stands in a house in Ja na donated to them by architect Anjalendran. e archive organises talks focused on subjects of the like and continues to build their library in conjunction with the Asia Art Archive based in Hong Kong.

In 2015 Shanaathanan approached the Saskia Fernando Gallery to present an exhibition of work by several artists from one of his graduate classes, many of these artists’ work had already been exhibited at the Mobile Library in 2013. These works, created under the guidance of both Shanaathanan and Sharmini Pereira, came together in an exhibition titled “Seven Conversations”. e work featured varying media, with an autobiographical focus, that dealt with life in the North. Several of these works were selected to feature in the Dhaka Art Summit 2016. e installations exhibited by artists Hanusha Somasundera, and M. Vijitharan were also exhibited by the Saskia Fernando Gallery at Art Dubai and coincidentally featured in Art Asia Paci c Magazine in the same month. ese artists have continued to become an integral part of the emerging contemporary art scene and are presenting works in solo exhibitions, collective presentations and events, such as Colomboscope.

At a time where many universities in Sri Lanka experience more strikes than updates in curriculum, this next generation of artists shows promise for the development of the local contemporary art scene. Perhaps the focus of the international community is easily led in the direction of the region that saw the most devastating e ects of the war; however, the result of being exposed to art that can be exhibited in international forums is an acknowledgment that is much needed for a scene that has been alive and kicking for many years. Where it begins and ends becomes irrelevant and the subject of war is an unavoidable one, as the reconciliation process gains momentum alongside an incredibly promising art industry.