Pala Pothupitiye, a defiant artist from Sri Lanka, has earned many admirers in India over the past six years with his critically acclaimed artworks that reimagine maps. His popularity was evident last week at a preview of his solo show in Delhi: a number of art lovers and collectors stood frozen before the vociferous frames narrating the artist’s history, enmeshed in biography.
Until this Moment, arranged by Galleries Exhibit 320 and Blueprint 12, is relevant historically and politically in South Asia and beyond because of the instances of violent reaffirmation, of territorial and military aggression from various epochs of history. When the US dropped the Mother of all Bombs in Afghanistan, this became the most immediate instance and point of departure for an art critic gazing at Pothupitiye’s works.
Apart from acknowledging instances of military intervention, Until this Moment invites the viewer to critically ruminate on the stringent laws curbing free flow of humans, trade and culture across the globe. The powers that be regulate migration – under the pretext of economic and security reasons – which in turn encourages racist, communal, and political exclusions. At such a moment, Pothupitiye’s maps cajole viewers to engage with the perpetuity of neo-colonial modernity, striding across mythology, history, and the present.
Un-mapping the maps
Pothupitiye has delivered a rich series of works in the last decade. “They [the maps] confront issues such as colonialism, nationalism, religious extremism and militarism, and extend the inquiry to questions of caste, the distinction between art and craft, tradition and modernity, as well as generating a critique of Euro-centrism,” said the artist, describing his work. His works on government maps and old colonial maps sometimes merge to create new cartographies, dismantling the idea of rigid sovereign territory.
Pothupitiye conceptually treats maps as two-dimensional surfaces, which he can use to bring attention to lived experiences in these inscribed spaces. These alternative cartographic exercises articulate memory and its erasure, identities and their discomfiture, in the wake of the thirty years of war in Sri Lanka and the complexities in the aftermath. Many of them – such as Histories and Past (2017); and Jaffna Fort, Fort Frederick – Trincomalee, Batticaloa Fort, and Galle Fort from the Fort Series (2015) – narrate stories of civilisational fluidity enmeshed in colonial encounters. Histories and Past, a work on Ptolemy’s Map of Ceylon, with strokes of history, mythology, conjures a rapturous cosmos demanding more than merely a glance.
Grimness unfolds in the Map Series (2015), which includes the famous South Asia maps, a reworking of the upside down map of Himal South Asia, a periodical published in Nepal. Pothupitiye adds motifs to this to communicate the political violence of the region.
His Matara, named after a city in Southern Province of Sri Lanka, comments on the political interventions loaded with vested interests.
Pothupitiye obtained a degree in Fine Arts at the Visual and Performance Art University in Colombo, and in 2005, he was selected to participate in the third Fukuoka Triennial at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan. In 2010, he won the jury award of the Sovereign Art Asian Prize in Hong Kong. He came from what art historians in Sri Lanka recognised as the fringe – raised in a traditional village in southern Sri Lankan called Deniyaya, Pothupitiye inherited the fine craftsmanship of his father Somasiri Pothupitiye.
“My father’s traditional caste occupation, of making costumes for ritual healing performances at villages in southern Sri Lanka, was my beginning as an artist,” he said. “The craftsmen from Navandana caste were renowned for making ornate costumes for their community at traditional performances. These ritual dance performances invoked Hindu gods such as Kataragama, Vishnu and local gods such as Saman Vibhushana and Sunyan Daiyo. The colourful dresses, headgear, belts, shoes and armlets were made and adorned by mortals, to invoke the proximity with the immortals.”
As a result of his childhood influences, Pothupitiye’s artistic tools are dipped in religious and cultural cosmopolitanism, which intersects with the caste structure in Sinhala society. If a renowned cricketer or cultural celebrity comes to Pothupitiye’s studio in Colombo to purchase his works, he first takes them to his father and says, “He is the one responsible for all this.”
There is more to Pothupitiye’s emergence as an experimental artist with deep political insight: it pertains to the historical phenomenon in Sri Lankan art called “1990s Turn” by art scholars. There was a turn towards the political in contemporary visual arts in Sri Lanka, as artists began to explore their personal-experiential narratives from conflict-torn villages. The Theertha Artists’ Collective in Colombo, with the pioneer artist and teacher Jagath Weerasinghe and Anoli Perera, nurtured this idea of the avant garde in Sri Lankan art. Pala Pothupitiye, one of the earliest members of Theertha along with artists such as Koralegadara Pushpakumara, Bandu Mnamperi, Janani Corray, Godwin Constantine and others, began to cross borders with their political and intellectually provocative works, to participate in international exhibitions.
Until this Moment is another critical point in that movement, and it comes to Delhi at an apt political time. It asks us many questions, to which only experiential history delivers answers, if we allow ourselves to read between the lines.