24-11-2021 11:45 AM
Works of art often tell stories. Throughout history, artists around the world have represented narratives through a variety of mediums. Behind the disarming, confrontational self-portrait ‘the two Frida’s’ painted by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, lies a vulnerable story of a woman struggling with her identity, as a result of failing relationships, chronic disability and health complications brought about by a near fatal car accident.
In Sri Lanka’s long-standing history of mural paintings, you will often see series of tableaus depicting moments in the birth and life of Lord Buddha. Similarly, in the rich poetry of Islamic scholar Mowlana Jalaludin Rumi, stories are often used as metaphors for the lessons and wisdom that were imparted upon him during various points in life.
This is the focus of the Our Stories initiative implemented by The Asia Foundation in partnership with the Theertha Artists Collective. As part of this initiative, an initial workshop was conducted with a group of artists on April 22-23, 2021, in Habarana. The workshop brought together a diverse range of 19 artists from across the island. These young artists are experienced professionals in their regions, whose expertise stretched across a versatility of mediums – theatre, movement, painting, mixed media, among others.
Participants were mentored by renowned contemporary artists and founding members of Theertha; Pradeep Chandrasiri, Korelagedera Pushpakumara, Bandu Manamperi, Thisath Thoradeniya, and Sivasubramaniam Kajendran. These mentors helped participants create art works based on the life stories of elders in Sri Lanka, which were collected during the initial stages of the ‘Our Stories’ initiative.
“These workshops were designed to help participants understand how to convey emotions through art, but also to teach them how to mentor younger artists,” Thisath Thoradeniya said, as he reflected on the initial sessions conducted in Habarana. “It was important, in true spirit of intergenerational dialogue, that they were able to pass on what they learned during this workshop.”
Born from the need to give Sri Lankan youth an opportunity to engage meaningfully with elders in their community, the initiative began the difficult task of collecting life stories of elders from six districts [Kalutara, Kurunegala, Trincomalee, Ampara, Vavuniya and Mannar] between 2018 and 2020. The stories were collected using the Guide to Accounts: Individual Narratives and Stories [GAINS] tool, which provided guidelines to ensure that the psychological well-being of the elders was taken care of as they recounted traumatic instances from their life. These stories were then circulated amongst the artists attending the workshop, who were allowed to choose one that resonated with them and use that as the central thread of their final work.
“Through this workshop, I have gathered unique knowledge for my creative process,” said Malki Jayakody, one of the workshop participants. “I have gained extensive knowledge on how to capture the story in my mind, and how to fit it into a blank space in my art.”
For another participant Srikanthan Krishanth, it was the other artists at the workshop that inspired him the most.
“As a filmmaker, I did not have deeper knowledge of other forms of art,” he said. “When I saw the drama performance at the workshop, I was surprised at how it was used to convey emotions in creative ways. I got many inputs on telling the stories in a creative manner through performance and art.”
This workshop was the first amongst a series of workshops that the Foundation aims to conduct as a part of this initiative. The following workshops, which will be held online due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, aim to mentor an additional batch of professional artists and to hold space for the artists to complete their respective projects with additional guidance from the mentors from Theertha. Following the completion of this process, these young professional artists will in their turn mentor young amateur artists who are to engage in a similar process. Through this engagement, the Foundation hopes not only to create a space where younger generations can learn from the life stories of older generations, but also connect to one another through arts, irrespective of their background.
Selected artwork created through this process will be showcased in an online exhibition. We hope that by engaging with these works, the public will find a gateway into the life stories of elders in our country, who have lived through key historical events, and have important lessons of resilience and values that everyone can learn from.