In Conversation with Sri Lankan Artist Pala Pothupitiye
We speak with Pothupitiye about his practice and traditions, the democratisation of art and the invisible boundaries he works to blur
Pala Pothupitiye merges traditional craft and contemporary art to question themes as broad as identity, politics and religion. We had the chance to sit down with him only days before he travelled to Barcelona for an upcoming group exhibition at the city’s Museum of Contemporary art.
Jennifer Henricus: Your past work explores the issues of colonialism, nationalism and religious extremism. What are the issues that inform your current work?
Pala Pothupitiye: Right now, I’m exploring the uncertainty of being. The recent terror attacks in Sri Lanka created a lot of uncertainty and fear of death that was heightened by rumours and fake news. In my experience, most incidents of conflict and violence are linked to issues of identity, boundary and the protection of those two things. When these boundaries are crossed, identities are disturbed and that’s how conflict starts. The whole world now faces the fear of death and uncertainty.
How do you express this uncertainty and fear in your recent work?
I come from a family of ritual artistes who create elaborate masks and costumes and perform healing rituals. In this tradition, there are 18 healing masks and one of them, called Maru Sanniya, is the ritual mask worn in the performance for healing the fear of death. In a recent work, I carved this mask in concave relief into the pages of an open wooden book and on the facing page I etched a world map highlighting places of war and fear of death. The work questions the potential for healing in these conflicted zones.
What are the themes or issues that you work emphasises and opens up for debate?
One of the main themes is colonisation and the subtle, intangible ways that institutions – particularly in my experience – perform cultural colonisation by creating boundaries between art and craft, classifying them as high art and low art. The latter is made by traditional artists who don’t have formal academic training but possess knowledge and experience passed on from generation to generation, while high art is created by people who have been academically trained and are part of the art institutions. Art is viewed as an intellectual trade and academics are its soldiers guarding the boundaries.
In my work I try to blur these boundaries.
Before colonisation, the local artists – metal workers, painters, sculptors and jewellers – were supported by the king and they were at the centre of society. With colonisation, the British established their own art institutions, displacing the local artists who moved to the countryside and became classified as makers of low art.
In the early 1990s, curators began coming to our part of the world with the intention of promoting local art and craft, but in the process they drew boundaries by critiquing the work from a high art view point. I saw my father’s work and my traditions being marginalised.
My view is that we should look at all forms of art as human creations without these boundaries. Using my father’s costume work as a starting point, I created a series called My Ancestral Dress, in which I questioned my identity and my traditions. What is described as low art is inherent to me, and I integrate my personal experience, training and expertise in this ‘low art’ into my work.
To turn the debate on its head, I recreated my traditional ritual costumes (usually made of elaborate bead embroidery) with recovered urban junk – clearly non-art material that has multiple meanings – to reference trade, the current situation within Sri Lanka, and global issues of climate change and sustainability.
No one noticed my work because it was made from junk material and it held no value. It was only after the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum bought my work in 2005 that some interest was sparked.
What are the challenges of working as an artist in Sri Lanka and South Asia?
The main challenge is language. Art functions in English. And while I agree that English is a global language and we must learn it, what upsets me is that language is used to control art and artists, and it’s used as a tool to marginalise: I experienced this when I came from my village to Colombo, and I had to learn to navigate it in order to overcome it.
A current challenge is knowledge production and my ability to educate myself because it’s a ‘cultural backwater’ here, so I use different media and discussion groups to stay educated.
What motivated you to open the Mullegama Arts Centre (MAC) in Homagama, Colombo?
There was a time when I’d return from overseas visits to museums and galleries, where for fleeting moments I deluded myself into feeling that I’m a superstar, but I felt such emptiness. I questioned myself: should I work for myself and for my glorification? Many people helped me on my journey, and I felt that I needed to find some way to work with the community. Now I work with young and old people from the community and with university students who are invited to stay at MAC. In the education system, there is no focus on art. I want to impart an understanding of art, and I want to nurture an art audience.
I have discovered that bringing a creative process into the community is a way to resolve contentious feelings. I see art as a way to connect people, break boundaries and heal society.
Pothupitiye is among 17 artists participating in an exhibition titled Undefined Territories. Perspective on Colonial Legacies at Barcelona’s Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona opening on May 17th.
Text / Jennifer Henricus
Images / Courtesy of Pala Pothupitiye