‘Language is Migrant’ show ends at Warehouse421 with performance on cultural amnesia

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Ahilan Ratnamohan, an Australian artist from the Sri Lankan diaspora will be speaking to his mother about his mother tongue and how he missed learning it during his childhood, and his rigorous efforts to pick it up later.

Ahilan’s performance on Sunday evening (May 8, 2022) is part of the exhibition ‘Language is Migrant,’ a collaboration between Warehouse421 in Abu Dhabi and Colomboscope, that has been ongoing for the past two months bringing together cultural practices primarily from across Sri Lanka and South Asia in the pursuit to foster global dialogue.

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‘Language is Migrant,’ the Abu Dhabi edition of Colomboscope’s seventh festival curated by Anushka Rajendran, along with Artistic Director Natasha Ginwala, showcases artworks about how people move, live, and change.

‘The Tamilization of Ahilan Rantamohan,’ a performance. (Supplied)
‘The Tamilization of Ahilan Rantamohan,’ a performance. (Supplied)

The exhibition at Warehouse421 features around 10 artists tackling a complex range of topics relating to migration and movement.

Vijitharan Maryathevathas’s 'Untitled,' 2017, Mixed media on paper. Courtesy of the artist
Vijitharan Maryathevathas’s 'Untitled,' 2017, Mixed media on paper. Courtesy of the artist

Their struggles, agency, and desires emanating from the act of migration have resulted in a variety of bold, imaginative artworks.
The concept of the exhibition, according to the curators, is taken from the words of Chilean poet-artist Cecilia Vicuña, who wrote: “Language is migrant. Words move from language to language, from culture to culture, from mouth to mouth. Our bodies are migrants, cells and bacteria are migrants too. Even galaxies migrate.”

Rajendran and Ginwala, write: “Artists compose, decipher and perform as vital travelers and storytellers of our times. Often, repairing relations by drawing material articulations from deep losses, silence and erasures while inventing language forms as bridges between communal narratives, official records, and submerged histories.”

Several commissioned projects in the exhibition mobilize acts of transmission that embrace collective synergies and refuse parochial attitudes that are on the rise while dwelling in place. Instead, we find the channeling of sonic frequencies, cinematic and live acts that sustain the traffic of creative processes, biographical timekeeping, engaged listening, and diasporic belonging.

Acknowledgement of cultural amnesia

Ahilan, an Australian artist from the Sri Lankan diaspora, is a polyglot whose practice encompasses his ability to pick up languages quickly while working across contexts and continents.

His parents migrated in 1974 before the outbreak of the civil war in Sri Lanka and was born in Sydney.

Having grown up in Australia, Ratnamohan never learned Tamil. Over the past few years, he has been furthering his skills in spoken Tamil over skype conversations with his mother, where the mother and son attempt to communicate in their native tongue for the first time. The process involves active remembering and acknowledgement of the cultural amnesia that sets in following the traumatic process of communal marginalization and forced movement. This exercise resulted in a script, ‘The Tamilization of Ahilan Ratnamohan,’ that the artist wrote collaboratively with his mother.

The performance will be held at Warehouse421 together with Ahilan’s mother.

According to Faisal Al Hassan, Head of Warehouse421, “‘Language is Migrant’ is a collaborative, diverse, and inclusive exhibition that shines a light on the myriad cultural practices that transcend geographical boundaries and generations in a bid to foster global dialogue.”

The Lebanese-Dutch artist Mounira Al Solh’s ‘In Blood In Love’ is an ongoing collaboration with a group of Sri Lankan women who are embroidery on found cloth after reading about 50 words that relate to Love’ in Arabic, which are then translated to Tamil and Sinhala. In a dialogical production process, another translation occurs from words on to embroidered cloth. Some of the women contribute their own words too.

Mounira Al Solh’s ‘In Blood in Love’ (Charcoal on wall and embroidery on fabric 2019 – ongoing)
Mounira Al Solh’s ‘In Blood in Love’ (Charcoal on wall and embroidery on fabric 2019 – ongoing)

‘All Nations are Created Special,’ a panoramic woodprint on fabric, and a 4.38-minute audio. The work by the Malaysian collective Pangrok Sulap depicts the movement of people from the Malay archipelago to Sri Lanka across the sea since 200 BC, and simultaneities between the 1983 riots in Sri Lanka based on ethnic differences and the politics of Malay supremacy entrenched in the Malaysian Constitution.

Pangrok Sulap, based in Sabah, Malaysia, comprise artists, musicians, and activists. For the audio, they collaborated with the Lankan music group The Soul for a musical composition to accompany the woodcut print, based on their exchanges.

The video ‘ Hayy in Serendip’ by Mariah Lookman is a speculative reading of the Arab philosophical text ‘Hayy Ibn Yaqzan’ based on the original 10th Century text by Persian philosopher and polymath Ibn Sinha set on an island in the Indian Ocean.

Lookman engages with the Arab philosophical tradition on the subject of the freedom of human reason to decenter the European Age of Enlightenment and its colonial legacy. The protagonist Hayy’s encounter with human civilization and his disappointment leading to his return to the forest is a commentary on our modern past, including its technological advancements, ecological ruination, and civil unrest.

The video installation by Palash Battacharjee titled ‘Link Road’ was realized through the support of Warehouse421’s Project Revival Fund and the Goethe-Institut Bangladesh.

The Chittagong-based artist investigates linguistic expressions, embodied memory, and nonlinear time. The water ecology and ancient seaport surrounding his home play an active role in his practice, along with his childhood experience and dialect in relation to the experience.

The meanderings of language and identity are juxtaposed with a boat adrift on the river, leading to sporadic recollections of coming to terms with ‘otherness’ as what lies within the self. Battacharjee notes: “There is no evidence or actual shape of the regional map in ‘Link Road.’ It seems to be the shape of collective spirits.”

 Ranji Perera’s NC-1107 (Bamboo, Wood strip, plastic, twine, marbled paper, laminated tissue paper, led strip 2022)
Ranji Perera’s NC-1107 (Bamboo, Wood strip, plastic, twine, marbled paper, laminated tissue paper, led strip 2022)

Toronto-based Rajni Perera uses the techniques of kite-making and lantern building to create the installation NC-1107 that evokes the imaginary of starships seen in sci-fi series. The neoliberal urge to conquer outer space to ‘explore strange, new worlds’ is spun differently in this pursuit as Perera privileges migrant and indigenous beings who will survive in the aftermath and use these vessels to move onward from present day bordered realities.

Kathmandu-based Lavkant Chaudhary’s ongoing ‘Maasinya Dastoor series’ (stippling drawing on Lokta paper) dwells on the conflicted region in Nepal and the historical marginalization of the indigenous Tharu community who lives along the foothills of the Himalayas.

Lavkant Chaudhary’s Maasinya Dastoor Series.  (Stippling drawing on Lokta paper  2021)
Lavkant Chaudhary’s Maasinya Dastoor Series. (Stippling drawing on Lokta paper 2021)

The series is created with pen and ink on Lokta paper, inspired by the form and technique of the traditional culture in the community. Chaudhary’s scrolls are as much about the resilience of his community as they are chronicles of enduring oppression. The series are a commentary on the close-knit relationship between the land, animals, and people of Terai.

Liz Fernando’s photographic prints ‘One Last Night: Chapter 1 -- The story of Akhtar Syed Kamal’ contemplates intergenerational experience of migration, the lasting impact of displacement and making a home in an alien context.

The first chapter presents glimpses of Fernando’s parents’ feelings of belonging experienced in the company of their first friend in Germany, Akhtar Syed Kamal, while sharing food, hope, and optimism, as well as a collective lingual code.

South Indian artist Sailesh BR explores the subversive potential of art in his practice that includes drawings and kinetic installations.

Shailesh BR’s ‘Paper Turner (Ulta Pulta)’, (Books, Arduino, stepper, servo machine, 12v power supply 2019-2021)
Shailesh BR’s ‘Paper Turner (Ulta Pulta)’, (Books, Arduino, stepper, servo machine, 12v power supply 2019-2021)

‘Page Turner (Ulta Pulta),’ the series of mechanical devices, critiques the passive consumption involved in traditions of rote learning that have weaponised knowledge and can be used erase the secular fabric of society.

Through his latest works of mechanical sculptures and drawings, the artist calls verbal rhetoric and unthinking reliability on mainstream media sources into question.

Sailesh, in his own words, “repurposes objects “to alter their function and inject them with of satire to criticize its political, social or cultural significance.”

Vinoja Tharmalingam's 'The Day'  (Stitching on Fabric  2021)
Vinoja Tharmalingam's 'The Day' (Stitching on Fabric 2021)

Vinoja Tharmalingam’s textile art prioritizes memory keeping and commemoration to bring to the fore the experience of the oppressed who are sidelined even from minor histiriographies.

In ‘The Day’ (Stitching on fabric) captures the destruction wrought by the civil war on the land and its people. Through her abstract images -- meticulously placed dots, cloth patches, burns, and lines -- Vinoja composes an experiential ground of suffering.

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