Thursday, February 11, 2016

The boat, the net, art

Sri Lanka saw 500 years of colonial occupation, perhaps more than any country on earth. It was robbed of resources and its cultures were gutted. As cruel as those five hundred years, post-independence violence proved a further uprooting. Violence over language, religion, ideology, class and caste left a scarred landscape. But not a barren one. 

When I came to Sri Lanka in 2013 the vibrancy of its culture stood out like a shining marvel. The human-built landscape, a symbiosis of humans, water, and nature, shaped a horizon at once lovely and beguiling. This place could be viewed on foot or racing past in a motor vehicle. The beauty was rampant, rich. 

Less beguiling were objects of arts and crafts to be found in the shops. Plastic, nylon, and resin seemed to have taken the place of clay, linen, and wood. Even today, cultural "specialty" shops like Laksala have little to offer the discerning eye. Traditional, as they tout it, is still mass-produced and poorly designed, if handmade. There are exceptions. You have to look for them. Hard. 

But can we discount banausic objects created not for the "market," but for livelihood? Janet suggested this. Palmyrah fences may have given way to corrugated iron or scrap, thatched roofs may be wholly tiled now, but fishing nets and the boats they are tossed from still represent native crafts. Cooking pottery, the most basic stuff, is still hand produced, albeit with electric wheels. The hands of the bicycle repair man are strong and creative. They solve problems of metal and mobility in time-honored fashion without frills. 

"The arts" of Sri Lanka may have been diminished but the artists are still there. Finding them, finding and recording their gestures, observing their techniques and the products of their work is worth considering. And studying. These people, like the farmer whose simple hoe shapes the field and bund, are inheritors of the past. Their work lives apart from ethnicity, religion, or the "refinements" of high art. 

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